1 The woman in black, perched at a long white table, frowned as she pecked at her laptop, ignoring the Eiffel Tower framed by a picture window on the opposite end of Givenchy’s Paris showroom, where she’d spent the past two hours scrutinizing the new fall collection.
It was late afternoon. Late June.
To her right, riding the gentle thermals of the porcelain-white space, a model materialized like an apparition—fine-limbed, coltish, lips pursed, a study in practiced nonchalance.
Ravishing in a knockout backless short white dress that, wholesale, would fetch thousands of dollars and buckle thousands of knees with fashion lust, the model stepped before the frowning woman and waited. And waited—if not for a verdict, then to have her presence at least acknowledged by the lone figure who, despite complete absorption at her keyboard, seemed to somehow command the attention of not only the model but also the entire showroom and, in some impossible way, Paris itself.
One of the most powerful players in the most rarefied reaches of fashion, Ikram Goldman had barely deplaned from her Chicago flight when she unleashed a buying assault—a relatively modest one for her but wildly lavish by mere mortals’ standards—on the Parisian couture houses of Nina Ricci, Emanuel Ungaro, Courrèges, and, now, Givenchy.
Her presence took precisely no one by surprise. When Ikram (like Oprah and Madonna, she’s a one-name brand) comes to town in search of top-of-the-line finery for her resplendent Chicago megaboutique, the overlords of this undisputed fashion capital go a little gaga trying to win her approval, to say nothing of her business. How has she been? (Air kisses, mwah-mwah.) Does she need anything? (Theatrical hugs, pearlescent grins.)
Hors d’oeuvres—thinly sliced cucumbers, spongy toast points—discreetly appeared beside her on little fine china plates. Sparkling water, borne to her by a trim, suited young man, arrived on a polished silver tray.
It is a power and prestige most anyone in luxury fashion—designers, editors, advertisers, buyers, photographers, sellers, celebrities, be they from London, New York, Milan, Paris—would trade a warehouse full of Chanel to possess. For someone from Chicago, a city that ranks someplace between “Where?” and “Hardly” on the list of important fashion spots, it’s as seemingly unimaginable as a velour tracksuit at a black-tie gala.
Accordingly, the encounter with the Givenchy model was not so much a standoff as a demonstration of who was running the show. As if there were a doubt. As if there ever is a doubt. For all the storied attitude such head-turners possess, the model displayed not the slightest hint of vexation or impatience or impertinence. You play that game on the runway, not here, not with the woman about to decide whether the Givenchy dress will go on her staggering buying list or be relegated back to the racks along the expanse of achingly white walls.
Now, dense black hair scaffolding a heart-shaped face, the woman in black (a sparkle-striated Azzedine Alaïa top, Rick Owens trousers, Cédric Charlier shoes) at last looked up.
Nearby, her right-hand confidante, Ines Scalise, stood poised with a digital camera, ready to snap photos the moment Ikram gave the high sign.
Seconds ticked by. Had Ikram even seen the model? Was she going to say something? Ever?
A Givenchy representative, also seated at the table, looked from Ikram to the model and from the model to Ikram, whose flicker of a glance, when she finally noticed the waiting beauty, led to the two-word decision, delivered as bluntly as a gladiatorial thumbs-down.
2 If the devil wears Prada—at least in Chicago—Ikram (ee-KROM) probably spun Satan before a mirror and talked her instead into an Oscar de la Renta jacket (Ikram’s boutique doesn’t carry Prada, love), a $735 pair of orange-lensed A-Morir cat-eye sunglasses (if you must fight the glare in Hades, you might as well look fabulous), and a diamond-encrusted pitchfork dreamed up by Dolce & Gabbana.
It wasn’t the Angel of Darkness or a snake whispering, “Ikram,” but rather someone in the inner circle of Michelle Obama who inspired the first lady to tap Ikram to dress her for the inauguration and other big events in the early days of the Obama administration. Like when a Hollywood agent lands an A-list celebrity or when a long-respected actor pulls down an overdue Oscar, this haute couture coup confirmed what insiders had known for decades: When it comes to reading a moment and creating an unforgettable mash-up of pieces from the world’s top designers and indie darlings, there is perhaps no one in the world who does it quite like, or better than, Ikram Goldman.
This is not an opinion born of local bias; neither is it the result of grading on a curve. Chicago boasts many cultural wonders, yet the perception of provincialism stubbornly persists, especially in places like Paris, where fashion is as ingrained in the culture as Champagne and Edith Piaf.
