NORTH SHORE STORY
HIGHLAND PARK’S BEVY OF UNIQUE BOUTIQUES PRESENT APPEALING OPTIONS TO LOCALS, MALL-WEARY CHICAGOANS AND VISITORS FROM POINTS BEYOND.
Byline: Kristin Larson
Each summer, thousands upon thousands of music lovers pour into Highland Park, their blankets and well-stocked picnic baskets in tow — almost de rigueur for taking in a concert outdoors at the Ravinia Festival, an outdoor concert stage situated on more than 36 acres of wooded land on the southern end of this quintessential North Shore community.
They arrive in cars, buses and by train. There’s even a stop just for Ravinia — which has played host to everyone from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Lyle Lovett — on the Union-Pacific North train line.
And while Ravinia may be what Highland Park — a town with a population of about 32,000 located 23 miles north of Chicago’s Loop and bordering Lake Michigan — is most famous for, it’s hardly the only attraction in town worth noting.
The downtown shopping district boasts a bevy of businesses, restaurants and independently owned specialty stores and boutiques, which led one marketing campaign to dub it “North Shore’s Magnificent Mile,” after Chicago’s famous shopping drag. Overall, there are some 1,500 retailers, restaurants and service-oriented businesses in Highland Park, according to Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sandra Robinson.
Last August, the completion of the urban-mall-inspired Renaissance Place added another 16 retailers to the downtown shopping area, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Ann Taylor, Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn, as well as the Italian restaurant Rosebud, the latest branch of the beloved mini chain that originated on Chicago’s West Side, and a movie theater specializing in independent releases. Such amenities, said Robinson, will hopefully prevent Highland Park residents from taking their business to the considerable selection of malls in neighboring towns.
Still, even the best-laid mall can’t equal Highland Park’s unique charm. “We have a wonderful mix of privately owned retailers and galleries — it’s like the city in the suburbs,” said Robinson. “I think that’s why retailers like Saks came here.”
Perhaps, but Highland Park is also an affluent community, and one where the median value of a home is about $330,000. Nonetheless, the prevailing atmosphere is more small-town than snobbish. This is a place where friends and neighbors stop and chat when they see one another, and where strangers say “hi” on the streets.
While many locals shop Highland Park, Robinson said the town also attracts a large number of customers from surrounding North Shore towns, like Lake Forest and Deerfield, with some shoppers coming from as far away as Wisconsin and Indiana.
Clearly, the retailers are doing something right. For the last two consecutive years, the revenue from retail sales taxes has outpaced the town’s substantial real estate revenue, Robinson said.
The majority of the boutiques and specialty shops are located in Highland Park’s downtown area, bordered by Green Bay Road and Linden Street on the east and west sides, respectively, and Elm Place and Laurel Avenue to the north and south.
Other businesses sharing downtown space include restaurants — from diners to delicatessens to upscale French — furniture stores, day spas and beauty salons. It must be noted that latte lovers will find plenty to admire in Highland Park’s three Starbucks — with an additional drive-thru version scheduled to open pending approval from the city.
As for retail, Robinson said, “I see us maintaining what we have,” noting that Renaissance Place will probably be the last big development to set up shop for a while.
The following represents a mere sampling of what there is to see when shopping downtown Highland Park:
There was a time when former designer Bett Barnett would sell her own creations at the high-end boutique she opened on Central Street in 1976.
But after 10 years of designing every piece sold in her self-named store, Barnett realized she could expand her horizons. “I found that what people want is my taste — I don’t have to necessarily make the piece,” she said. “So I try to put my artistry into what I feature in my store.”
Barnett calls her buying tastes “eclectic,” though she does tend to focus on brands with clean, architectural lines, from European American designers and a few Japanese names for good measure. She does the majority of her buying in New York, California and Chicago.
What customers can find at her 1,700-square-foot store is a nice-sized collection of Marithe & Francois Girbaud, in which she has an exclusive; Haran, a California designer that uses a lot of silks and layered georgettes, and Zelda suiting.
But Barnett is not a big fan of assiduously matched looks.
“People want to dress uniquely; they don’t want a uniform,” Barnett said, noting this is even more important in a town where looking unique is so paramount. Her customers range from age 30 and up.
“We try to do all the lifestyles of the North Shore. We have from carpool moms to ladies who lunch. “
“It’s kind of like I brought a little Oak Street to Highland Park,” said Susan Lurie, owner of Enaz, a boutique that she says competes with shops like Sugar Magnolia and Barneys New York, both located on that hippest of Chicago’s shopping stretches.
Lurie opened her business, which she operates with daughters Melinda, Lena and Samantha, plus son Derek, in 1993. Last year, she more than tripled the Central Avenue boutique’s selling space to 1,500 feet.
