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Michelle Obama’s style progression (left to right): wearing Maria Pinto in August 2008; Isabel Toledo and Jason Wu at inauguration festivities in 2009; Alexander McQueen in 2011
When the new 16,000-square-foot Ikram complex opens this spring, friends say the bi-level store will send sartorial hearts fluttering, as do Colette in Paris and 10 Corso Como in Milan—influential shops that sell designer clothing and carefully curated selections of music, cosmetics, books, and art. Goldman has not publicly revealed exactly what she’ll carry, but industry sources say the new boutique will likely stock women’s clothing, accessories, home décor, and children’s wear and will feature a café.
The New York–based luxury retail consultant Robert Burke thinks Goldman’s timing is ideal. “Her name recognition is at an all-time high,” he says. He acknowledges that the soft economy has made the retail business a gamble in most places, including Chicago. In recent years, several prominent local specialty stores that cater to the affluent—Ultimo, Jake, Hejfina, and Maria Pinto—have closed. Luxury brands Dennis Basso and J. Mendel, other sources for couture that costs thousands of dollars, have shut down their Michigan Avenue operations. “It’s not an easy time,” Burke adds, “but it’s the right time for her. Customers are hungry for something unique and special.”
Gregg Zgonena, sales manager of the Michael Kors flagship store at 900 North Michigan Avenue, agrees that Goldman’s fashion-forward perspective will set her venture apart. “Let’s face it: A lot of stores in Chicago, if you go through them and squint your eyes, they’re kind of the same.”
Lisa Marie McComb, a local stylist with Visual Therapy, says Goldman’s challenge will be maintaining the sense of intimacy for which her Rush Street store is known. “If it’s too large, it could feel like a department store,” she says, emphasizing that personal service is key when selling high-priced avant-garde fashions.
“That’s the secret to her store—it’s really personal,” says Sally Singer. She believes the new space will give Goldman more room to articulate her mix of unexpected items and relatively unknown lines, such as Meadham Kirchhoff. “She will find a customer for a $1,700 lace blouse and a $4,000 dress,” says Singer. “That takes a lot of courage and self-conviction. She has that.”
Designed by Oak Park’s Aria Group Architects, whose portfolio includes the River North market Fox & Obel and the Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, Indiana, the new Ikram will reside in a completely renovated building that once housed the Japanese restaurant Suntory and, before that, the historic Gaslight Club. Sandwiched between the blank face of a high-rise parking garage and a row of older brick structures, the boutique will be extravagant—or so say the workers on-site. From their description, shoppers first will encounter a courtyard, then, upon entering the store, an aluminum panel exterior, slate tile floors, and interior archways. The pièce de résistance may very well be the upstairs café, dramatically framed by giant red glass windows shaped like wagon wheels. (Aria Group’s Ryan Peterson, the project manager, said he could not comment per Goldman’s instructions. Paul Bryant of Mid-America Real Estate, who brokered the deal, also would not comment.)
Fred Latsko, a real-estate developer who showed the Goldmans his properties when they were scouting locations, said the café could be a major draw—“the next hot spot.” Still, if the new Ikram is to succeed, the lure will be Goldman’s reputation for offering the most stylish clothes and the service to go along with them. One former employee—the woman now working in New York—recalls shoppers coming to the Rush Street location from smaller Midwestern towns and spending up to $40,000 in a day. “I’ve never seen sales like that anywhere I’ve worked,” she says.
By the time she assumed the role of Michelle Obama’s unofficial stylist, Goldman was well known in fashion circles and among women who frequent galas, openings, and balls. “At black ties, you want a dress from her store,” says one Chicago retailer. “It’s a status symbol.” But dressing the First Lady gave Goldman a key differentiator: national name recognition. “What better launching board does anyone have but the White House?” Latsko asks. “And you know who did it, right? There’s zero chance she’d be there without Desirée.”