This doesn’t stop the 48-year-old doyenne, who lives with her husband, Josh Goldman, in a River North high-rise, from vigorously defending the stylishness of the women in her adopted hometown. “What you are talking about is overall fashionable cities,” she told me over lunch in Chicago one day. “But I’m not kidding when I tell you this: The women in this city are incredibly aware of their image. Not in a superficial way. Women want to look as if they are about to present the most important speech of their life every day. The mommies that I run into at my school. The powerful businesswomen. Everybody. Head to toe, they actually care. They care about what their makeup looks like. They care about what their hair looks like. When I have parties and I have people from all over the world coming, they always say to me, ‘Wow. We didn’t know Chicago girls can pull it off like that.’ ”
When it comes to world-class stores in Chicago, however, and a local tastemaker with a global reputation, there is only one. Ikram isn’t just a player on the international scene, she’s one of the players.
“I can’t think of a single similar person from a non–fashion capital—meaning [somewhere other than] New York, Paris, London, Milan—who has the status or stature that she has in the fashion world,” says Mickey Boardman, the Capote-esque editorial director for the influential fashion and culture magazine Paper. “She’s not exactly like a fairy tale, but sort of an Auntie Mame: glamorous and amazing, loud and fabulous and over the top.”
“I’m trying to really condense it, which is virtually impossible,” Michelle Stein, president of a powerful consortium of fashion retailers called Aeffe USA, told me at a dinner party in Paris. “The passion, the enigma. She’s a force of nature.”
And her Chicago boutique?
“I always say it’s the most amazing store in America,” Boardman says. “And when people ask the best stores in the world, it’s Colette [in Paris], it’s 10 Corso Como [in Milan], and Ikram.”
Still. What most fascinates about her is not her top billing in the global couture capitals or her illustrious clientele (Desirée Rogers, Mellody Hobson, Linda Johnson Rice, and too many others to name) or that her store—the stunning red-fronted objet d’art wedged into an otherwise unremarkable strip of Huron Street—has single-handedly made Chicago an international fashion destination.
It’s not that Ikram chose the Jason Wu one-shoulder white chiffon gown that Michelle Obama wore to the president’s first inaugural ball, launching the career of the then-unknown designer; or that her clients are known to fly in from all parts of the globe and drop five figures in a single spree at her store; or that she sits alongside the likes of Kanye West, Bradley Cooper, and Jessica Alba at the runway shows of Paris Fashion Week.
What fascinates most is the woman herself. To understand the why and how of Ikram Goldman, whom she represents and what makes her so important not only to the $3 trillion fashion industry but to the nexus between it and the cultural world, to comprehend what makes her the alpha in every room, a tide-changing gravitational force, you have to do more than have lunch with her and interview her admirers.
To truly fathom the full force of Ikram, you have only one option: Buckle up, take a deep breath, and fly into the eye of her hurricane.
3 “WHAT’S UP, MOTHER-FUCKERRRRS??!! I WANT TO SEE EVERY MOTHERFUCKING PERSON ON THE DANCE FLOOR. NOW!!”
Ikram, in custom black Maison Margiela, mic clutched in one hand, eyes blazing, stalks the stage during her store’s 15th anniversary party at the Geraghty on South Hoyne Avenue. She is at the center of an ever-changing entourage: a European countess, a Chicago schoolteacher, a society darling, an “it girl” model, a fleet of Paris designers.
The crowd responds immediately. A giant, writhing, fabulously dressed serpent of 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-, 70-somethings—in ball gowns, bow ties, sparkles, saris, skinny pants, catsuits, ponchos; fringe, plaid, checks, herringbone, suede; loafers, slingbacks, stilettos, sneakers, kitten heels, gladiators, peep-toes; Harry Caray–size eyeglasses and little round lenses the size of nickels; with big hair, bald heads, buzzcuts, shingle bobs, Bettie Pages; with tattooed arms, legs, feet—unfurls itself from lush couches and dark corner nooks. It bends its way past thrashing pole dancers in red unitards with spikes protruding from their limbs, leggy supermodels nibbling clouds of cotton candy, and Champagne-sloshing society mavens onto a tennis-court-size dance floor flaming red under an outdoor tent ceiling of inflatable red octopus tentacles. (Earlier, a marching band from South Chicago’s Kenwood Academy, complete with majorettes, high-stepped through the venue, bringing everyone roaring to their feet.)
Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” pounds the crowd, beats landing on the dance floor like a spray of sequins. Ikram, shouting, laughing, continues to exhort, singling out people in the throng, hectoring the wallflowers. Around her, the kaleidoscope of glitterati spins—Hubertus von Hohenlohe, an Olympic Alpine skier and the descendant of a Bavarian royal family; Scott Studenberg and John Targon, designers at Baja East; Dawn Klohs, who with her mother and sisters owns A’maree’s in Newport Beach, California, a rival to Ikram as perhaps the nation’s most beautiful store; Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy; Peter Copping, who had just left as creative director at Oscar de la Renta; George Lucas and Mellody Hobson; Rahm Emanuel; performance artist Nick Cave.
Mickey Boardman, wearing a Creatures of the Wind blazer over a Cédric Charlier sparkle shirt and Ashish pants, would love to remove his jacket. But when someone suggests doing so, he nods in Ikram’s direction. “The look without the jacket has not been approved,” he says.
By now, Ikram has been parading on the stage for three hours. She’ll stay there another two. That’s what happens when she throws a party—especially one of her internationally famous anniversary bashes. When an invitation arrives, Wonka-like, in Paris, Milan, New York, Chicago, you come. If you don’t, you will have to answer for it.
As the music thumps deep into the night, the woman at the center of it all, swirling, singing, dancing, issues a salute precious few people at such a lofty gathering could get away with: “Welcome to my world, motherfuckerrrrrs!!”
4 That was my first introduction to Ikram Goldman. It wasn’t until a few days later (and a couple of weeks before her Paris trip) that I actually met her.
The occasion was a book launch for a pair of longtime friends held at her in-store café. To get to this exquisite gem on the second level, you must first cross the 16,500-square-foot sales floor to a sweeping staircase, grand as one in an antebellum mansion.
The store is the second iteration of Ikram. When the first shop sprouted at 873 North Rush Street in 2001, it wasn’t merely another exclusive Gold Coast spot with ultra-pricey attire. It was an international sensation. Such was the magnitude of its success that Ikram was within a year pondering a bigger, better space.
In 2011, she opened the current store at 15 East Huron Street, a vast fashion wonderland rendered in brass and gold leaf and set apart, intentionally, from the high-end shops of Oak Street—Hermès, Kate Spade, Jimmy Choo, Tom Ford.
Those stores—all beautifully appointed, of course—can be forbidding for the average shopper, Ikram reasoned, particularly with a frowning (if impeccably dressed) security guard at the door. Interior designer Mario Aranda, working with Ikram and her husband, says he tried to resolve that problem by adding a small courtyard between the sidewalk and entrance that allows a moment of transition. “When you walk straight from the city into the store, there’s almost a kind of a shock. If you give a space, it’s a much more gentle way to enter,” Aranda says.
Making that transition allows a few moments to gawk at the exterior. This is not Prada, with a pair of suits marooned under a spotlight behind gilded rectangular windows. Ikram features a bright red metallic façade, which from a short distance almost looks enameled, like a freshly manicured fingernail, and giant porthole windows, two with interior supports that form an hourglass shape.
Inside, rather than a minimalist display of purses and a couple of blouses, the boutique brims with racks of clothes and accessories—Azzedine Alaïa, Rodarte, Givenchy, Alexander McQueen, Comme des Garçons, Lanvin, Narciso Rodriguez—and jewel-encrusted heels. On one wall, a row of mannequins, golden under the amber light cast by a chandelier of handblown glass, stands like a chorus line of Oscar statuettes. Glass cases glitter with one-of-a-kind baubles. One day, waiting for Ikram, I spotted a necklace clocking in at more than $50,000, a jeweled monkey hugging a ball of pearls for $18,000, and raffia-pom-pom-covered sandals with metal flower medallions and floral-painted block heels for $1,695.
Shortly after the store opened, The New York Times weighed in with a review that summed it up: “impossibly chic.”
For all the good things I’d heard about Ikram—that she is deeply generous with her time, money, and support (she gives lavishly to the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in the field of child development, and to the Art Institute of Chicago), that she makes you feel like a dear friend within moments of meeting her—I had also heard that, depending on her mood, she could be … prickly, guarded, wary, and intimidating. So, at the book launch, to gather my nerve, I first chatted up her husband, Josh, a genial Princeton-educated lawyer and investor who bears a more than passing resemblance to the actor Gary Sinise and co-owns the store.
