Secretary of Fashion

04/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Since Ikram Goldman, owner of the eponymous Chicago boutique, became the unofficial Secretary of Fashion to whom Michelle Obama turns for all her key sartorial decisions, East Coast arbiters of chic have been as twisted up as a braided leather belt. How can a mere retailer, not to mention one from the famously frumpy Midwest, have so much fashion clout? Oscar de la Renta, Arnold Scaasi and others say they don't understand why Mrs. Obama relies on a shopkeeper, when she could - and should - be going directly to them. "I don't think the inaugural gown was flattering in any way. She could have looked much better," sniped Scaasi in the New York Times with the cattiness that comes so naturally to those in the fashion world. He added that it was "strange to think that the wife of" a head of state "would choose clothes from only one store."

Apparently, he's forgotten about Marie Antoinette, the world's first clothes horse, who, like Michelle, relied mostly on one retailer to choose her outfits. Rose Bertin was a fat, porcine-faced seamstress who owned a fancy dress shop in Paris, where the French queen liked to shop. During the eighteenth century in France, dress merchants, called marchands de modes, were the most powerful style arbiters, and Bertin, thanks to her association with Marie Antoinette, grew to international fame, while setting a standard for fashion excess and snobbism that's endured to this day.

As a result of Bertin's power, according to Caroline Weber in her brilliant book, Queen of Fashion, the taste and aspirations of the queen's subjects were greatly elevated. So eager were women to ape Marie Antoinette's look that many were driven to squander family fortunes or accumulate staggering debt. Some of these Emma Bovarys before their time even fell so low as to take lovers to pay their dressmaker bills, thus leading to accusations that Marie Antoinette's fashion passion was destroying the morals of the nation. Could it happen here? In this economic climate, I wonder.

Since it opened in 2001, Ikram has been a favorite of the city's most fashionable women, including Mrs. Obama, who's been shopping here since her husband's books became best sellers several years ago. But now with the Obamas in the White House, and American women eager to emulate Michelle's elegance, Ikram's influence has grown. Suddenly, this pudgy, 41-year-old mother of infant twins, has a Bertinesque power to shape the fashion choices of women across the land.

In 1991, when I moved here with my family from New York, I felt as if I'd been exiled to Style Siberia. About the only good news on the fashion front was that my Bergdorf Goodman credit card worked at Neiman Marcus on Michigan Avenue, where my first year in town I found a black Marc Jacobs dress at half price. I also bought a Prada skirt on sale at Ultimo on Oak Street, the only place in Chicago that sold anything even remotely hip. Thanks to a couple of lively boutiques I'd ferreted out in my neighborhood on the near North Side, I managed to uphold a semblance of Manhattan chic. I'm proud to say I never once succumbed to crewneck sweaters, shapeless parkas, dowdy blazers or galoshes, and, as the years went by, it got easier to dress well. I've watched Chicago's fashion life evolve, and recently, there's been an explosion of design talent and independent boutiques across the city. Only now, though, with the Israeli-born Goldman, has Chicago reached its style apotheosis.

I've walked by Ikram many times, admiring the Lanvins, Yohji Yamamotos, Alaias, and Narcisco Rodriguezs in the window. One Christmas my husband gave me a gorgeous pair of silver drop earrings with green crystals from the store. And once, I actually talked to Ikram herself. I called her about a story I was doing for a magazine, but when I mispronounced Proenza Schouler, the high end brand co-designed by two former students of the Parsons School of Design, she snapped at me officiously: "If you don't know how to say it properly, you shouldn't be asking me about them." Then she hung up.

Remembering that experience, I've been afraid to go in the store -- until last week, when curiosity overwhelmed me, along with a need to buy a cocktail dress for several upcoming spring events. As a buffer against what I expected to be the sales staff's disdain for my mid-priced, cloth-coated person, I took my friend, Monica, a willowy, black-haired beauty who looks as if she knows not only how to pronounce Proenza Schouler but how to wear it well.

We walked over on a gray, blustery morning. I let Monica, dazzling as usual in leather pants and a full length fur, push through the glass doors first. Though the boutique has strong Asian accents - filigreed wood doors hanging on the back wall, exotic ceramics and dark wood display cases that look as if they came from a Chinese museum -- Ikram has the feel of Paris: everything is exquisite and très cher. Immediately, I saw ten things I wanted, including what looked like a zebra fur handbag with a sculptured silver clasp and a pair of diamond earrings by Loree Rodkin.

Ikram Goldman was no where in sight. Several sales associates, dour looking women in black, and one glum man in a white polo shirt, stood around. They didn't appear to have much to do. Besides us, there was only one shopper in the store - a stocky, jeans- clad woman who was shopping for tee-shirts, a strange pursuit in Chicago's temple of style.

"Are you looking for anything special?" a pretty Asian girl in an adorable green print dress by Tracy Feith asked with a bright smile. She said her name was Jun and asked us our first names. When I recovered from the shock that Jun wasn't a snob, I explained to her my need for a basic spring cocktail dress. As Jun set off cheerfully to search the racks, Monica and I inspected the arched nooks holding shoes and scarves, handbags and sweaters.

Eventually, Jun led us to the rear of the store, to a circular fitting area lined with mirrors and fawn velvet covered benches. A beige carpet imparted a boudoir hush, drowning out the sounds from the rest of the boutique. I tried on seven dresses. The least expensive, at $1,250, was the same red and black print silk Thakoon that Michelle Obama wore the night her husband was nominated for president, only cut several inches shorter. The most expensive, at $6,745, was a structured black silk and chiffon column embroidered with white birds by Alexander McQueen.

I modeled each of the dresses for Monica and Jun, enjoying their exclamations of enthusiasm. Jun was really getting into it, finding different shoes to try on with each dress and offering suggestions for alterations (an extra charge). There was one dress, we all agreed, that stood out - a violet silk blend Jason Wu with embroidered black florets. It had a fitted bodice and straight skirt that reached just below the knee and a graceful neckline that draped over the shoulders. It fit perfectly, as if had been made for me. It was the most beautiful dress I'd ever worn, and I understood perfectly why Michelle Obama is so drawn to this young designer. The only problem was the price -- $3,900.

If I put the dress on my credit card, I'd be doing my part to stimulate the economy. But then I'd have to pay for it at the end of the month. I left Ikram empty handed. Emma Bovary I am not.