BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Her favorite dress she ever owned was a little cocktail number designed by Bill Blass. Her most enjoyable clients varied from Mike Ditka’s mother to the Marchioness of Salisbury. The person she’d most love to dress would be Princess Kate. And even impeccable Ellen Stirling, just like the rest of us, has been the victim of a fashion disaster.
These were some of the diverting details gleaned by TV journalist Mary Ann Childers during a recent interview with Ellen at the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society, where Stirling was the recipient of this year’s Local Legends award.
Looking elegant in a fitted fuchsia jacket by Algo of Switzerland, Ellen was honored for her impact in the fashion arena, as well as her business entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The Lake Forest Academy auditorium was filled with friends, fans, and family, eager to cheer on this Lake Forest leader.
The award also celebrated the 100th birthday of the Lake Forest Shop in Market Square, founded by Ellen’s grandmother. “She loved playing and shopping with Coco Chanel,” Ellen related. “She said, ‘If Coco can do this in Paris, why can’t I do it in Chicago?’”
Ellen herself returned from abroad in 1987 to a challenge from her father—to turn around the store, which had spread itself across among several branches. At the time, the University of Chicago art history major had been living in London with her husband Jim and three daughters, Ginevra, Leslie, and Aleca.
Ellen quickly rose to the occasion:
“We closed all the branches, bringing it all back to Lake Forest to have one bright and shining business. By 1992, we turned it around, but it was my staff and my clients who made all the difference. And the best advice I ever got was to know your clients and be an active listener. You don’t have a second chance to make a first impression.”
In addition to her loyal customers, Ellen has had close relationships with top designers:
“Oscar de la Renta said, ‘Let me do your wedding dress,’ and he did. He was so full of warmth and charm. Oleg Cassini was so refined and elegant. He did practically everything that Jackie wore when she was First Lady. But Bill Blass was one of my favorites. He was from Indiana and he would say, ‘Us Midwesterners need to stay together.’”
Former anchor and now media consultant Mary Ann Childers delved into Ellen’s fashion sense at the award ceremony.
Mary Ann: Is there a Chicago Style?
Ellen: We are in the middle of America and I think we have an independent, thoughtful style. Women dress to flatter themselves, and there is an ease and simplicity. We love color here!
Mary Ann: Who are current style icons?
Ellen: Kate Middleton is definitely an international style icon. I think Queen Elizabeth is one, too. She knows what works for her and that she has a job to do. One of my own favorite designers, Algo of Switzerland, who I am wearing today, once encouraged her to wear a one of his ruffly blouses. Although he dresses her often, she said a quick no to that look—she knew it wouldn’t work for her. In Chicago, I think Liz Stiffel is a fashion icon. I have worked with her and think she has enormous style.
Mary Ann: You have three lovely daughters, Ginevra, Leslie, and Aleca. What fashion pieces do you want to pass down to them?
Ellen: They could choose anything from my closet—dresses, blouses, whatever—but what I want them to know is that they are the most accomplished of young women, how much Jim and I admire them, and how proud we are of them.
Mary Ann: What do you wear around the house when you are just hanging out?
Ellen: Black lululemon pants, a turtleneck, and a really comfy sweater.
Mary Ann: What are some fashion mistakes women should avoid?
Ellen: I have seen women in chic black pants and tops—and then white shoes—which definitely doesn’t work. Skirts can definitely be too short, and some crop tops work and others might only work in the middle of Wisconsin.
Mary Ann: Have you had any fashion disasters?
Ellen: I do recall a fluffy yellow sweater I wore over black pants and a black top—and being greeted by my grandson Jack as Big Bird. I remember clearly talking to a group of people at a lovely gathering when my long beaded necklace all of a sudden just fell apart! Like jelly beans, they rolled all over the floor. The hosts are probably still finding then like hidden Easter eggs!
Mary Ann: Who are some of the Lake Forest Shop’s most famous clients?
Ellen: Historically, the Duchess of Windsor in the 1930s, who was supposedly impossible to work with—very difficult. One of the loveliest was Mike Ditka’s mother, who had a real twinkle in her eye. She was shaped like her son but knew what she was about and made it all so much fun. The Marchioness of Salisbury often wore our clothes to Buckingham and Windsor. It is great that the Lake Forest name gets out there. Many people do not know that President Kennedy was married very briefly to a former Chicagoan, Durie Malcolm, before it was annulled. She was a client of ours.
Mary Ann: Who are your favorite current designers?
Ellen: Lucian Matis of Romania is a terrific young designer whose clothes are very wearable. Brandon Maxwell, who recently dressed Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga, does very elegant pieces.
Mary Ann: The concept of sportswear has always been connected with the Lake Forest Shop; even part of its original name. We tend to think of your clothes as so elegant.
Ellen: Sportswear has evolved tremendously in our 100 years and is a chic new lifestyle. We have always had sportswear as well as evening wear. It is definitely more than an explanation of what my grandson Jack Ranney wears when he plays tennis.
Mary Ann: Your greatest fashion extravagance?
Ellen: I think I have a Cinderella syndrome, so it would be evening dresses.
Mary Ann: Your favorite piece of jewelry?
Ellen: My engagement ring.
Mary Ann: What would surprise people to know about you?
Ellen: I really am rather shy. I am a perfectionist and get anxious if things are going right.
Several past members gathered to congratulate Ellen at the ceremony, including the first recipient, James Lovell, along with John Bryan and Adrian Smith. Janice Hack, Executive Director of the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society reported:
“Ellen is our seventh recipient. We are pleased that Local Legends raised more than $60,000 this year to support our museum’s activities. It was a unique view into the world of fashion luminaries.”
Program Chair, Katie Hale, said it best:“It was a fascinating conversation about the pivotal moments and people in Ellen’s extraordinary life.”
Photo Credit (Local Legends):