Then I sidled up to the woman herself. Dressed in all black, she spotted me out of the corner of her eye. She stopped midchat with a friend, spread her arms wide, and gave me the kind of bear hug I’d expect from a long-lost friend. I had barely recovered when she launched into a story about a night she and the Latin jazz ensemble Pink Martini (one of her favorite bands) had spent in Portland, Oregon, recently. The group had invited her to sing on a recording—“an amaaazing honor,” she explained—and, after a long day, they wound up at a gay male strip club. When one of her friends informed her that a certain dancer was the star attraction, Ikram approached with a bouquet of $2 bills (the only currency accepted, she explained) and told him, “Show me what you got.” He did. Now Ikram—reenacting the moment with me—slapped imaginary bill after imaginary bill on my chest. All this within five minutes of meeting her.
I scarcely had time to stammer a response before Ikram excused herself and, changing tone on a dime, stepped before the sedate, urbane gathering to deliver a gracious, heartfelt speech about her friends and their new book of hyperstylish floral arrangements.
Within moments, she was back at my side, re-revved, demanding that I join her and her husband, along with a few staff members, for dinner.
Josh, I learned, is the son of affluent and prominent art collectors (the Jean and Steven Goldman Study Center at the Art Institute bears their names) and was introduced to Ikram through a friend who was taking classes with her at the Alliance Française, Chicago’s French cultural center.
Their first date ended in typical Ikram fashion. “She wrote her number out: 588-2300,” he recalls. “I looked at it and thought, That looks familiar.” It came to him only when he later heard the famous jingle for Empire Carpet. But if Ikram was trying to give him the brushoff, it didn’t last long. “We went out two nights later,” Josh says, “and within days were inseparable.”
When we sat down to dinner, at a trendy River North sushi spot called Roka Akor, Ikram—as she always does—choreographed the seating and took the liberty of ordering for the table, including several bottles of sake. In the weeks I would spend with her, it was never otherwise. On this night, she insisted that I sit next to her, which was when I glimpsed something on her phone that I would begin to refer to as the List. Ikram has a friend who once asked people she knew to compile a list of adjectives describing her. On a whim, Ikram asked her staff to do the same for her. Peeking over her shoulder, I saw the words “passionate,” “generous,” and “motherfucker.” For the next several weeks, I begged her to send me the full list.
“No way,” she said, laughing, and then offered an intriguing consolation: I should come to Paris, she said, and watch her in action. It would mostly be a family vacation with Josh and their 7-year-old twin boys, Aragon and Oberon, but she had some fashion business to attend to as well. She mused a little more. Yes. I should really come. No, I must come. Will come.
5 Fashion pockets thrive throughout Paris, of course, a city that has been the mecca for couture since the 16th century. But in luxury-attire circles, it is safe to say that the fashion epicenter is just off the Champs-Élysées, at the intersection of Avenue Montaigne, Rue François 1er, and Rue de Marignan. This nexus is, to quote a gushing text Ikram sent me before I joined her for her Paris buying spree, “the Madison Avenue of New York, the Michigan Avenue of Chicago, full of the top haute couture designer stores that are packed with equally impeccable women who are head-to-toe perfection!”
If anything, this was an understatement. Walking amid the gray façades and filigreed ironwork of the Eighth Arrondissement and peering into the shops and cafés, I beheld a parade of beautiful people. The café servers were beautiful. The shopgirls were beautiful. The doormen, the fashion house staffers, the receptionists, the men in body-hugging tailored black suits—all beautiful.
Ikram, when she arrived in front of Nina Ricci at 39 Avenue Montaigne, looked at me for a moment, sweeping her eyes up and down in an appraising glance. It was a quick but thorough once-over that left me preemptively ticking off a list of possible flaws—a patch of shadow missed with a razor, unsightly hair sprouting from the ears, an outfit not quite up to snuff. (I once noticed her staring at my shaved head and frowning. “You need a trim,” she told me. “That doesn’t look good. You shouldn’t go out like that.” I might have been upset—if she hadn’t been absolutely right.)
I must have looked OK that day, because she simply air-kissed me on both cheeks, then sauntered into the sumptuous tile-and-wood reception area.
6 Ikram’s rise to such glittering heights seems at once deeply improbable and designed by fate.
Born in Israel, the youngest of nine children, Ikram Saman had little, if any, exposure to haute couture but learned, through the intensity of her mother’s unsparing gaze, the importance of personal appearance. The children were lined up for inspection, scrutinized from top to bottom. Shoes were patent leather Mary Janes, shined to a spotless shimmer. School uniforms were to be worn with tights—modest, immaculate. “You had to present yourself at all times,” Ikram recalls. The belief, unspoken but implicit, was, “If you go out into the world and your hair is a mess, people are going to look at you like you’re a mess. If your shoes are scuffed, they’re going to look at you as someone who doesn’t pay attention to detail.”
