As the Lake Forest Shop celebrates its 90th anniversary as a local retailer, owner Ellen Stirling gives us a peek inside her personal closet and shares some of her favorites.
Algo. Magaschoni. Bill Blass. Oh my!
There may be no better way to walk down memory lane with The Lake Forest Shop and its 90 years of dressing women for all of life’s occasions than touring owner Ellen Stirling’s closet.
“Wait…I know it’s in here,” says Ellen, fingering through countless garment bags that are protecting gowns she’s worn to various weddings, openings, and premieres. With connections to royalty—both fashion (Condé Nast) and British (Prince Charles)—her social calendar has always required that she look her best.
“Here it is,” Ellen says with a sigh, pulling a cream-colored damask gown that she wore for her debut.
“Did that come from The Lake Forest Shop?” I wondered aloud.
“Of course,” she smiled, as if it could have come from anywhere else.
The Lake Forest Shop was first opened by Ellen’s grandmother, socialite Margaret Baxter Foster. According to Ellen’s father, her grandmother had quite a fondness for shopping. “She would buy closets of clothes at a time. In one lively discussion, my grandfather suggested she clean out her closets and open a store,” Ellen says. “Now I don’t know if she actually took clothes from her closet and sold them in the store, but knowing the character that she was, she very well may have,” says Ellen with a laugh. The Lake Forest Sports Shop opened for business in 1922.
In many ways, the Lake Forest Sports Shop was ahead of its time. “While I never knew my grandmother, she seems to have been a visionary,” Ellen says, “in the sense of having women wear separates and carrying such pieces in the shop. That was a different way of dressing in this community in 1922.”
The next several decades were an exciting time for the new retailer. A wonderful woman named Millie Duncan was hired to manage the shop. The store was wildly successful, leading Margaret to open a second location in Hubbard Woods. Then, in the 1970’s, Ellen’s parents, Volney and Adair Foster, who took the shop over from Margaret, launched the Lake Forest Sports Shop in Barrington and Hinsdale.
“It was in the early ’80s that the brand began to struggle and my father considered selling it,” explains Ellen, saying the stores had amassed a half million dollars in debt. “At that point, they were really running the stores as if they were a hobby. But I knew we had something. So I told my father that I’d be interested in taking over the stores.”
When Ellen stepped in, her first move was to close the satellite locations. “I had three small girls and I needed to put all of my eggs in one basket. I had to focus my energies on the Market Square store and run it like a business,” says Ellen. Ellen also dropped “Sports” from the name of the store and renamed it “The Lake Forest Shop.” By 1992, Ellen paid off the store’s debt and set the retailer on the road to success.
“I wish I had known how much work it was going to be,” reflects Ellen on her time running the business. “But I hope and think my grandmother would be very pleased at what she would see if she walked into The Lake Forest Shop today.”
On September 6, on New York’s Fashion’s Night Out, The Lake Forest Shop will kick off a 90-day celebration of the store’s anniversary. “For our 90th, we’re re-energizing ourselves,” says Ellen, alluding to the makeover currently taking place at the shop. Ivory walls are being repainted with soft hues of blue and gray, and the carpet that’s long withstood the steps of the North Shore’s well-heeled is being replaced with light wood floors.
“We’re always looking for ways to recreate and reinvent ourselves, while staying true to who our client is today and will be tomorrow,” Ellen adds.
The Lake Forest Shop is located at 265 East Market Square in Lake Forest. For more information, call The Lake Forest Shop at 847-234-0548. The store is open Monday through Friday from 9:30-5:30 and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and by appointment. You can also visit their website at thelakeforestshop.com.
—Ann Marie Scheidler