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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Joan Weinstein
Ikram Goldman learned her trade from indomitable Chicago fashion retailer Joan Weinstein, the founder of Ultimo.
In choosing Weinstein as a mentor, Goldman honed her craft beside the best. At Ultimo, Weinstein introduced Chicagoans to designers such as Azzedine Alaïa, Dolce & Gabbana, Sonia Rykiel, Jil Sander, and Giorgio Armani. When Goldman first walked through Ultimo’s doors, she was Ikram Saman, a single woman in her 20s. As a teen, her family had relocated to Chicago from Israel so that her mother could receive cancer treatment at the University of Chicago. Early on, Ikram found work as a waitress. But it didn’t take long for her to discover the high-end shopping district on Oak Street: She worked at the children’s store Clown, then at Bottega Contessa, a nearby women’s clothier, before joining the staff of Ultimo in 1990.

Those who knew Goldman then remember her as a driven, outgoing, hard-working sales associate who quickly built a strong client base. “Joan would comment that [Ikram] was rather tireless,” recalls John Jones, who served as vice president at Ultimo before opening the Oak Street men’s store George Greene in 2001.

Related:

THE IKRAM TOUCH »
Our 2006 profile of Goldman

Gregg Zgonena began working as a salesman at Ultimo in 1995, and by that time Goldman was a fixture there. “From the minute anyone’s ever known her, Ikram has been a powerhouse. I don’t know how everyone else operates, but at Ultimo—and now at Ikram—the clients become a part of your life.”

Even then, Ikram talked of one day opening her own store. After a brief marriage to Paolo Pincente, a nightclub owner, she met Josh Goldman, a lawyer who came from a wealthy Chicago family. (The Jean and Steven Goldman Study Center at the Art Institute of Chicago is named after his parents, who donated their collection of Renaissance drawings to the museum.) Ikram and Josh married in 1995. At the time, Ikram joked that her husband wondered if she would leave her job at Ultimo to delve into the charity circuit. But she had other plans entirely.

In 1996, Weinstein made an ill-fated decision: She handed over a majority stake in Ultimo Enterprises—then a conglomeration that included the Sonia Rykiel, Jil Sander, and Giorgio Armani stores on Oak Street—to a group of outside investors so that she could finance an expansion into other states. The move proved costly, leading Weinstein to lose control of the business and to retire abruptly in 1998. The investors eventually put Ultimo up for sale. According to a source familiar with the deal, Goldman wanted to buy Ultimo, but the owners sold the Oak Street and Dallas properties to Sara Albrecht, an investment analyst, for an estimated $3.5 million in 2000. The next year, the source says, Goldman countered by opening Ikram and hiring Weinstein as a consultant, paying her $20,000 a month.

Goldman wasted no time creating her own version of Weinstein’s fashion mecca, hiring former Ultimo sales associates and seamstresses, persuading Ultimo vendors to realign with her, and bringing Weinstein—with all her clout—on buying trips. Soon Ikram was stocking Sonia Rykiel and Azzedine Alaïa, and clients were following. (Ultimo closed in January 2010.)

Many women who had loved Weinstein’s Ultimo felt as if they had come home at Ikram. They loved the runway fashions, the distinctive jewelry, the personal service, and Goldman’s attention to detail. She is expert at scouting the next big thing and is constantly introducing new lines of clothing and jewelry into the mix. But the store also serves as a kind of salon—in the communal area in front of Ikram’s dressing rooms, introduction after life-altering introduction is made. Kathy Taslitz, a sculptor and interior designer and a longtime customer, describes a scene where high-powered shoppers bond over designer finds, then swap business cards and ideas. Goldman plays the den mother, pushing her customers not only to try new looks but also to open themselves to new opportunities. “That’s part of Ikram’s charm, too: She loves putting people together,” Taslitz says.

The sharp tongue that causes those who have crossed Goldman to quake in their Louboutins has also become her top sales tool and the secret to maintaining fiercely loyal friends. “She’s blunt, she’s generous, she’s bossy—but more than anything, she’s overflowing with warmth,” insists Weinerman. And what can you get at Ikram that you can’t get anywhere else? “Honesty,” says Michele Clauss, an attorney who restocks her wardrobe at the store every season. Years ago, when Clauss was a few dress sizes up from her current yoga-slim silhouette, she confessed to Goldman that she didn’t really like anything by the minimalist Italian design house Prada. “That’s OK, honey,” Clauss says Goldman told her with a throaty chuckle. “They don’t make Prada in your size, anyway.”

Goldman’s quick, often bawdy sense of humor is among the traits her friends cherish most, Taslitz says. “She is side-splitting hilarious. She’s got this big laugh that cracks you up just to hear it.”

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Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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