By  on November 17, 2009

Joan Weinstein, who became a fashion force with her influential Chicago boutique, Ultimo, died of heart failure last weekend in Miami, family members said. She was 74.

Weinstein and her late husband Jerry, a New Yorker with retail experience, opened Ultimo on Oak Street here in 1969. She was an early supporter of many European designers, including Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Jean Paul Gaultier.

“There are not enough adjectives to describe what she did for fashion,” said George Malkemus, president of Manolo Blahnik USA.

Malkemus called Weinstein an old-school merchant with her trademark chignon, bold jewelry and strong presence. “She was bigger than life, the antithesis of a shrinking violet,” he said. Blahnik “fell in love with Joan from the very beginning,” respecting her opinion and designing special shoes for her store, even though it was his smallest account.

Although Weinstein demanded perfection in her store and was an intimidating presence for some of her employees, she was a sort of “den mother” to designers and their colleagues, Malkemus said. “I learned patience from her — that you can’t get ahead of yourself,” he added. “If you’re too hungry too fast, they’ll eat you alive.”

Weinstein opened Ultimo stores in Dallas and San Francisco, and launched Ultimo Enterprises, which consisted of the three Ultimo boutiques and various Jil Sander, Sonia Rykiel and Giorgio Armani stores and an Ultimo outlet in Central Valley, N.Y.

Chicago designer Maria Pinto, who has gained national attention as a favorite of First Lady Michelle Obama, remembered when Weinstein ordered from her first collection.

“She just had something about her that I’ve never seen before,” Pinto said. “She had a guttural, instinctual appreciation of things that really set her apart. It was about the craft, the artistry, the beauty. She bought from her gut, not a spreadsheet.”

Her Chicago store, which still has early sketches from Manolo Blahnik, was a feast for the eyes. “You didn’t know what to look at first,” Pinto said. “There’s no store that’s replicated that energy. There was not a detail that she missed. She just taught me so much about being bold.”

Weinstein had a similar effect on Ikram Goldman, the First Lady’s unofficial stylist, and owner of Ikram in Chicago, who began working as a sales associate at Ultimo in her 20s. Weinstein became a mentor and “was like a mother to me,” said Goldman, who noted the pair spoke on the phone every day.

“She had an eye like no one else in the industry,” said Goldman, who recalled when Weinstein exited a car on a New York buying trip and ran into Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “They curtsied to each other,” Goldman said. “She had that kind of presence. She was a force.”

Goldman said Weinstein was born in Chicago and had worked as an assistant for architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, where she refined her taste and was influenced by his attention to detail. She had furniture in her house that van der Rohe designed for her.

Weinstein retired from the day-to-day operations of Ultimo in 1998, but remained on the board. In 2000, Sara Albrecht, a former investment analyst who specialized in retail and apparel ventures, bought Ultimo from an investment group that included Weinstein, who went on to serve as a consultant for Goldman’s Ikram specialty store and spent her later years in Miami.

Weinstein is survived by her brother, Donald Korp.

Services are set for Dec. 2 in Chicago, and further details were not immediately available.

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