Indeed, a few of her major accounts include Theory, pants and jackets by Genne Maag and Katayone Adeli, with a collection of sweaters, suits and jackets. Enaz also sells T-shirts by Michael Stars, Three Dot and Juicy, as well as jeans by For Joseph. Handbags are by Prada and Brighton.
Lurie says her customers range from teens and 20-year-olds to their moms, as well as trend-conscious young mothers. “I have a little something for everyone,” she notes. “We have high school students come in, college kids, teachers and sophisticated doctors.” Prices range from $24 for a Michael Stars T-shirt to $1,000 for a Katayone Adeli suit or a Prada handbag.
For summer, Lurie will introduce more clingy, silky skirts and fun dresses in flowy chiffon-like fabrics by lines like Second Skin, Delicious and Hearts Only.
You have to step foot into Gail Zomick’s store on the edge of downtown Highland Park to really understand what she means when she says her business ran out of room 15 years ago.
Not unlike the overstuffed closet of a woman who loves to shop, Zomick’s 5,000-square-foot store is packed to the brim with rack after rack of evening gowns encased in plastic, separates, suits, casual dresses and sequined dresses. You name it, she’s got it.
Her clientele starts at age 13 and goes all the way to age 90. Sizes range from 2 to 24, and higher if needed. Retail prices range from $80 for basic wool pants to $10,000 for a beaded Badgley Mischka gown.
While in the midst of helping a pregnant customer find just the right evening dress, Zomick estimated how many pieces were fighting for hanging space in her stores. “4,500 pieces here, and about 3,500 at my Skokie location,” summed up Zomick, who’s been in the business for 37 years. “If you can’t find it here, then something’s wrong.”
The Village Set may have a lot of merchandise, from Sonia Rykiel suits to Escada, Hugo Boss and Thierry Mugler, but Zomick is mainly known for is special occasion dressing.
“I get referrals from Neiman Marcus and Saks,” she said. “So if somebody is desperate, they come to me. For the presidential inauguration, we had two people who were referred.”
“We keep lists of who’s wearing what,” she notes. “Because I can’t have so-and-so going to an affair and seeing the same outfit.”
Zomick buys in Paris, Germany and Milan, and perhaps soon London.
E Street Denim Co.
Thomas George knows denim. A self-professed “blue jeans” guy, George is in a league of retailers who live and breathe them.
“Blue jeans give you the freedom to be an individual. I think they enhance who you are,” he said.
He was the first Highland Park retailer to carry Lucky, placing his order immediately after the buyer flew in carrying a suitcase full of samples. Other lines he premiered: Mavi, Silver and Sutter.
“When you [first] hear about a line, it’s probably already two years old to us,” George said. “If we’re not there in two or three months, we’re there soon after.”
With about 70 denim lines in stock, E Street focuses on providing customers with a good selection in order to get the best-fitting pair of jeans, George said.
His jeans retail from about $40 for entry-level jeans to $250 for high-end Levi’s or a specialty European line.
George’s clients range from teenagers to seniors, and even though he doesn’t have a Web site, he says he ships to about 30 states. “I even have a group of ladies who fly in to shop for jeans and then leave.”
By fall, he plans to expand his store from 3,300 to 4,300 square feet.
Still, he said, “I never wanted to be the biggest; I just wanted to be the best — and that’s in jeans.”
Whatever the latest, trendiest looks are, they can be found at My Generation, which owner Debbie Powell opened in 1993.
The 3,500-square-foot boutique caters to young women in their teens, college girls and moms. It also gives Powell a place to play her Beatles tunes and feature funky knickknacks like lava lamps and incense holders.
The lines range from up-to-date sportswear and special occasion dresses to used Levi’s and rock T-shirts. Powell also sells imported Guatemalan sundresses and tie-dyed clothing — just the thing for a Phish concert.
Popular lines include Paris Blues, Z. Cavaricci and fancy dresses by Monkey Wear. Retail prices range from $24 for a Paul Frank cotton T-shirt to about $135 for a beaded special occasion dress by Jump.
“Our things are not frou-frou or babyish, but contemporary, up-to-date and fun,” Powell said. “The latest in fashion.”
Highland Park at a Glance
Population year-round: About 32,000.
Location: A lakefront town, Highland Park is 23 miles north of Chicago’s Loop, and the town itself spans 12.5 miles.
Attractions: The Historical Society Museum, the Suburban Fine Arts Center, the Walter Heller Nature Center, Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema, the Apple Tree Theatre, Port Clinton Art Festival in August and the Festival of Fine Crafts in June.
Hot spots: The critically acclaimed restaurant Carlos, the newly opened restaurant Rosebud, the Ravinia Festival.