IT’S A SIGNIFICANT milestone for any retailer to celebrate 100 years in business. It’s even more so when you know that it’s a family-owned business that had to navigate its way through a pandemic in order to celebrate its centennial.
“We didn’t lay anyone off,” explains Lake Forest Shop owner Ellen Stirling. “No furloughs and everyone stayed on the payroll. We did it right. And when we came back, everyone was wonderful and ready to go.”
The Lake Forest Shop is an iconic North Shore institution— styling women for all occasions of life, from the everyday to the extraordinary. The Lake Forest Shop was opened by Stirling’s grandmother, socialite Margaret Baxter Foster. “I never knew my grandmother, but from what I hear she was a real pistol,” Stirling says. “I wish she was a customer of ours today because she couldn’t stop shopping. She would buy closets of clothes until she finally didn’t have room for anything more. So, my grandfather suggested she open a store.”
The Lake Forest Sports Shop first hung its shingle in 1922.
In many ways, the Lake Forest Sports Shop was ahead of its time. “My grandmother was a visionary, bringing separates to the shop—much like her friend Coco Chanel was doing in France. This was a different way of dressing in this community in those days.”
The next several decades were an exciting time for this new retailer. A wonderful woman named Millie Duncan was hired to manage the shop. The store was wildly successful, leading Foster to open a second location in Hubbard Woods.
“Condé Nast came into my grandmother’s life at a really critical time,” Stirling says of the media magnate (and publisher of such titles as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker) who married her aunt. “He was able to introduce my grandmother to designers and clientele that helped the store thrive and connect her to the fashion world in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without him.”
Then, in the 1950s, Stirling’s parents Adair and Volney Foster took the shop over from her grandmother and launched the Lake Forest Sports Shop in Barrington and Hinsdale.
“My parents ran the shops more like a hobby than a business,” Stirling says. “And in the ’80s, the brand really began to struggle and my father considered closing it. But I knew we had something special with our stores and I told my father that I’d be interested in taking them over.”
When Stirling stepped in, her first move was to close the satellite locations. “I had three little girls and I needed to focus my energies on the Market Square store.” By 1992, she paid off the store’s debt and set the retailer on the road to success.
“If I could go back and change one thing about those early days, I would have dropped the ‘Sports’ from the name of our store sooner,” Stirling says. “We were always getting calls about golf clubs or tennis rackets. I still remember the Christmas Eve a man walked in with an empty bowling bag looking for a bowling ball. From then on, we were The Lake Forest Shop.”
When asked what keeps her engaged in the store after all of these years, Stirling answers thoughtfully.
“My family, my grandmother’s vision, our customers who are like family, our incredible team, and the opportunities we have before us. I also think all of the nonprofits we work with in our Shop Your Cause event—giving back and recognizing the effort and difference every one of those organizations makes to our community. All of those things really push me forward. And just wanting to succeed! My grandmother and father cared so much about this place.”
Yet few things bring Stirling as much joy as seeing The Lake Forest Shop busy again.
“Shortly after we reopened the store after it had been closed for COVID, I was sitting in my office when I heard this noise,” she says. “I was deep in thought, but I stood up and opened my door to see what was going on. When I did, I saw that there were all of these people in the store—smiling and laughing, looking so happy to be here. This is the way things are supposed to be and here it was.”
The Lake Forest Shop has a number of events planned for the summer months, culminating in an anniversary celebration on Thursday, September 15. To learn more, visit thelakeforestshop.com.