The connection with what would eventually become Ikram’s calling was obvious. The bigger clue, however, came from something else from her childhood: her doll collection.
The figurines and the manse in which they lived served for Ikram as a sort of haute boutique in miniature—with her as its owner, supervisor, and chief architect.
“In the mornings, right before school, I’d line them all up,” she recalls. “I would have all their little books in front of them with their pencils and little erasers that I bought from a little shop around the corner from my school. I had the most beautiful eraser collection. I would sit them all down and say, ‘I’m going to come back and I want the homework to be meticulous, and if it is, you’re going to get a reward.’ And, of course, they would all get rewards with new erasers.”
When Ikram was 13, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ikram’s father, a developer, had the financial means to get her the best treatment. But that meant a transatlantic move so that her mother could undergo chemotherapy and radiation at the University of Chicago. She lived just two more years.
At 16, Ikram dropped out of school. She went to New York for a short visit with her brother, but by then she had come to love Chicago. She returned and worked as a waitress for a time, then at a children’s store called Clown.
There, she encountered a woman who would become a mentor, a friend, and a mother figure: Joan Weinstein. Already a fashion retail legend, Weinstein had been the driving force behind Ultimo, an Oak Street boutique she built into an internationally renowned destination.
From her perch at Clown, Ikram would look out to see Weinstein pass and would be reminded of her mother. “Joan was an amazing woman,” Ikram says. “She would walk down the street and all heads would turn. She was so regal.”
One day, Ikram says, she mustered her courage and asked Weinstein for a job. “She asked, ‘Why should I hire you?’ ” Ikram recalls. “And I said, ‘Because I’ll be the best employee you’ve ever had.’ ”
“We’ll see about that,” Weinstein replied, then hired Ikram on the spot. Ikram made good on her word, becoming the store’s top salesperson. The relationship blossomed into a friendship that lasted until Weinstein’s death in 2009.
Given the Goldman family’s wealth, Ikram’s marriage to Josh in 1995 meant she no longer had to work, but the thought of becoming a woman of leisure pushed a particularly sensitive button. “Now that we are married, what kind of a wife do you expect me to be?” Ikram recalls asking her new husband. Josh remembers shrugging. He didn’t really know. Maybe do some society work? Serve on a few boards?
“I looked at him totally white-faced,” Ikram says, gazing at me intensely. “Literally, my heart dropped. I sat down and I just started to cry. He’s like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, bawling, ‘I will never quit my job. I love my job. I’m always going to work. I will never live off of you.’ I went on and on, and he’s like, ‘OK! OK!’ ” As it turned out, Josh was the one who quit his job; six years later, he became her business partner.
In addition to selling one-of-a-kind garments, Ikram developed a reputation as a master curator of couture who has no qualms about delivering blunt-force opinions. (Incidentally, she doesn’t deal in men’s clothing. “No drama,” she says. “I crave drama.”) One famous story involves Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, a longtime friend and client known for wearing perfectly fitted clothes embellished with details like rhinestone collars on floral prints and brocades. One day a few years ago, however, Ikram caught a glimpse of Hobson striding into the store in a hoodie and sweatpants and ordered her to immediately take them off. “You can’t walk around like that,” Ikram admonished. Within moments, Hobson was in a dressing room, stripped down, awaiting Ikram, who was gathering pieces for an ensemble. Hobson walked out looking fabulous—and never saw the jogging outfit again.
At times, that brutal honesty has come at the expense of sales worth a month’s receipts to lesser retailers. Josh recalls one case, shortly after the original location on Rush Street opened: “We were walking through the store on a Sunday, and there was a dressing room full of clothes that a customer had bought the day before. Ikram goes into the dressing room and sees that one of the items was a dress that was, like, $8,000. She was like, ‘Oh no, she shouldn’t have this dress.’ So she goes and calls up the customer and says, ‘I’m sorry, I know we sold you this dress, but you can’t have it. It’s not right for you.’ The customer said, ‘What do you mean? I love that dress.’ Ikram says, ‘You’ll look too matronly. You’ll look too old. You’re a beautiful woman. You don’t want this dress. Trust me. I’m taking it back.’ ”
In another industry, such a practice would be laughable. But Josh realized that “things don’t work that way in this business,” he says. “It’s a trust relationship. If somebody feels that all you’re trying to do is sell them something, it’s not going to work.”
