All local shoppers can be divided into three groups: those who have never heard of Ultimo, those who love it, and those who don’t. To know Ultimo is to take a position. It is a lightning rod for people’s strongest feelings about money, clothes, and service.
Ultimo is a store people talk about. In New York, a senior editor at Vogue is said to have said to a senior editor at Bazaar, “Ultimo is the best store in the world.” In Milan, a model comes down the runway at a showing of a designer collection; one store buyer, sotto voce, to another: “That’s very Ultimo.”
At a Chicago dinner party, a well-known litigator whose foil regularly drips blood is losing an argument to a smart, good-looking woman. “You’re a knee-jerk, feather-brained Commie pinko,” he sputters, “and I bet you shop at Ultimo!”
Another Chicagoan, an investment counselor, Brooks Brothers born and bred, is pushed by his wife to buy an Italian suit at this famous emporium. He suffers through four fittings, hides the garment away in his closet, and finally consigns it to Goodwill. It has a happy ending, he tells me later: “They saw the label; Ul-ti-mo,’ they said, and they gave me a double deduction.
That’s gossip about Ultimo, the store, no ordinary store obviously, but an internationally recognized proper noun turned adjective, a suspect left-of-center hangout whose label is respected in the most unlikely places. But what is said about the store
is nothing compared with what is said about her, about Joan Weinstein (that’s -steen, not -stine), the woman who owns Ultimo and defines it.
“I don’t think this woman ever compromises,” says Susan Glick, fashion director of Chicago’s Apparel Center. “She brings freshness and clarity and perfection to fashion. She knows how to edit. That’s a true fashion eye.”
Sal Ruggiero, fashion director at Marshall Field’s, had already heard about Weinstein before he came here from New York two years ago. “Joan has always been a fashion leader,” he says. “The European market is still very much a people business and Joan was there in the beginning. She’s a fashion barometer; when she puts her money behind it, you know it’s a good investment.”
The panegyrics to Weinstein may appear to be based only on her taste and clairvoyance, but in the hard-boiled world of fashion nobody is impressed with a retailer who doesn’t move the merchandise. The miracle of Ultimo is that Weinstein does what she does, here in the conservative heartland of America, and that she sells so much doing it, close to ten million dollars a year in gross sales, or more than $1,200 a square foot. (Ultimo does not disclose sales figures, but my own calculations were confirmed by an informed source.)
The typical Ultimo customer is an independent, often creative, risk-taking man or woman between 30 and 60, although people in their 20s shop there, too, and the oldest Ultimite is probably Claire Zeisler, a world-famous fiber artist who is well into her 80s. High rollers and commodities brokers understand Ultimo, but they don’t keep it in business. The store never felt the recession of the early seventies and seems to be weathering Black Monday as well. “My customer,” says Weinstein, “is the salt of the city.”
The most serious Ultimites may part with $40,000 to $50,000 a year. A few double that. The majority of customers, however, are wardrobe builders, whose annual Ultimo budgets range from $4,000 to $10,000.
A partial list of the faithful would include, in no particular order, David Mamet, Cindy Pritzker, Gene Siskel, Nicholas Africano, Eric Wiseman, Morton Siegal, Carl Haas, Susan and Lewis Manilow, Helyn and Ralph Goldenberg, Debra and Helmut Jahn, Dave Kehr, Ruth Horwich, Eric Clapton, David Meitus, Anne and Will Hokin, Susanne Ghez, Susan Anderson, Betsy and Andrew Rosenfield, Rhona Hoffman, Jane Sahlins, Judith Neisser, Christina Gidwitz, Jane Gidwitz, Irving Markin, Ron Krueck, Tina Barr, Abby Mandel, Sugar Rautbord, Margie Korshak, Bruce Gregga, John Malkovich. One significant category of shopper turns up twice a year for the sales in January and June when the leftovers—as in leftover caviar—are marked down 30 to 50 percent.
