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Anna G. Larson, Published May 30 2013

Small-town ND girl pursuing big-city fashion dreams

CHICAGO - Aarika Michel wore Tommy Hilfiger athletic shoes when she played basketball in junior high school.

The red, white and blue label was cool in the early years of the millennium, and Michel, 27, knew it.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” she says, referring to friends and classmates in her hometown of Forman, N.D.

Years after wearing those Tommy shoes, Michel left Forman to pursue a career in fashion, and she’s worked her way up to visual and creative manager for Topshop and Topman (British fashion brands with stores worldwide) in Chicago.

Michel’s friends say she’s always been ahead of the fashion curve, even since junior high school, so they weren’t surprised when she moved to New York City and then Chicago.

“Aarika was made for the big city. I always knew she would move far and do big things,” says friend Ashley Dyste, 27, of Grand Forks.

Michel made her way from Forman, N.D., population 500, to New York City, population 8.2 million, three years after high school. She interned at SELF Magazine and attended a summer program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, gaining credit for her Apparel Studies degree at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

“I knew if I wanted to be successful and accomplish the things I wanted to do at the level I dream of, I’d have to step outside of my box,” Michel says. “Growing up in a town of 500 people to moving to one of the largest cities in the world was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It opened up my eyes and appreciation for everything, big or small.”

After graduating from NDSU in 2008, Michel set out for New York City again, but this time, she didn’t have a solid plan. She just knew she had to be in New York City to pursue a career in fashion.

“That was quite unnerving and uncertain, but I knew if I wanted to grow and push myself, I’d stay and make something happen,” she says. “I’ve always told myself, friends and family that if you want something bad enough, you need to do it for yourself. You don’t need the approval of others to make a decision that’ll make you happy and fulfilled.”

At NDSU, Michel says Linda Manikowske and other instructors in the Apparel, Design and Hospitality Management Department were supportive of helping her move toward a career in fashion.

Manikowske, an associate professor of apparel and textiles, has kept in touch with Michel over the years. She says that Michel knew she needed to “get out in the world” to gain experience.

“She commuted a long distance to work each day and worked long hours,” Manikowske says, referring to Michel’s job in New York City. “Her hard work and creativity allowed her to move to Chicago and continue in a very interesting job with Topshop.”

Michel was happy with her bold move to New York City after college, but says it took her a while to feel like she belonged. She’d meet people who asked if North Dakota has electricity or if people drive horse-drawn buggies, but eventually, the Forman girl found her step and landed a job with Topshop after interning with a production company.

Topshop was preparing to open its first U.S. location in New York City, and Michel helped make it happen. After 2.5 years there, she transferred to Chicago to open its first Topshop and Topman store.

As the visual and creative manager for the store, Aarika’s responsible for Topshop and Topman’s merchandising and creative evolution in the Chicago location. She has a hand in everything from the products to styling and window installations for the three-level 30,000-square-foot store on Michigan Avenue. She also manages two teams of employees and travels to London every six months for training.

She credits her work ethic to her upbringing in North Dakota.

“Growing up in a small town instilled a strong work ethic that’s given me the determination to get to where I want to be,” Michel says. “My family and friends have been nothing but supportive since day one, not just financially but spiritually as well.”

Since living in New York City and Chicago, Michel says the best thing she’s learned is to be open to new relationships and opportunities.

“It’s easy to walk through life with tunnel vision, but when you do that, you miss out on so much,” she says.

Michel says she’s happy in Chicago, but still misses her family and friends in North Dakota and Minnesota.

“I’m pretty positive I’ll never have a group of girlfriends like I did in North Dakota,” she says.

Friend Anna Weber, 26, of Fargo, says she “couldn’t be more proud” of her friend of 15 years.

“Aarika’s career has come a long way since she left Fargo,” she says. “She’s always been so driven with her career. I think the thought of failing was never a question because she knew she was working for something bigger.”

In the future, Michel wants to be a stylist for e-commerce, editorial or broadcast.

“Everything happens for a reason, and I’m here because this position in Chicago is going to prepare me for the next step,” she says. “Whether it’s fashion or other dreams, you’ve just got to put your heart on the line and jump! It’ll all work out in the end.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525