While many appreciate, even venerate, Ikram’s candor, others see her style as imperious and tactless, if not outright bullying. Ikram herself does not deny that she’s tough, demanding, even controlling. “Of course I am,” she says. It’s never personal or vindictive, she insists; rather, it’s driven by a desire to do right by her clients and by an unflagging belief in the rightness of her own vision.
When asked whether her toughness ever turns mean, she replies, “I don’t really know what ‘mean’ means or what ‘tough’ means. Am I going around beating people up? If I walk through the store and I say to somebody, ‘Don’t stand chitchatting, put the stock away’ in a very resolute way, that may seem mean, but is it?”
As for the reputation of being a bully, her close friend Phoebe Cates, the former teen actress who now owns a boutique in New York (and is married to actor Kevin Kline), says: “I don’t experience her that way at all. I’d say she’s intensely loyal, and, yes, she’s opinionated, but I’ve never experienced her as being bossy. She cares deeply.”
Ikram can certainly steamroll someone, virtually anyone, depending on the moment, whether it’s changing a design, negotiating a deal, or challenging a writer (yes, me) during an interview.
When I suggest during one of our conversations that she’s an artist in the way she curates her store’s collection, she dismisses the thought with a wave of her hand. “No, not at all. No.”
Later, when I bring up an article that compares her to Miranda Priestly, the snobby, viciously narcissistic ice queen in The Devil Wears Prada (a thinly veiled account of working for Vogue editor Anna Wintour), she grows visibly agitated, leveling me with a look. “I’m going to challenge you not to mention a word about that movie or that book or Miranda Priestly in your article,” she says. “For the fashion people, reading that comparison, they’ll think you’re an idiot. I’m being totally serious.”
Her irritation is understandable. For one thing, the two play completely different roles in the fashion business. And where Priestly is cold and dismissive, Ikram is wide open, red hot, generous with her emotions and passions, the kind of person who engenders in people a fierce loyalty born not of intimidation but of genuinely warm feelings. “I only have a handful of friends, and Ikram is one of them,” says Cates. “I feel safe knowing Ikram’s in the world. She’s very protective of her friends and very loving. Anybody who would do Ikram wrong would be top of my shit list.”
7 “Ikram for Daisy-Maisy,” Ikram trilled, referring to Daisy Thomas, a senior staffer at Nina Ricci, who would be ushering Ikram through the designer’s collection.
As she swept in, Ikram barely noticed her surroundings, having been here so many times. I, on the other hand, gawked like a tourist at the grand staircase of white spindles and gleaming rails and around the light-flooded room filled with long tables. Grins, air kisses, and bonjours floated down like rose petals. “Were you at my [Chicago anniversary] party? I know you were,” she said, nodding to a friend, Thomas Girty, Ricci’s commercial director.
She opened her laptop. Mobile office deployed, she strode toward the walls from which framed models frowned down. She then attacked, rather ferociously, the racks of dresses and sweaters and slacks, seizing pieces and handing them without looking to assistants to give to the house models to try on.
She wasn’t the only client in the room—clusters of Asian buyers confabbed at some of the tables, tapping iPads and murmuring—but without a doubt she was, here and in every store we visited, the center of attention, demanding and commanding, providing a running commentary on what she saw as the strengths and weaknesses of the collections.
“Ooooooh. Love that. And that. Yes, definitely, on that jacket.”
Holding up one garment, she looked puzzled. “What is the story of this print?”
It’s Bamako, from Africa, Girty explained.
“I’m obsessed with it. I’ll be thrilled to see what’s coming down the runway.”
Then a model sauntered by in a gorgeous pair of caramel-colored slacks. Ikram frowned. “This doesn’t look right to me,” she said, tugging at the crease. “It’s so heavy. Can I get this in black? Where is Thomas? Can you ask him?”
While we were waiting, Ikram browsed a few purses, then told me, sotto voce, “The last time I was here, I dropped a purse in some food. What are they going to do, spank me?” (She did offer to pay, a gesture dismissed out of hand.)
A moment later, Ikram caught Girty’s eye. He winked. Black it was.
After dropping an immense sum on purchases, we were off to Courrèges. “Onward!” Ikram shouted.
Thousands more spent there, then on to Ungaro, where Ikram strolled the collection under a sparkling antique chandelier. When she expressed displeasure at how warm the room was, three staffers hopped to and fixed the problem, flinging open banks of windows to let in a refreshing whoosh of cool air.
Having eyeballed the collection, she plucked a number of outfits before taking her seat with her laptop. One by one, models stepped out in the garments, twirling, pulling their ironed-straight hair off their shoulders to reveal deeply plunging backs.