There are maybe six other stores in the country that are put in the same constellation with Ultimo: Charivari in New York, Louis in Boston, Dimensions in Philadelphia, Maxfields and Torie Steele in Los Angeles, and Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco. These stores enjoy in common a minuscule segment of the population that buys expensive clothes, demands service, and has a preference for what Geraldine Stutz, former president of New York’s Henri Bendel, calls “dog whistle” fashion—clothing that
speaks at a pitch so high that only a certain kind of man or woman hears it. Contrary to what some people believe, you don’t have to be rich, thin, and tall; you just have to feel that way. Or, as one self-described “Ultimo junkie” puts it: “To shop at Ultimo, you have to have a really healthy narcissism. Even the fat ones who shop there think they’re pretty terrific.”
In truth, the fashion in each of these stores is pitched to the local frequency. Ultimo’s is ultimately Midwestern. Weinstein’s stock response to clothing she doesn’t intend to buy: “It’s not my customer; it’s not Chicago.” If it were otherwise, nobody here would hear the whistle, and, long ago, Ultimo would have been another Oak Street has-been.
Ultimo sells clothing by Italian, French, English, and Japanese designers, with a few Americans thrown in. Its pantheon includes Zenga, Yamamoto, Valentino, Zoran, Krizia, Muir, Gaultier, Alaia, Matsuda, and Comme des Garcons. Two of its best sellers, Giorgio Armani and Sonia Rykiel, have recently been spun off as freestanding Oak Street boutiques, owned and run by Ultimo.
The store can also be counted on to have the young and hot, usually months before The New York Times breaks the news. At the moment, in addition to Christian Lacroix, the current crown prince of French fashion, youth is represented by Marc Jacobs, Marc Audibet, Lolita Lempicka, Isaia, Dolce & Gabbana, and Callaghan.
Also on the designer list are former greats who have once again caught fire, such as Ungaro, who is back after a long absence. Ultimo is loyal to its designers and will carry them on a limited basis through several seasons of creative famine, but there is a limit. Missoni for women was dropped some time back for the sin of dullness.
In addition to clothing, Ultimo carries a remarkable collection of accessories. For many of the regulars, it is practically a onestop shop. “You can be outfitted as you’re standing there,” says Margie Korshak, “because they’ve got it all.”
Ultimo’s prices are moderate to high and very high, but rarely stratospheric. It sells the best-quality prét a porter or ready-to-wear, not made-to-order couture or custom-tailored “bespoke.” Granted, you have to be very, very rich to appreciate the difference, but couture starts at $8,000 and the best English or Italian bespoke suits at $2,200 (not including the plane fare and hotels). At Ultimo prices truly run the gamut, from $45 for a printed rayon top from Pink Dragon to $8,900 for a dress from Galanos. Men’s suits start at $700 and cruise at $1,000. Naturally, among those who don’t love Ultimo are a sober bunch who view such consumption, however inconspicuous, as decadent, immoral, even obscene.
Most of Ultimo’s 7,500 square feet is in an Art Deco building at 114 East Oak Street, outfitted with Chinese-red, barrel-shaped canvas awnings. In 1981, a second-floor, skylighted “greenhouse” expansion extended Ultimo into the building next door, where Acorn on Oak sells hamburgers; in 1985 a mezzanine section was added to accommodate cheaper, sportier clothes so that the children of Ultimites and their friends would also come and buy.
* * *
Shopping at Ultimo is a unique experience. Walk off Oak and into 114 and you are instantly surrounded, cosseted, by a lush quiet. It could be the entrance hall of an eccentric fami1y’s opulent town house. The room is tented with batik cotton and furnished with Chinese rugs and elaborately carved red-lacquered Chinese chairs and tables. Hanging from the 20-foot-high ceiling is a wacky chandelier made of animal horns and a ship’s figurehead. Two venerable cacti ﬂank the first set of stairs.
Up these stairs to the left hang the men’s suits and sport coats, a sedate phalanx of sleeves, looking almost all alike, at least to the untrained eye. Not so the ties hanging off to the right. Nowhere do you see ties quite like these.
At the end of this narrow, gallerylike room and up another set of stairs are the six men’s dressing rooms, cubicles really, with no mirrors inside. It’s chummier than you would expect considering the price tags, more like the back room of a country store.
