Ikram  Photograph: Anna Knott

The hot Zen zone that is Ikram, the fashion boutique at 873 North Rush Street, the shoppers are busy. A 20-something woman—tall and blond and exuding that burnished Lake Forest via Talbots look—is trying on earrings. She wants something to wear for “both evenings out and with jeans,” she says, and she keeps going back and forth between two dangling faux-jeweled choices.

One pair costs $960 and the other $1,050, and although to observers the choice is clear (the $960 earrings get lost in her long hair), she just can’t decide. No matter; her salesperson is well schooled in the art of being helpful without being intrusive.

A woman in her early 40s, wearing a sleek-fitting coat and Prada shoes, is looking at a shoulder-strap Miu Miu purse for her daughter. The black bag is beautiful and buttery; its leather gleams in the afternoon sun that bounces off the gold-leafed wall panels. The $785 price tag doesn’t faze her. “My daughter’s working now,” she says to Shane Petyko, Ikram’s assistant and right-hand man. “She needs this.”

Farther back, closer to the cinnabar lacquered wall and the large changing rooms where African water carrier sticks are mounted as clothing racks, two women engage in an intense conversation. One is Merle Reskin, a former actress of the 1950s, a socialite, and a patron of the arts (the former Blackstone Theatre is now named after her, a gift from her late husband to DePaul University); the other is Ikram Goldman, 38, the owner and tastemaker of the store. Reskin has just finished a fitting of some Notify pantsuits, and now she has spotted some earrings by the London designer Erickson Beamon: jet-black beaded concentric circles as large as butter plates with little black beads dangling from the ends.

“How much are these?” Reskin asks.

“Three hundred and fifty-five dollars,” says Goldman.

“Can I have them for $350?”

With a little smile, Goldman acknowledges Reskin’s urge to bargain. “All right, $350.”

But then, just as someone starts to carry them back to add to Reskin’s other purchases, Goldman grabs hold of the earrings. “Wait, let me see those on you.”

Reskin, sensing trouble, tries to wave Goldman away. “Shane,” she calls out to Ikram’s assistant, “just put them with my other things.”

Goldman holds the earrings up on either side of Reskin’s face and casts an appraising look. “No, Merle, you can’t have these,” she says. “Your neck’s too short. They don’t look right.”

“What’s the matter with you?” says Reskin, beginning to pout. “I want them.”

“I’ll call the designer,” says Goldman. “He’ll make you a pair with just the two smaller circles. It will be the look you want.”

“How much will this cost me?”

“They’ll cost less.”

Reskin begins to waver. “Well, will they have all the crap on the bottom like these earrings?”

“You will love them,” says Goldman.

“You’d think someone would be allowed to buy a pair of $355 earrings if she wants to,” mutters Reskin, but she has already lost interest in this fight. After all, it was clear from the beginning who was going to win.

“They will be perfect,” Goldman promises in a soothing voice. “They will be perfect.”

Such is the courage of her convictions. For the past four and a half years, ever since Goldman opened her namesake boutique Ikram (pronounced Ee-crom), she has been fearlessly pursuing her fashion vision and selling it to customers who are not sent into sticker shock by the price tags. For those who want—and can afford—to wear a unique mix of American, European, and Japanese designers, Ikram is a treasure-trove of impeccable taste. The store’s look, conceived by the Chicago designer Mario Aranda in collaboration with Ikram’s husband, Joshua Goldman, is modern Asian warmth. Hand-carved Chinese screens are used as closet doors, and Murano glass lights sprout from the ceiling like upside-down mushrooms. The featured designers include Alexander McQueen and Comme des Garçons, Lanvin and Yohji Yamamoto, Azzedine Alaia and Narciso Rodriguez. The New York Times has called Goldman’s store “impossibly chic,” and Vogue regularly highlights clothes by the designers she carries. “Ikram has a great eye, one of the best,” says Joan
Weinstein, who was the powerhouse behind Ultimo, the fashion-forward Oak Street boutique, for 30 years. Goldman herself worked at Ultimo under Weinstein’s tutelage for a decade, and in her own store she has instilled the Weinstein legacy of quality and service. Recently, when Crain’s Chicago Business sent an undercover shopper to test the service of ten of the city’s luxury women’s stores, Ikram was among the four that received a high rating. “Friendly, helpful and knowledgeable,” the reporter noted.