The reviews were tepid at first.
The sweater? No. “See how it’s puckering on the breast?”
And: “Look at that. Who wants that? I don’t.”
And: “What’s going on with all that pleating? It has to be great. This is not great.”
Eventually, a model appeared in a floral-embroidered, short-sleeved, open-back dress.
“There,” Ikram said, clasping her hands. “Lovely. That, I really love.”
More winners emerged, and Ikram’s fingers flew over the keyboard, entering descriptions and prices into a spreadsheet.
Unlike many buyers, for whom these impromptu shows will be something to ponder on the flight home, Ikram places orders on the spot, another reason she’s a cherished customer.
She tapped some more at her computer, tallied up the total, then charged out the door to her final stop.
8 “Why is it,” Malcolm Gladwell asked in “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg,” his seminal 1999 New Yorker piece about another Chicagoan, “that these few, select people seem to know everyone and the rest of us don’t? And how important are the people who know everyone?”
In Ikram’s case, his questions would be tweaked: How is it that people like her can intuit exactly what customers want, even when they don’t know they want it? And how important are these people who can impose their vision on an industry?
Few designers believe that women are going to strut down the street in unitards with cockatoo feathers sprouting out of their heads. Runway pieces are conceptual, much like the “cars of the future” at auto shows. What is important is their influence on prêt-à-porter, or ready-to-wear designer clothing. Those clothes, in turn, affect everything from the color to the cut of the off-the-rack raiment you find at Macy’s and Target and H&M and Zara.
The way that someone such as Ikram influences that chain is multilayered, including, at the store level, her sheer force as a product buyer and saleswoman, says Sally Singer, a veteran editor at Vogue. “What drives a woman to buy something new, to buy that next thing? To buy at full price, to not wait until it’s heavily discounted? How that all happens is such a special set of emotional relationships. There’s something emotional that’s going on that can sustain all the pressures and triggers and radical changes going on in the industry. That’s why people like Ikram are so important.”
But it’s her role as a star maker that is perhaps most important, says Singer. “There are designers who she has supported, even when their clothes may or may not have been in fashion. But she understands the quality and the vision of their work and continues to find a client for them when retailers or fashion media have turned other ways. She stands by people. That is incredibly important.”
Take, for example, Creatures of the Wind, the design team of Shane Gabier and Christopher Peters, two graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Ikram almost single-handedly lifted them from obscurity. Gabier got to know her while working at her boutique as a buying assistant. He began bringing her some of his designs, and after a couple of years of feedback—with her asking about fabrics and designs and posing questions like “Who is this for?”—Ikram felt that he and Peters had a collection worthy of Paris or anywhere else. Their coming-out party was in 2010 at New York Fashion Week, a breathtakingly big platform for a debut. “She rallied the troops,” Gabier recalls, “the writers, the editors, to see our first collection.”
Ikram was also among the first supporters of Kate and Laura Mulleavy, whose Rodarte label has become a “great American indie fashion story,” in the words of Vogue, and “absolutely the coolest thing around,” in the words of Singer.
I saw Ikram’s commitment firsthand at dinner one night at the studio of the Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz, of whom Ikram is a close friend and big supporter. The space featured hardwood floors and a floor-to-ceiling expanse of windows on one side that afforded a spectacular view of Paris rooftops. Josh told me that the first staging of Waiting for Godot had been performed there. Kayrouz had turned it into a showroom as beautiful as a couture boutique.
That night, he was hosting a dinner in honor of Ikram, Josh, and their boys, both decked out in designer playwear: Aragon wearing a Bonpoint cardigan, white pants, and Bit’z Kids shirt; Oberon in a Coton Doux print shirt, Trico Field white pants, and a Du Pareil au Même cardigan. Our dinner group also included an eclectic assortment of designers, fashion journalists, retailers, and various members of Paris’s cognoscenti. Among them: the former head of Cire Trudon, the historic Rue de Seine candle shop; Aeffe USA’s Michelle Stein; and Constance Rebholz, Kayrouz’s partner.
I was chatting with Rebholz when we both noticed Ikram futzing with a set of mannequins wearing pieces of Kayrouz’s collection, swathing a waist in a bit of loose material, removing a belt from one, worrying a collar, repositioning the figures under the recessed lights. Rebholz watched in fascination for a few moments before turning to me with a shrug and a chuckle. “She can’t help herself.”
And, of course, Ikram was right. The creations now popped, begging a closer look, the way an oil painting suddenly draws the eye once placed in a gilded frame.