“Is the men’s department always so empty?” I ask John Jones, who is perched on a glass-topped display table where he often holds forth. “We’re not a jeans and khaki store,” Jones replies. He has a puckish face and his voice purrs like a well-tuned engine. Jones is the father of the men’s department, a vice-president of Ultimo, the chief men’s-wear buyer, and the person responsible for the ties. He calls himself “the best tie buyer in the world.” He is wearing loafers with white socks, beige pants, a navy-blue Armani blazer, and a green tie. He looks like a country squire. He is still talking. He loves to talk.
“Through the week there may be five or ten customers in a day and"—he spaces his words for emphasis—“we-do-just-fine. As you can see, I don’t have a little staff. At any given moment, five of those people could be here and they get a lot of attention. And they may be here all day. Often. Often. It’s very serious when someone buys on this level. At the end of the day, if you could see the business I’ve done, you could never tell I wasn’t packed with people.”
Just beyond the ties are matching urns placed on either side of yet another set of stairs. The urns are filled with flowers or, as they are today, with hundreds of fortune cookies—and all the fortunes are good. You can make a gentle climb to the mezzanine or take a real hike up to two, the serious women’s ﬂoor. You have to be in shape to shop here.
Up on two, it’s not so library quiet. The customers come and go in waves, helpless to escape the net. It’s all so beautiful: the artfully arranged tactile clutter of accessories on tables here and there; a few garments displayed with hats and earrings and lapel pins and gloves. Ultimo never uses mannequins. Instead, the clothes are stuffed and pinned into headless bodies that are uncannily real. A number of stores do this now, but Ultimo may have been the first.
In the greenhouse room around the corner, a gargantuan hibiscus is covered with papery peach-colored blooms, and the templelike stairs, as always, are strewn with accessories, as if a clothes-happy princess had been carried off in the middle of unpacking.
You will see some accessory browsers and a few who finger through the clothing on the racks; but most customers drift into the circus ring of dressing rooms, cubicles again, with the mirrors on the outside. You are forced to come out and into the ring to see how you look. Friends run into friends. Strangers discuss how much knee to reveal or whether or not “it’s too tight across the behind.” The protective anonymity of a large department store is not possible here.
The sales staff (11 or 12, including Weinstein) attends, bringing in clothes, helping you to dress and undress. Accessories arrive and make heaps of dull gold and leather and tortoiseshell and felt, soft as mouse fur. Wardrobes are constructed with a jacket from one designer, a skirt or pants from another, a sweater from a third. Hats and belts and earrings and shoes come on and off as various combinations are tried through a dizzying whirlwind hour or two. It’s the adult version of dress-up.
Oprah Winfrey, a vision in sunflower yellow, has come and gone. She was buying dresses for her staff to wear to the daytime Emmy Awards. “Are beads,” she asked, “too much for day? All the stars are wearing them.” Now, an entire Middle Eastern family has arrived to browse and a tall, barefoot, curly-haired blonde in sweats is perusing the Gaultiers. The dressing rooms are full.
Patrick (diMichele, genius salesman and manager of the women’s department), in slate-colored jeans, cowboy boots, and one of Ultimo’s forties-style ties, is on his knees with Mrs. S. Patrick (the diMichele is only for checks) is 29; he looks 17. He started at Ultimo as a delivery boy when he was a sophomore at Lane Tech.
Mrs. S. is a good-looking woman in her mid-60s. She is contemplating herself in the mirrors in a striped sweater and long, flared skirt from Valentino. “I think you’d look younger and thinner with a straighter, shorter skirt,” Patrick tells her. “It’s a little sexier, snappier. And we’ll block it, so have a fuller sweater.” “If it’s a newer look, why shouldn’t I have it?” Mrs. S. says to the air. To me, she says: “He could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.” The skirt gets remade, the sweater blocked. Patrick, not Valentino, gets the last word.
Patrick is fixing a wide black belt on Mrs. B. “to make you feel more secure.” He steps back. “You look fat now. The top is meant to smoosh. It’s never quite where it feels right?” he asks. Patrick rolls it. “That’s the original way; it just sits there and it’s too tight to go down. . . . This is making you nuts. If you have to try it on four or five times, forget it.” Patrick is in the dressing room with Mrs. B. She’s in her bra and pantyhose. Who cares? Not Mrs. B. Certainly not Patrick.
A customer is calling from California. “Is there anything she doesn’t have?” The women, all ages, sizes, and shapes, turn and pose in the mirrors.