Part of that is the intensive training that Goldman gives her staff of 17 people. But then there is Goldman herself. No imperious fashion dictator, she is a nonthreatening presence with an engaging personality and a voluptuous figure. Talk to her for five minutes and you feel like an old friend. Add to that her ability to read people within seconds and her willingness to work the floor and the dressing rooms personally. “I want this store to be more like you’re going into a friend’s closet and picking out a great outfit,” says Goldman, who today is wearing black pants by Jean Paul Gaultier, a Junya Watanabe long-sleeved black T-shirt, and an If Six Was Nine vintage leopard fur vest held closed with two antique jeweled snake pins. “But instead of borrowing it, she’s giving the outfit to you to keep. And she’s making sure that it fits you perfectly and it’s accessorized exquisitely and it’s tweaked around your personality, so that in the end the outfit is not her, but totally you.”

“The staff is great about determining what your style is and then helping you refine it,” says Kate Neisser, 40, an educational consultant. Neisser buys almost all of her clothes at Ikram because “they put the emphasis not on what they like but on how to make you feel comfortable with what you’re wearing.”

“She taps into your personality and helps you find your best look,” says Melody Hobson, the president of Ariel Capital Management. Hobson, who first started going to Goldman when she worked at Ultimo, buys both her day- and eveningwear at Ikram now. “There is no templated Ikram look that you will see duplicated on all kinds of people,” she says. “It’s just that you look great and you look like yourself. To me, that’s what fashion is about. But more than anything she sells, it’s her heart that I’m attracted to.”

“I’m not afraid of fashion,” says Goldman. “I’m not afraid to play around with it. And if I can help someone else look the way she wants to look, then she’s happy and I’m happy. You can’t please everyone, but you can make some people very happy.”

Ikram Saman was born and raised in Israel. As a little girl, she was obsessed with changing her dolls’ clothes. “I’m sure it’s every little girl’s passion, but mine stuck,” she says. When she was 14, she moved to Chicago with her mother and brother and attended Cathedral High School. Her mother had come to pursue cancer treatments at the University of Chicago. It was difficult for the family, Ikram says, but “times like those are what you make of them.” After her mother died, Ikram started working as a waitress and a babysitter and then as a sales associate. Eventually she landed at Clown, a children’s clothing store on Oak Street, and it was then that she would see Joan Weinstein walking up and down the street, going between Ultimo and the Armani, Jil Sander, and Sonia Rykiel boutiques that Weinstein also oversaw. “I had never met her, but I just adored her,” says Goldman. “She had such presence. One day I decided that I wanted to work for her.”

In 1990, Ikram got her wish. She worked mainly in the women’s department and occasionally in the men’s section. There she perfected her style of dealing with privileged shoppers looking for high fashion. “I learned everything from Joan: relationships, creativity, styling,” she says. In 1995, she married Joshua Goldman, a lawyer and a photography collector. His parents, Jean and Steven, are well known in the art community. In 1999, they donated their collection of Renaissance drawings to the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as the money to build the Jean and Steven Goldman Study Center there. Suddenly working was no longer a necessity for Ikram. “You know, shortly after we got married, I asked Josh what he envisioned as my life now,” says Goldman. “And he said, ‘Oh, you know, philanthropic work, charity work.’ And I said, ‘Boy, have you married the wrong girl.’”

