The Chicago retailer Ikram Goldman, photographed in December 2005
During New York Fashion Week this past February, the industry’s heaviest hitters crammed into a runway show by Jason Wu, who, at 28, has become one of fashion’s most talked-about designers. Anna Wintour, the powerful editor of Vogue, was there. So was Ken Downing, the influential fashion director at Neiman Marcus, and Sally Singer, the former Vogue editor who recently took the helm of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. Sitting among them was the celebrated Chicago retailer Ikram Goldman, who, for the previous two years, had served as the unofficial stylist for Michelle Obama. As much as anyone in that front row, Goldman had made Wu a household name.
After rising to prominence in Chicago by building a roster of high-profile clients who can drop $40,000 in one visit to Ikram, her Rush Street clothing store, Goldman dressed the First Lady in a glittering white one-shoulder Wu gown for the January 2009 inaugural ball. Wu’s career subsequently catapulted: His revenue shot from $800,000 in 2008 to a reported $4 million in 2009. The tipping point was the inauguration gown, but it didn’t hurt when Michelle Obama wore his bright pink sheath two months later on the cover of Vogue.
At Wu’s show in February, Goldman, 43, sat next to her husband and business partner, the Chicago attorney Josh Goldman. With her typical expansive enthusiasm, she chatted up the influencers who feature her in their publications: Vanessa Friedman, the fashion editor of the Financial Times; Vogue’s fashion news director Mark Holgate; Singer, a friend. But not everyone who runs into Goldman feels entirely at ease. “When I see her, it’s fine, we’ll say hello. But it is not a warm, friendly relationship,” says one former Ikram employee, who left the Chicago boutique to work in New York and has crossed paths with Goldman since. The former employee likened working for Goldman to working for the overbearing fashion editor in the book and movie The Devil Wears Prada.
On her home turf, Goldman has alienated some Chicago retailers with hardball business tactics and her capitalization on the clout that comes with dressing the First Lady. But she learned her trade at the knee of another Chicago fashion icon, Joan Weinstein, the former owner of Ultimo. Goldman’s instinct, her eye, and the enviable cache associated with her name have allowed her to amass a list of A-list shoppers, among them Desirée Rogers, the Johnson Publishing CEO and former White House social secretary, whom she counts as a close friend. But even among her inner circle, she keeps a tight grip on her favorite accessory: a no-exceptions cloak of privacy. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.) That has not stopped industry watchers from discussing the larger-than-life Goldman with their usual gusto, particularly in light of recent developments.
In February, it was reported that Goldman was no longer advising Michelle Obama, and a former protégée—Meredith Koop, a onetime Ikram saleswoman who is Obama’s personal aide—is now widely identified as First Stylist. Goldman, meanwhile, has turned her attention to new ventures. In May, she will be honored with the Legend of Fashion Award from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which Singer plans to present (Chicago magazine is a sponsor of the event). This year also marks Ikram’s tenth in business—during which she will take the biggest risk of her career. She is opening a new store at 15 East Huron Street in May, and the move will quadruple her retail footprint in Chicago. It’s a bold strategy, and observers are left wondering whether her magic touch and cadre of oft-photographed shoppers are enough to support a mini department store that represents a remarkable change in her merchandising formula.
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Photograph: Anna Knott
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
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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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.
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
Francisco Costa, the creative director of Calvin Klein (left), with Ikram and Josh Goldman in 2009When Joan Weinstein died in November 2009, those who attended the funeral at Fourth Presbyterian Church and the reception at The Casino, a private Gold Coast club, say Goldman paid tribute to her friend and mentor in flawless style. “Ikram handled the entire event with great dignity,” recalls longtime local publicist and Ultimo shopper Nancy Berman.
Goldman has never shied away from crediting her teacher, who lent her ear and her expertise to every detail when the first Ikram store opened in 2001. “I learned everything from Joan: relationships, creativity, styling,” she told Chicago in 2006. Michelle Stein, the New York–based president of the designer clothing manufacturer and sales agency Aeffe USA and a 30-year fashion veteran, remembers Goldman’s unfailingly loving treatment of Weinstein and her respect for her mentor’s stature in the industry. “I can hear the two of them now—they would banter back and forth during appointments, laughing, debating, joking with one another,” Stein reminisces, describing how the pair decided which pieces to bring back to Chicago. “They both always zeroed in on the most avant-garde piece in any collection and were never afraid to buy it.”
Stein believes Goldman’s passion and fearlessness will carry the new Ikram in the same way those traits helped define the original. “If you step out there and take a risk, people are going to flow in,” she says. And with Weinstein’s voice still echoing in her memory, what does Stein think the mentor would say to her protégée now? “She’d tell her, ‘This is your dream; go with your instincts.’”
This spring, as Goldman transitions from an intimate shop with every zipper in eyeshot to a megaboutique, she has to make the leap largely on her own. “Because it’s her, it’ll work,” predicts Fred Latsko. “Her customers will go there no matter what.” Gregg Zgonena is similarly confident. “The store, her relationships, they’ve stood the test of time because there’s a foundation of quality. And for Chicago to have a multibrand store that’s diverse but still has a specific point of view and can hold its own against stores like Colette and 10 Corso Como—that’s a big deal.”
“She should look at her new store as an opportunity to start fresh,” says Eric Himel. “If there’s someone close to her who’s not afraid to be honest, they should say: ‘Ikram, you know what, you’ve burned a lot of bridges. Now’s the time to turn it around.’”
Photograph: Patrick McMullan