Helyn Goldenberg, the fine-arts director of Sotheby’s Midwest office, was at Ultimo’s grand opening 19 years ago. “Ultimo,” she says, “started out terrific and stayed terrific, and it’s only gotten more terrific. They personalize it. It’s like your husband or your wife or your psychiatrist. When I walk in there, there are a whole lot of things they’re not going to show me. First, they distill it by not buying it; then they distill it further by not bothering me with clothes that have nothing to do with me. Patrick knows I don’t like buying outfits. They used to call me and say, ‘The Missonis are on the floor,’ and I used to say, ‘Well, pick them up, for God’s sake!’ I like putting something together that’s a little more of a personal statement. I don’t want to look like a page in Vogue. Well, I do want to look like a page in Vogue, but a new page, not one that’s been in already.”
“I shop at Ultimo,” says Andrew Rosenfield, the president of Lexecon, “because it’s efficient. It’s a store for busy people with taste or without taste. Barney’s [in New York] has a hundred suits. Ultimo picks the four great ones. I don’t have to spend time shopping. I loathe shopping.”
* * *
Ultimo was opened in 1969 by Jerry Weinstein and Joan, née Korp, his second wife of five years. The original investors included architect Charles Murphy, (Helmut ]ahn’s former boss),wh0 fulfilled his life’s dream, or so he once confided to a friend, of owning a haberdashery shop.
The interior was done for $50,000 by Victor Skrebneski and Bruce Gregga, who counts it as his first job as an interior designer. Ultimo looks now almost exactly as it did then. Weinstein is afraid to clean the draperies for fear they’ll fall apart.
Jerry was already a well-known Chicago retailer whose previous ventures included the Rugby shops and Paraphernalia, a New York import that introduced to Chicago the antic edge of sixties fashion. He was short, dark, a little on the heavy side, soft-spoken, and charming. Joan was a tall, knockout, high-cheekboned blonde right out of Sophie’s Choice, who lived in her family’s Brighton Park house on Fairfield Avenue until her marriage at age 29.
Joan was the women’s-wear buyer; Jerry bought for the men. He was an idea-a-minute man, a partygoer, a shmoozer who gathered in friends. It was a good team and, Joan says, a great marriage.
In 1972, Jerry, 46, died suddenly of a heart attack. Joan was in Milan on a buying trip.
His investors gave her a choice: Cash in or carry on. Jerry was her introduction to retailing and she had never bought men’s wear. She decided to stay.
“Everything that would happen, I would just shake all the time,” Weinstein remembers. “I was always a nervous wreck. Now, no matter what, whether it’s good or bad, l’m sort of the same. With doing it yourself comes a sense of achievement and a sense of calm. I think it took me ten years to get this way and I wouldn’t want to go back to the other way as long as I live.” Weinstein works 12- and 14-hour days and six-day weeks; and her lawyer, Lloyd Shefsky, says that her memory is frightening, that “she remembers details about the business that are so tangential, you wonder why she cares.” Anne Morehouse, a salesperson at Ultimo, claims Weinstein can spot lint at 20 feet.
* * *
Weinstein and I are in her office, leftover space behind the women’s dressing rooms that she shares with her buying staff. There is a couch, but it is always obscured by papers—invoices, I imagine. (Weinstein’s stepson Andrew has recently been given the charge of putting all of Ultimo’s operations on a computer.) There are some photographs. One, by her friend Francois Robert, pictures the contents of Weinstein’s handbag, unexceptional but for a tiny book titled Prayers New and Old.
As usual, Weinstein is wearing black and, as usual, at least one accessory that rivets your attention. This morning it’s a headband with a frou-frou of velvet cherries that makes me think of my mother in the forties. Actually, there is a powerfully physical quality about Weinstein that communicates itself to friends and colleagues. John Jones has told me how aware he is of her on a physical level, “of how feminine she is and round she is in a very, very nice way.”
Not everyone sees her in that light. To casual acquaintances, she can seem hardedge tough and cold; and even old, loyal customers have, in the past, been the victims of her acerbic tongue and short temper. One of them says: “She’s very close to the vest and very secretive, more than other retailers I know. I think she’s got a tiger by the tail and she doesn’t want to let anybody in on it, and I don’t blame her.”
