Ikram Goldman: From Dressing Michelle Obama to Opening a New Store

THE DIVA’S NEW DIRECTION: With a celebrated eye and an imperious style, Ikram Goldman turned her high-end Chicago shop into a quasi salon for the rich and well dressed. Now, even as reports surface that she’s no longer outfitting her most famous client, she’s making her boldest move yet—opening a 16,000-square-foot megaboutique that challenges her personalized sales formula

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Our 2006 profile of Goldman

The dozens of sources interviewed for this story generally fell into two camps: those who believe Goldman is a retail visionary whose tactics would be encouraged in the high-powered boardrooms of other businesses, and those who are put off by her aggressive and demanding behavior, which fellow retailers say makes the playing field uneven.

According to some Chicago competitors, Goldman often demands exclusivity within a wide radius of her boutique, which means that she wants hers to be the only shop in Chicago, and sometimes Illinois, to stock a designer’s wares—even if she’s only ordering a few pieces from the line. She sends back merchandise that doesn’t sell, which is frowned upon, a former boutique owner says. Designers often acquiesce, believing the Ikram name will open doors to stores elsewhere and lead to coverage in Vogue, given Goldman’s connections. “All rules are broken for her,” one local retailer says.

Another Chicago boutique owner says Goldman has played the First Lady card adeptly, claiming that if designers want their items in Michelle Obama’s closet, they should sell only to her. Now that Goldman may no longer be behind the First Lady’s wardrobe, the retailer says, “people are going to start looking elsewhere. I’ve never heard a vendor say we do a huge business with her. They wanted to be there because she was with Joan [Weinstein] and dressing the First Lady.”

Givhan defends Goldman, explaining that the retail business is no place for the meek. “She’s competing with Bergdorf, Barneys, and Saks. She is tough. She should be tough. It’s a tough industry.” However tough she is behind the scenes, most shoppers agree that on the sales floor, Goldman is a savant. Megan Weinerman, a freelance advertising writer who has been Goldman’s friend for decades, says clients believe in her ability to bring out the best in them. “She loves it when women look beautiful, and she celebrates individual beauty,” says Weinerman. “It’s not a competition thing, it’s more about ‘You have so much more to offer than you’re even thinking about.’”

For big spenders, service is unparalleled. When an Ikram client traveled to Los Angeles and found herself with an unexpected invitation to a black-tie dinner, Goldman arranged for a courier service to deliver a designer dress to the client’s hotel by 6 p.m. the same day. When Neal Zucker, a man about town and president of Corporate Cleaning Services, stops in to pick up a gift, she rolls out the red carpet. “Ikram will drop what she’s doing and spend an enormous amount of time helping me choose a gift that’s meaningful,” says Zucker.

To some, the intense customer focus may seem pushy and is off-putting. Himel, the Chicago stylist, says he doesn’t shop at Ikram for his clients as often as he’d like to because “it feels like they’re always on your ass, which I don’t need because I know what I want.”

Goldman’s attention to detail is powerful—and, at times, intimidating to her staff, according to the former employee who now lives in New York. “There’s an Ikram way of doing things, and it’s always a strict, ironclad procedure,” she says. Salespeople have to work there six months or more before they can talk to customers, and missteps like a poorly packed box of clothes can bring on a dressing-down. Precision and perfection are not an option but a must at Ikram, the former employee says. “She would walk in the door and know if there was a jacket unbuttoned on a hanger on the other side of the store. She’d go right to it and say, ‘Who did this?’”

Still, this former employee says, there is no better entrée into the world of high fashion. “When I got the job at Ikram in Chicago, I felt I’d reached the pinnacle in that city. Her name has opened a lot of doors for me.”

Former sales assistant C.T. Hedden was hired at Ikram in 2007, but like many new employees, he didn’t interact directly with customers at first. Rather, he served as a personal assistant to the salespeople, fetched sandwiches for hungry shoppers, jogged over to Bloomingdale’s for slips or bras, and delivered clothing to photo shoots and clients’ homes. Hedden was in awe of Goldman’s methods as a stylist, the way she would create unexpected textural pairings that looked like art to his eager eye. “I’d been reading Vogue for years, and I thought I knew about fashion, but she opened a new world to me,” he says. He downplays the imperial behavior described by other employees. “Yes, she’s protective of her items and her space, but at the end of the day, we can all go home, and that stuff stays with her. The merchandise is her bank account.”

Both former employees say they followed with sadness the unraveling of Goldman’s 15-year friendship with Shane Petyko, who worked the sales floor at Ultimo and then followed Goldman to Ikram. Sources say that until last year, the two were inseparable. Petyko accompanied Goldman on buying trips around the world; in Chicago, he was a top salesman at the store, Goldman’s de facto dinner date, and her constant sidekick. Goldman has not removed a photo album on her Facebook page affectionately titled “Shane the Pain in My Brain!!!,” but the two are said to be not speaking. Petyko now works on the designer floor at Saks Fifth Avenue. He declined to comment on what caused the rift.

“I was always jealous of their friendship,” says Hedden. “It was great to see people who could work together and be friends at the same time, especially in the fashion industry, which everybody knows is not an easy industry to work in.”

 “They loved each other, they really did,” the New York–based ex-employee says. “It was this mother-son relationship—she had a hold over him, and with that there are always going to be ups and downs. But she always seemed so proud of him.” With a bond that intense, she says, an eventual falling-out seemed inevitable.

A maternal dynamic best describes Goldman’s relationship with her own mentor, the legendary fashion maven Joan Weinstein, whose haute couture landmark Ultimo presided for four decades on Oak Street.

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