It’s no surprise that Michelle Obama came to Goldman for fashion advice. After all, Obama’s influential circle of girlfriends—Desirée Rogers; Valerie Jarrett, a top aide to the president; Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments; and Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing—already shopped at Ikram. In fact, Rogers had known Goldman since the latter had been on the sales floor at Ultimo, and the two had become close friends.
“[Goldman] is someone I talk to all the time,” says Rogers. “We’ve been together celebrating happy things and not-so-happy things. She has walked me through many issues in the most loving way.”
In return, when Goldman was injured and housebound last year, Rogers looked to cheer her up and arrived at Goldman’s home with whatever she could grab from Whole Foods—a roast chicken, pizza, french fries, cake, and fruit. “We had a picnic in her living room,” recalls Rogers.
A-list client Desirée Rogers in Commes des GarçonsGoldman helped Rogers select the striking and controversial nude-colored Comme des Garçons gown she wore for a state dinner in November 2009 and the short black Carven dress she donned for a photo accompanying a Chicago magazine profile last fall. “She helps me with most of my eveningwear,” Rogers says. “I learn constantly from her. It’s not about her, it’s about you. She understands you and your personal style.” Then the sell begins.
Goldman’s role with Michelle Obama was evident from the beginning, even on the campaign trail. On the night her husband clinched the Democratic nomination, Obama earned widespread praise by wearing a purple sheath dress by the Chicago designer Maria Pinto, accented with a stylish studded belt by Azzedine Alaïa, a hard-to-find high-end line carried at Ikram.
Once her husband won the presidency, Obama seemed to take more risks, ones likely encouraged and facilitated by Goldman. Maria Pinto and her solid-colored, classically tailored dresses were out; edgier prints and designs by the likes of Thakoon and Narciso Rodriguez were in. “It wasn’t the standard nice suit,” says Brenda Shapiro, a former Chicago magazine fashion editor and Ultimo shopper, who now buys most of her clothing at Ikram. “It wasn’t übersafe. It expressed fashion.” The look was youthful, modern, and interesting.
One notable risk was the choice of the talented newcomer Jason Wu to design an inauguration-night gown destined for the Smithsonian. By selecting lesser-known talent such as Wu and Isabel Toledo, whose yellow coat and dress the First Lady wore earlier on Inauguration Day, Obama piqued the fashion world’s interest. When it came to flashbulb occasions, other First Ladies, such as Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, had typically played it safe with dresses by established names like Oscar de la Renta. Before Obama, “no one was wearing up-and-coming designers,” says Alexis Bittar, a jewelry designer based in New York. “When she wore Jason Wu [on inauguration night], that would have never happened before. She’s got some balls.” Vanity Fair thought so, too, and included Obama on its best-dressed list in 2009 and 2010.
Then, last fall, Goldman’s involvement appeared to wane. “Ikram is no longer working with [Obama],” Bittar said in March while in Chicago for an appearance at Saks Fifth Avenue. In recent months, he said, the First Lady had worn roughly 30 pieces of his jewelry. That didn’t happen when Goldman oversaw the process, because Bittar sold his jewelry through Elements on North Wells Street and not at Ikram. (A spokeswoman for the White House refused comment on the grounds that Michelle Obama’s wardrobe and clothing are considered part of her private life.)
A recent Washington Post story suggested that a former Goldman protégée—the leggy, blond Vanderbilt University grad Meredith Koop—has taken the lead in styling Obama. On the news blog Daily Beast, Robin Givhan, a Newsweek special correspondent for style and culture, speculated that Goldman may not have had enough time to meet the demands of dressing the First Lady while running her own business, traveling to shows, and launching a new store. Eric Himel, a Chicago stylist, doubts that is the case. “Dressing Michelle Obama is a pretty good gig, right? Who in their right mind would willingly give that up?”
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Photography: (Michelle Obama, from left) Charlie Neibergall/AP; Doug Mills/AP; Matt Rourke/AP; Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images; (Rogers) Gerald Herbert/AP