Everyone who knows Weinstein well, however, feels that she has softened considerably. It may have been the terror of those early years. As for the Ultimo family, they all seem to mix their unqualified respect for her with real adoration.
When Weinstein says “Ultimo” the first two letters sound as if they had been dipped in whipped cream. As we talk, she laughs and tears a little and reaches for tissue. Her emotions are candidly close to the surface. We are back in Brighton Park, where she was born 53 years ago last January.
“We came from normal. We were a middle-class family, Polish, German. We had everything we wanted, but we never had extras. We always had to work in the summer; they wanted us to. My mother was a fanatic about perfection. And I have a brother who is that way because of this mother. She cared about what you wore on Easter Sunday, how you went to school, how you combed your hair, what the house looked like. Our house always looked different from the other houses in the neighborhood. ”
“We were such a close-knit family. There were two uncles living in the house and an aunt. They’ve been in the same house for 80 years. There will never be another time like that in the United States. These families were the backbone.”
Weinstein was class valedictorian at Thomas]. Kelley High School. “I always had that thing where I had to be the best. I always did too much. I got a scholarship to the University of Illinois. I didn’t finish. I worked so hard in high school that I wanted a rest, and then my stepfather was in a horrendous accident and there was no choice. I gave all my money home, until that thing [a lawsuit] was settled. I was a receptionist and a secretary and then I went to real-estate school and got my broker’s license.”
At age 20, Weinstein went to work for Herbert Greenwald of Herbert Realty (now Metropolitan Structures) and was projected into a world about as far from Brighton Park as bungalow is from van der Rohe.
Greenwald was a rabbinical scholar turned real-estate developer, a man who wore a cape and whose design consultant was the late Art Institute curator James Speyer. Greenwald will be remembered as the first commercial builder of Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. Weinstein became an acolyte to Greenwald’s very intellectual and stylish circle of friends.
“I think everything one does in life has to do with the final result,” she says. “I was very impressed with Mr. Greenwald’s brain, with his taste, his ideas.” She met Mies: “I loved the way he looked and I loved the way he talked.”
And architect Stanley Tigerman, then 24, met her. “She was the sexiest thing,” Tigerman recalls; “I could have fallen in love.” (The circle continues. Tigerman is the architect for the renovation of Oak Street, and Ron Krueck, whose mentor was Speyer, was the architect for Weinstein’s apartment.)
In those days, Weinstein, “always a clothes fanatic,” shopped at Morris B. Sachs and bought on layaway.
Greenwald was killed in 1959 in an airplane accident; and Weinstein left Herbert Realty shortly afterward to set up an office for fellow employee Mike Oppenheim, who had been hired by Tishman Realty and Construction to build the John Hancock. Three years later, she met Jerry while shopping at the Rugby shops.
“There was always somebody new, but never somebody I wanted to marry. Until Jerry. He was not gorgeous, but he was special. He always made you feel you could do anything.” She raises her voice in a mock shout: “What did I know about a women’s store? I’d been in development for 12 years! I knew how to run an office! I knew how to hire people!”
Weinstein handled Ultimo’s business details from the beginning and, as it happened, she was born to buy. “I remember the first buying trip with Jerry. I wandered over to this little corner and there were all kinds of boxes of jewelry; and I was sitting there with the boxes on my lap going through them. And Jerry looked over and said, ‘You’re going to be great at this business, because you love going through all that junk.’ You see, to]erry it was junk, but to me it was fabulous. I love accessories. To have a good store, you have to love accessories. You have to wear them and what you love you can sell.
“When I first started buying in Europe, they weren’t making clothes geared to the American market. People there are this big around.” She makes a tiny circle with her hands. “Take Thierry Mugler. The first time I bought it, I knew it was only going to fit a few people. I bought it from a woman who spoke no English; I spoke no French. All those people trusted me. They sent me merchandise; I sent a check. When you get excited about what they’re doing, they love you, because how many people understand? I could start with a small order then and work with them. And they start changing their patterns and you grow together.”
As a prelude to the Armani and Rykiel expansions, Weinstein took Ultimo through a major financial restructuring. The Ultimo building was sold and the last of the shareholders was bought out, leaving her to her toenails.