Kayrouz, who refers to Ikram as a big sister, just laughed. “If I want to describe her, I will say two words: ‘passion’ and ‘heart,’ ” he said in a thick French accent. “She has a sweet heart. You know, when you connect to people, you are able to laugh with them and have fun with them and cry with them. I had the chance to cry with Ikram.”
Cates told me the same thing. The former actress first met Ikram in Paris through a mutual friend. At the time, Cates was just launching her store and hoping for advice. She soon found herself under the spell of her new acquaintance. “I could tell immediately that she’s what I call a ‘sensitive’—somebody who feels and hears everything. Nothing escapes them. She was intense.”
So intense that Cates watched in fascination as Ikram “literally clasped her heart” and welled with tears over a story Cates was telling. “I’m always exhausted and feel like I have to sleep after seeing her,” she says. “But I love her.”
Rebholz shed more light at the dinner party: “She’s quite old school. These days, you have a lot of super nice stores around the world, but the owners are like divas. They don’t do the buying anymore. They are more close to the press and commercial side.” By contrast to such figureheads, Ikram is “still really, really into her business,” Rebholz explained: “She has her hand in everything. She has clients all around the world because people trust in her eye and taste. They know she’s going to find the perfect piece to fit their personality.”
We had barely finished talking when a friend of Kayrouz’s began playing Lebanese folk songs on a Middle Eastern stringed instrument. Suddenly Ikram was up, clapping. “Come ooon, everybody!” she said, dancing to the front and picking up a microphone. Two of the guests arrived at her side and launched into an impromptu belly dance. Ikram started to sing in a lovely voice, and soon she had the whole group laughing and grinning. “C’mon! Help me out! Clap!” she commanded.
And everybody did.
9 As brusquely as she’d dismissed the model at Givenchy on the last stop of our spending-spree day, Ikram was in the next breath gushing over a piece—a double-zippered rhinestone-edged satin bomber jacket—so effusively that she not only attracted an audience around her table but also did the impossible: She reduced a set of three expressionless models to gales of laughter that caused one to double over.
“Stop!” Ikram commanded as one of the women ambled by in an iridescent sleeveless gown that looked as delicate as a soufflé and glimmered a pink so tender God himself might have streaked the sunset sky with it.
“Love, love, love, love, love!” Ikram said, half rising from her laptop, on which she was logging what would be another astounding order.
Despite her best efforts at hauteur, the model, blond, tall, stunning, broke into a grin.
“Are you married?” Ikram asked, eliciting a giggle.
“No,” the model answered, and turned to leave.
“Wait! What are you doing?” Ikram cried. “Show it off! Tout de suite! Run out the door with that and I guarantee you’ll get married!”
As if emancipated, the other models began giggling, too. Within moments, they were posing and hamming it up for the growing crowd around Ikram’s table, the slightest hint of pretense torn away like gift wrap, Ikram laughing and clapping and grinning as she typed in the garment’s number.
“This order,” Ikram concluded, reviewing the long list of jackets, gowns, shoes, and jewelry she had just purchased for her store, “is off the hook.”
By then, the showroom had mostly cleared out. The workday was done. But there was a dinner that night with family friends, and another dinner after that. Then a quick trip to Spain, where she planned to sing with Pink Martini in the jet-set beach town of Marbella, before a few more days of touring and then home.
10 Ikram relishes many things. Sitting down to an interview is not one of them. She had put me off the entire time in Paris. Now, back on her home turf in Chicago, in one of the places she’s most comfortable, her store’s upstairs café, she looked impatient as she waited for lunch to arrive.
There were no air kisses, no playful gibes at my appearance. She looked agitated, distracted, irritable. Shortly after I sat down, I started clicking my pen and then stopped, remembering the day in Paris when this nervous tic of mine had pushed her to the brink of an anxiety attack. Our food arrived, and she began rapidly plucking the seeds off a piece of bread. In short, she looked like she’d rather be digging through a Kmart bargain bin for tube socks than speaking into my digital recorder. There was no talk of the List—that potentially delicious compilation of adjectives her staff had put together to describe her. Which was fine. By now, I had plenty of material.
Eventually, she warmed up, and we talked for a couple of hours. Then she walked me out. Just before descending the staircase, however, she did something perfectly Ikram: She ran her finger along the wall. I strained to see why and noticed a hairline scratch, as thin as filament, that would surely be invisible to 99.9 percent of sentient beings who happened by. She didn’t mention it and didn’t miss a beat of small talk. But I knew. By tomorrow it would be gone.