Marilyn Miglin's Makeover of Oak Street

By Bill Zwecker | August 20, 2012 | People

When hearing that she could be called the “Empress of Oak Street,” Marilyn Miglin chuckles softly. “Somehow, I think I missed that coronation!”

Yet it is clear the cosmetics and fragrance tycoon understands the accolade—and knows that she richly deserves it. Thanks to her zeal to make Oak Street great, Miglin is universally recognized as a dynamo who took a street of small Gold Coast businesses and turned it into an international retailing mecca.

Miglin launched her eponymous firm on Oak Street in June 1963, but this former top Chicago model—who earlier had been a “Chez Paree Adorable” dancer at the popular North Side nightclub—has spent most of her life closely observing the evolution of that special street and the city’s overall retailing scene.

During recent chats with Michigan Avenue at her Gold Coast home in her Oak Street salon (about to be relaunched this month), and in a stroll down the iconic shopping destination, Miglin reflects on “what was then…and what we have now proudly become.”

In the late 1940s, Oak Street slowly moved from being a quiet residential avenue of stately townhouses into a more commercial area—but one still catering to what once was called “the carriage trade.” “It’s an archaic term now, but that’s what we called it,” says Miglin. “Our ladies would put on their hats and gloves, and would walk and shop along Oak Street. The boutiques and businesses were all locally owned and operated. For a long while, Oak Street was a street of hair salons and a smattering of smart, small boutiques, but we also had a Jewel [grocery store] and a butcher shop and the Acorn on Oak (an iconic restaurant of yesteryear), which was always so dark inside you never knew whether it was day or night once you entered. And, of course, there was the Esquire Theatre, which was the place to go to the movies.”

It was at the Esquire where the young Marilyn Klecka went on her first date with a rising young real estate executive named Lee Miglin. “We sat in the balcony,” the long-legged ex-model recalls. “My knees were practically in my chin for the whole movie!” Miglin tragically lost her husband in 1997, when he was killed by Andrew Cunanan, who also took the life of designer Gianni Versace. His widow says quietly, “I think of him every single day.”

Miglin remembers an early upscale women’s apparel operations run by the long-gone Ethel Doll from the 1940s and ’50s. “It was a complete couturier business. She did hats, gowns, furs in the basement, and dressing rooms upstairs.” After the shop closed, the building remained vacant, until Miglin and her late husband took on two mortgages to buy it. “I just fell in love with all the arches and the overall architecture of the place,” says Miglin.

But the customer base on Oak Street has changed dramatically from those simpler times of the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s. “The biggest change came in the ’80s, when all of a sudden all the women went to work,” says Miglin. “Instead of being ladies who could shop all day, it was either early in the morning, at lunchtime, after work, or on weekends. Oak Street had to evolve to meet the needs of the working professional woman.” In response, Miglin and a group of like-minded entrepreneurs decided in the 1980s to tell Chicago—and ultimately the world—“just what we had to offer on Oak Street.” It certainly was a challenge.

“We weren’t organized. There was no unity and we made no statement to the shopping public. Bloomingdale’s was coming along and, frankly, I thought we all were going to be swallowed by that big retail giant,” says Miglin, referring to the September 1988 opening of the New York-based high-end department store just a block away from Oak Street at 900 North Michigan Avenue. So Miglin, joined by “a goodly number of people on the street, like Marlene Rubenstein and Terri D’Ancona, who owned [former women’s boutique] Terri D., decided we had to have an organization to market the street.” And that’s how the Oak Street Council came into being. “I ended up being the first president because my kids were older—compared to the others involved—so I got the job!”

It turned out to be much more of a job than Miglin ever imagined, but the end result is a permanent testament to her drive to make Oak Street what it is today. Supported by people like Joan Weinstein, the legendary owner of Ultimo; Buzz Ruttenberg, who owned the Esquire Theatre; and “so many others,” Miglin says they developed a plan. Aided by a $100,000 grant from the city, the Oak Street team ultimately raised quite a bit more. “We raised $500,000, which was an extremely impressive number back then,” says Miglin. “We tore up the sidewalks and replaced them with black ones. That was Lee Miglin’s idea—a way to make the street look more European and sophisticated. We bought elegant street lamps—48 of them—plus 28 trees. At one point, when the entire street was torn up, I wondered if I would have the energy to see it all the way through. But we just had to get it done!” says Miglin with that tone of quiet determination that is her trademark.

While Miglin and her Oak Street allies have always worked in conjunction with the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, she notes that it has been important for Oak Street to remain “distinct and unique.” That is something more essential today than ever, as the retailing environment on Michigan Avenue has changed as well. “Today, the Avenue has more of a ‘core’ customer base,” says Miglin. “Whereas we tend to attract a consumer looking for something they won’t find there.”

For most of the 1990s, the Oak Street Council sponsored a widely heralded fashion show, with the street closed off from Michigan to Rush and tented with a runway down the middle, much like you’d find at Fashion Week in New York. “It was a terrific way for everyone on the street to showcase the latest styles, and for about 10 years it gave the street’s merchants an enormous boost,” says Miglin. “But it was a very expensive proposition. That tent alone cost $250,000. The recession made that show too expensive. But I would love to see it come back some day.”

Miglin notes that Oak Street has become something of ?a bauble street?? for fancy jewelers?, with standbys Lester Lampert and Trabert & Hoeffer now joined by international jewelers Graff, Harry Winston, and Pomellato, ?plus the timepiece emporium Geneva Seal. “But we have so much more than those amazing jewelers,”? says Miglin, noting such labels as Jil Sander, Prada, David Yurman, Loro Piana, Hermès, and Paul Stuart. ?And don’t forget Bravco, a discount beauty supply and accessories store that has been there for decades.?

It’s all very different from when Miglin opened her doors on Oak Street 49 years ago. Her ultimate success was far from certain in 1963. “I always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” says Miglin with a slight smile. “But shortly after I opened on Oak Street, our mailperson came into the salon and said, ‘Do you realize your competition is across the street and they do $60,000 a year in cosmetics? You’re not going to be here in about 10 days.’” Miglin confesses that she went home and cried that day. But the happy result? “I soon passed $60,000,” she recalls, “and we have never looked back.”

The former model’s original concept “was—and still is—to teach women how to apply makeup that is correct for their lifestyle.” Beginning with 129 unusual brands of cosmetics never before available to the general public, Miglin initially mailed out about 500 letters to friends and acquaintances inviting them “to come into this little store on Oak Street.” Today, in addition to her direct sales to customers worldwide, Miglin just celebrated her 19th year on HSN this summer.

As Oak Street has evolved, so have Marilyn Miglin and her business. While skincare and makeup are still important parts of her product mix, she is equally known today for the 36 fragrances she has created. It amuses her that the first one, Pheromone, “would become the classic that it has—32 years old and ‘she’ still evokes compliments and still is the number-one seller on HSN.”

For Marilyn Miglin—a Chicago success story who has seen all kinds of economic times—“I’ve learned an important lesson. No matter how stressful things are in the market, there always seems to be disposable income available. There still are people who want to shop on a street that has the cachet of Oak Street,” Miglin shares. “I love it when I hear someone say, ‘Oh my goodness! You bought that on Oak Street?’ It will remain vital and vibrant, because we need a place like that.”

Photography by:

photography courtesy of brian burt (oak street, hermes)

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