The new enterprises are offensive moves against the inevitable competition. Bloomingdale’s is coming and Armani was already looking for Chicago space when Weinstein approached them.
At the Rykiel boutique Weinstein has aesthetic control, but at Armani the company, like McDonald’s, runs the show. According to Gabriella Forte, executive vice-president, in allowing Weinstein to own the store, Armani made an unprecedented exception to its general policy against franchises for major boutiques. It was her ability to “run a quality, service-oriented organization,” says Forte, that persuaded them to make the deal. “With us, Armani is our life. She’s so much a fanatic that it’s a natural. She’s been in the family for ten years. If she can’t figure us out, nobody can.” As Forte knows, Weinstein understands retailing Chicago style.
Weinstein and Jones don’t buy for themselves. They buy for their customers, and an impressive number have real names attached. Ultimo sells as much on the telephone as in the dressing room. Unlike department-store buyers, they can know their crowd intimately. Still, Ultimo remains peculiar, even among most specialty stores, because of its perfectly integrated vision. “If we have 50 designers in the store,” says Weinstein, “they all have the feel of Ultimo.”
“We didn’t want this store to be like other stores,” Weinstein says. “We didn’t want the customer to go into a dressing room and never come out. Nineteen years ago, our clothes were so different from anything sold in Chicago that we were needed for our input. It’s better now. They don’t just say, ‘God, is this ugly!’ They say, ‘Is this ugly?’ ” Weinstein is laughing.
“And after all these years, there’s still the standard line: ‘Will you come home and dress me?’ They’re so shocked that the thing they put on that they thought might be ugly turns out to be so gorgeous. They think we’ve done something.”
Often they have. Ultimo, like no other store, engages through its salespeople— perhaps most spectacularly, Patrick—in a final stage of creativity that might make some fashion designers hyperventilate. Patrick regards Ultimo’s stock as so much DNA, meant to be recombined and changed according to his and his customers’ whims. Size means nothing to him. He’ll put a 12 on a size six, because he prefers to see it worn big. The neckline of a jacket is recut so that the jacket may be worn backwards and forwards. Silk pants are remade into a long, slim skirt for a second-time bride and, after the wedding, into a miniskirt. A silver pin gathers in the back of a jacket, transforming it into a cutaway.
Ultimo has 18 tailors, two pressers, and a delivery person. The head fitters, Oscar Rosales and Gabriella Restrepo, are thought of as magicians. Meticulous alterations are almost a given, no matter what they add to the bill. The regulars have come to expect a close approximation of custom-made.
One key to the Ultimo Look is this notion that clothing is meant to be adapted to a particular body and spirit. Or to put it another way, Ultimo attempts to create style, as opposed to pushing fashion. “I think that’s why people come here,” says Patrick, “because they want to be put together. Sometimes people will say ‘Stop,’ and then you stop. But I don’t know that they’re coming to buy a dress. They’re coming to buy a look.”
For some would-be customers this intense form of selling is more help than they want, or it creates a feeling of obligation that turns them away. Ultimo is not every shopper’s paradise. Its critics often deliver their salvos with amazing passion, as if the store were a person, not a place. The complaints can sound like one long Portnoyan kvetch.
“The clothes are too expensive, too extreme, too boring, too small, too tall. The dressing rooms are too public. All the good clothes are in the back. They only show them to the regulars. You have to be invited in. Nobody pays any attention to me. They’re snobs. I’m a shopper; I want to dress myself. All that attention makes me feel obligated to buy. They ought to be shot letting some of the people I know go out of the store dressed like that. They have an obligation to make their customers look good. Maybe, if I tried those clothes on, I’d like them better, but I don’t like trying on clothes. It’s too Jewish, too North Shore, too Gold Coast. It’s immoral. It’s obscene. I feel threatened.” And now we can begin.
The Ultimo family has heard it all. The complaints of snobbish exclusivity worry them, because they’re losing a chunk of good business. Obviously, more than once, they have been less than lovely. Maybe everybody was busy playing in the circus rings or perhaps the sales staff, instructed not to hover, missed signals for help. Certainly, for the newcomer, the ambiance alone might be intimidating, as art galleries often are.