She kept working at Ultimo. “Ikram has a rare capacity to do both big picture concepts and small details,” says Weinstein, who is now a paid consultant for her protégée’s store. “She breathes fashion, but she also has a great head for business.” Those traits served her well when, in 1999, Weinstein retired from Ultimo. Goldman also left the store. In 2001, she opened her own boutique. She picked red as her signature color, but none of the shades in the Pantone book worked; she needed a custom color, something with no orange and no blue but a hint of brown. It took 17 tries to get the color on the wall right. She set up her office so that she is back by the dressing rooms; that way she is only steps away from helping any customer. Her first rule: her office door never closes. Anyone—customers, staff, friends who drop by—can walk up and talk to her. “When I was a shopper, I never got much satisfaction out of going to department stores,” Goldman says. “And in the smaller boutiques, something was always missing. I wanted a different kind of service here: educated, friendly, hardworking. And I wanted the place to be fun.”

It’s a cold, rainy afternoon—the drabness is in strong contrast with the light, wispy spring fashions of silk chiffon and gauzy linen that Goldman has been viewing on the computer in her office. These are her spring selections—dresses from Rodarte, Rochas, and Lanvin—but there are people who need fashion today. Shoppers are in the store, and the staff is serving them delicate cups of tea on square metal platters. A young woman in her 20s, wearing a denim miniskirt and Ugg boots, wants Fiji water instead. No problem. One 40ish woman is looking at the purses by Chrome Hearts. Large and delicately detailed with small sterling silver hearts, stars, and skulls, the bags range from $1,800 to $2,700, so the woman is proceeding cautiously with her decision. She tries holding one and then another over her shoulder and then stretched out in front of her to view.

Goldman has left her office and come to assist the woman. “Look,” she says, “you should think about whether you are a shoulder person or a handle-in-the-hand person. That will focus your choices.” She pulls out two purses. “Try this one and then this one.” She steps back from the woman a moment, giving her both physical and psychological space. OK, the woman has it down to three possibilities. “Shane,” Goldman calls out, “get my bag from the back.” When Goldman’s own purse, the $2,100 Chrome Hearts gym bag version, is brought out, Goldman hands it to the shopper.

“Now, here is the same one but filled with stuff,” she says. “So you can see how it looks, and you can feel it on your shoulder. Of course, you probably won’t be lugging as much junk as I am, but this makes it more real.” Indeed, it does. The woman has settled on a sleek shoulder-bag version with a leather fleur-de-lis pattern but not much silver detailing. “I mean, is it enough, do you think?” the woman asks. “Should I go for something with more?”

Goldman looks at her for a moment, head to toe. “You know, this is really your style. The little skulls—you’ll tire of them over time.” Sold.

Minutes later, Goldman is back in her office returning phone calls. A small woman in her late 30s enters the store. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and she is wearing a baseball cap, a quilted jacket, and sneakers. She has a black-tie event to attend in Miami, she tells Shane, but she is not sure she even needs anything new. “I have things, you know, so maybe I just want a new top or something. I’m just looking.” He lets her peruse the racks for a few minutes. Then he starts pulling out possibilities: a green chiffon cocktail dress by Lanvin, a silver sheath by Isabel Toledo. She ends up in a dressing room with about eight items and starts trying them on. But nothing is hitting the right note for her.

Suddenly Goldman shoots out of her office with an urgency that would be suitable for a hospital emergency room. She knows what she wants this woman to try on. Shane follows close behind. “Put your arms out,” Goldman tells him, and he sticks out his hands as if to hold a skein of yarn. Goldman pulls a white Peter Soronen bustier with black soutache detailing off a hanger and puts it over Shane’s arms. While he holds it tight, she quickly unlaces the corset, then grabs a slim black lace Thakoon skirt.

Back in the dressing room, the shopper—who moments ago was ready to leave—is perking up. Black-and-white Jimmy Choo heels are brought in, then a collar necklace of jet-black beading. The woman steps into the mirrored viewing room transformed. No longer nondescript, she now looks breathtakingly chic. A snug little Azzedine Alaia black cardigan is brought over and draped around her shoulders. Sold. Can she come back tomorrow with some items she already owns and see if anything goes with them? “Sure,” says Goldman, “bring in whatever you want and we’ll play a little.”

