Byline: Lisa Bertagnoli / Kristin Larson

CHICAGO — More than half a century has passed since retailers set up shop in the stately brownstones lining Oak Street here, and the street continues to evolve.
The same one-block stretch that once had a grocery store, a dog groomer and a meat market is now home to fashion stars like Prada, Ultimo and Barneys New York. But there’s still diversity on the street, say the locals.
“Oak Street has a quality of elegance, but I think we’ve broadened our positioning,” said Marilyn Miglin, who opened her namesake salon and boutique on the street 37 years ago, at a time when most of her clients were carriage-trade ladies who didn’t work outside the home. “We’ve moved in on the new market and new names, and the street is certainly attracting a very diverse tenant.”
Indeed, variety seems to be the key word in describing Oak Street, which is bordered by Rush Street on the west and Michigan Avenue on the east. On Oak Street, shoppers can find boutiques carrying the most exclusive merchandise, tailors, manicurists and hairdressers plus restaurants, a movie theater and a bank.
As Miglin put it: “You can become engaged at Spiaggia, order a wedding dress at the Ultimate Bride, buy some lingerie and open a savings account.”
There’s even an Oak Street beautification project planned by the Chicago Department of Transportation, in an effort to upgrade the street’s appearance, said a spokesman for the department.
That, plus an influx of new retailers all add up to a mood longtime Oak Street retailer Leslie Gersten described as “upbeat.”
“I’ve seen the street evolve, and it’s constantly changing and reinventing itself,” said Gersten, owner of Sugar Magnolia, a boutique that moved to Oak Street in 1979.
There’s been some turnover recently. Two big names have left — Giorgio Armani moved to Michigan Avenue and Versace closed its doors — while newcomers BCBG Max Azria and Kate Spade opened next door to each other. New York jewelry designer Alex Sepkus opened on Oak Street in December, as did Loro Piana. And Yves Saint Laurent is scouting for its own suitable location.
But Sara Albrecht Nygren, who purchased the struggling Ultimo boutique last May, said she would be more concerned if Oak Street never changed.
“We’re really more of a destination street,” said the 31-year-old former investment analyst. “There’s Prada on one end, and we’re at the other. It’s a great shopping street. It’s the Rodeo Drive of Chicago.”
“Everyone’s trying to get spaces on Oak,” said Jill Newman, manager of the 4,000-square-foot BCBG store. “The street’s so up-and-coming, and only the top retailers are here.”
Kate Spade, in fact, didn’t consider any other street when site-shopping for her Chicago store, which opened in mid-November.
“It feels like specialty,” said Andy Spade, chief executive officer of the firm bearing his wife’s name, during a preopening interview. “There aren’t blocks with all the big names.” Likewise, Margaret Harris, owner of Om for the Home, a home-fashions store going into its second year, didn’t consider another location.
“It is the only street,” said Harris, who is one of the growing number of nonapparel retailers on the street. “It’s given us the presence we thought we needed in the mainstream of fashion.”
Oak Street isn’t for everyone, however. Jane Hamill, a designer who has a store bearing her name, chose Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park when she moved three years ago. To Hamill, the Oak Street names are a bit overwhelming.
“Ultimo and Jil Sander were a little scary at the time,” Hamill said. “For somebody small like me, it was appealing to be around other owners — and their stores.”
Likewise, p.45, a three-year-old boutique that specializes in emerging designers, chose to open shop on Damen Avenue in Wicker Park, an emerging neighborhood.
“We thought we complemented [the area] and that it would only grow,” said Tricia Tunstall, who owns the shop with Jessica Darrow.
Damen Avenue, the boutique-laden main shopping drag of the groovy Wicker Park neighborhood, is becoming a hot spot for shoppers seeking hip and offbeat merchandise. And as such, it could give Oak Street a run for its money, according to Jill Hart, owner of Direct Effects, a retail consulting firm in the city.
“The area keeps adding unique and cutting-edge stores, which are a pleasure,” she said. Oak Street, though, has geography and history on its side. Both Armitage and Wicker Park are located somewhat off the beaten path, and parking in both areas can be a problem. “It’s easier to hit Oak Street and Michigan Avenue than the others,” especially for well-heeled shoppers coming from such northern suburbs as Lake Forest and Evanston, Hart said. Plus, the street has been a mecca for high-end shoppers for at least a decade. Tunstall shops Oak Street, as do her customers. And although she’s had offers to open a second store there, she’s not moving. “As long as we’re in business, we’ll be on Damen,” Tunstall said, adding that she’s focusing on building both the retail business and the Web site.
Aside from neighborhood preferences, another factor keeps some retailers off Oak Street: the cost of rent. On Armitage, rents range from $25 to $40 per square foot (excluding taxes and operating costs); and on Damen, from $20 to $25 per square foot.
But on Oak Street, rents run $100 per square foot, according to Stone Real Estate here.
“That’s the highest in the city, next to Michigan Avenue,” said Josh Levy, an associate at Stone.
Still, Oak Street’s power in local retailing “cannot be denied,” and both the city and the Oak Street Council are taking steps to insure it stays that way. The council hired two extra security guards to handle holiday traffic, Oak Street store owner Harris said, and is meticulous about holding monthly meetings.
As for the beautification project, the specific work to be done is still under discussion, but a project like this would typically involve restoring sidewalks and curbs, installing ornamental lighting and adding planters with flowers, according to the spokesman.The work is estimated to cost about $1 million and will be paid for through general obligation bonds.
“What I like about Oak Street today is that it’s upbeat, in-the-moment, spontaneous shopping,” Oak Street retailer Gersten said. “When people come here, they can do all kinds of shopping and they don’t have to be committed to one designer.
“We have tourists, people working in the film industry, neighbors, people out walking the dog and suburban people — there’s a constant migration,” she added. “I have people coming in from St. Louis on these cheap flights to shop, and then they go home and make dinner that day.”
Miglin, who has watched her clients evolve from Sixties housewives into today’s independent career women, said Oak Street’s changes reflect society.
“The young person today is seeking that ‘Who am I?’ look, and that’s what the street can offer,” she explained. “But this is still a street to aspire to. When you can shop on Oak Street, you really have arrived.”

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