Whatever the excuses, Ultimo is trying harder. For the first time, it has hired an advertising agency, Xeno, and this year launched a $70,000 campaign aimed at the Chicago market. It is trying for a warmer, more accessible image worthy of its best customers, whose expectations have been raised to the level of the British royals.
Anxiety, I read recently in The New York Times, is an inescapable component of love. The same may apply to Ultimo. Listen to this from one of those $40,000-a-year people: “They don’t fall all over you, ever,” she says. “I’m always concerned when I walk in there: Is Patrick going to have enough time for me? He’s 29 and here’s this woman who spends a fortune. They don’t want anything from you. You feel lucky they’re going to sell to you. You feel like you’ve made the grade. You’ve been accepted into the country club.” A problem for this customer’s shrink, perhaps; but what she feels, real or imagined, may ‘be one clue to Ultimo’s seductive appeal.
* * *
Two years ago Weinstein married Ratko Bekafigo, 47, a painting contractor, who escaped from Yugoslavia in 1962. He tried to pick her up one morning on Lake Shore Drive, but she was late for work. Their first date was lunch at Acorn on Oak—where Weinstein is known and feels safe—and later he walked her home. Nothing could have prepared Bekafigo for home.
One evening after work, Weinstein took me home, too, because she knew I was interested in Ron Krueck’s architecture and because I wanted to meet her husband. The invitation was a gesture of trust. Weinstein protects her privacy with a care that is both self-preserving and calculated. She has no role in social Chicago’s party life. Bekafigo is not a social climber, she says, and he’s not happy in black tie; and her idea of a holiday is rock climbing in Mexico.
Home is an apartment on one floor of what was once a grand single-family mansion designed by Stanford White. Within the perimeter, Krueck has constructed another house in marble, variously colored glass, and wood, some of it lacquered with automobile paint so that it shines like metal. Weinstein wanted the opposite of Ultimo clutter. There is nothing out here. The rooms are almost like caves swept clean. Krueck has designed what furniture there is. At night, the muted lighting comes from unexpected sources. You can imagine making love from room to room.
Bekafigo answers the door and takes my coat. He is a good-looking, courtly man with a dark-brown brush mustache who wears his Ultimo suit with a European’s casual ease. “Weinstein sweeps her luxuriantly furry Himalayan cats, Black and White, into her arms for a formal introduction.
Champagne is served in delicate crystal flutes with linen cocktail napkins. The house tour ends in the bedroom, which has a wall of undulating green glass panels. She and I sit on the edge of the bed and talk.
“I don’t care what New York says; to me everything happens in Europe. We have American designers whose work is totally American, but most of the market is affected by Europe and now, greatly, by the Japanese. I’m not saying everything the Japanese make is great, but then not everything the Europeans make is great, either. Everybody makes boo-boos and they make a lot of them. It’s our job as store buyers to go out there and edit. It’s my hardest, happiest, most exhausting job. If you’re a collector, you’re looking for the great work.”
We discuss the new boutiques. “When you’re selling so much of one designer,” she says, “then it’s time to open another store. I don’t want a whole store of anything in Ultimo. We’re expanding this way because I’m not going to be doing this for the next 30 years. I’d like to break through walls and go down the street. I can’t, but we can be close, so that all those people who have been working here so long can be here to watch over it. When it’s my time to be put out to pasture, the young people will take over.”
I ask her about other Oak Street stores carrying her lines. If another store carries a line, she says, she won’t go after it.
“Sometimes,” she tells me with a soft smile, “they step on my toes. It’s not nice what they do.”
“Who? What do they do?”
“I won’t say, I’m trying to be friends with people on the street. But I forgive them. It’s not important. First of all, they won’t be successful.”
The Champagne is gone. We return to Krueck and the apartment. “I love it. It’s me. A special human being did it. It’s so sexy.” It is. It’s a cave for an amazing mother bear, alternately fierce and Sophie soft.
“I feel the need not to do. I need a personal life that is quiet and secure. Women need someone at home to support them. I need to come to my house with my husband, because business is a fight. I’m creating an illusion. I don’t want everybody to know I’m a nice person. When a person is a good person, you’re not everybody’s best friend.”