Goldman chooses pieces that she loves. “Which doesn’t mean that I could wear them,” she says. “I just go with what I love.” If it sells, that’s great. But some of the pieces she buys end up in her personal archives—a collection of exceptional designs that she keeps in an off-site storage area and occasionally offers for sale in her store. One new addition might be a filmy white chiffon Comme des Garçons bridal dress, priced at $6,000. A woman wanted to buy it the other day, but Goldman talked her out of it. “She wasn’t right for it,” she explains. “It should go to a bride, someone really tall and with a short haircut. Or it should go to my archives.” Currently in the store is a 1963 Chanel evening gown from Goldman’s archives: midnight blue with long sleeves and tiny gold knot buttons, a full skirt, and a crinoline underneath. “It’s nice to be able to bring out these pieces, add them to the mix, and see if someone wants them. If not, they have a good home with me.”

She keeps her customers in mind when attending the shows in New York, Paris, and Milan (she knows who likes long sleeves and who is having hot flashes), but her choices tend to be more fearless than consumer driven. Two examples: a $62,000 alligator trench coat by Proenza Schouler and an Elsa Schiaparelli–inspired Yamamoto black felt coat embellished with crystals and rhinestones for $6,300. To her mind, they are the best in their class, and so naturally they belong in her store. Her customers range in age from the 20s on up. “It’s a slightly younger crowd than the one I used to help at Ultimo,” says Goldman. “Here it’s students, worker bees, everyone who loves fashion. Fashion has changed; today it’s a jeans-and-a-great-top culture, for the most part. So you start there and you build.”

At Ikram, the jeans by Notify are $230, and the T-shirts by Clu are $90. Throw in a $1,600 plastic-and-lace pea coat by Thakoon and you’re set. Or today, for example, two dressing rooms are “wrecks,” declares Goldman. They are filled with dresses and jackets and pants and sweaters and shoes and boots and necklaces and purses that are all sold, one entire dressing room’s worth to a 32-year-old woman and the other to someone who is 40. “Don’t look,” says Goldman, walking by the rooms. “They’re disasters right now.” But actually the rooms are like mini museums, the boots toppled over on the carpeting, the jackets precariously perched on hangers, the jewelry tossed down on a bench: still lifes of today’s desires.

Those in attendance this afternoon are not exactly an Ikram crowd. Sure, one woman is wearing a Duro Olowu patchwork dress, and there are some beautifully fitted black jackets. But then there are the ladies in the St. John suits and the holiday-themed sweaters. It is the annual Christmas luncheon benefit put on by the Oak Brook Chapter of the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago: Cornish hen and wild rice at the Drury Lane in Oak Brook, then a fashion show by Ikram. Backstage, Goldman, in a Junya Watanabe top, black pants, and flats, is uncharacteristically nervous. “Can’t talk, can’t talk,” she says, fanning herself with the Infant Welfare Society’s ad book.

But once the fashion show starts, Goldman’s obsession for details pays off, and everything is perfect: stunning young women with straight hair and ramrod posture parade on the U-shaped runway. The biggest hits are the gowns by Lanvin, Valentino, and Rodarte—floaty Greek goddess numbers—while the most murmurs are prompted by the see-through blouses from Alexander McQueen and Rochas.

Afterward, the atmosphere backstage is celebratory. Joan Weinstein, who helped dress the models, is there; so is Josh Goldman. “I deserve some credit,” he says with a smile. “I’m the only man here in a crowd of 1,000 women.”

Ikram rushes up. “Was it OK? The models weren’t too skinny? There wasn’t too much nudity?” Slowly, she begins to recover from the jitters. “You’ve got to love your life,” she says, turning philosophical. “Appreciate it more, enjoy it because this is it.” To that end, she and her husband will zip off on a friend’s private jet to Miami the next day to attend an art expo. “It’s going to be fun,” she says. “I’m going to take a big break from work.” She will be back at the store in two days. Years ago, when she worked at Ultimo, someone told her that if you really want something, you have to go after it. “You have to breathe it, smell it, feel it, touch it, dream it. Put away what doesn’t work, concentrate on what does, and create it.” She’s doing just that.