Winnetka's Neapolitan brings Paris couture to the North Shore
By: Brigid Sweeney
January 31, 2011
When fashion designers like Lela Rose and Derek Lam swoop into the Midwest from Paris and Manhattan, they often skip Rush and Oak streets in favor of a side street in Winnetka.
They're not the only ones bypassing Chicago's traditional shopping mecca. North Shore doyennes who used to make the 40-minute drive to browse the latest designer offerings downtown now can pick up Prada and Lanvin on impulse at Neapolitan, a 4,000-square-foot shop across from the Elm Street Metra station.
After a two-year downturn that claimed Oak Street's iconic Ultimo boutique and at least a dozen other highly regarded shops, the vacuum at the top of Chicago fashion has been filled not by another Gold Coast impresario, but by a former Motorola executive in the northern suburbs.
Kelly Golden, Neapolitan's 39-year-old proprietor, combines an MBA's business instincts with an intuitive sense of what sells on the North Shore and a personal style that makes her well-heeled clients gush.
“She knows what her customer wants because she is her customer,” says Dean Harris, a jewelry designer whose line has been sold at Neapolitan for two years.
Seven-year-old Neapolitan is among just a handful of independent boutiques in the country that get such fashion plums as Christian Dior's full ready-to-wear line.
Neapolitan's success is helping ease fears that independent boutiques are a dying breed in Chicago. At the same time, Ms. Golden is opening a direct pipeline between North Shore money and fashion epicenters in Paris, Milan and New York.
Customers say they prize Ms. Golden's style savvy and her willingness to go above and beyond for them, whether that means delivering items on approval to be tried on at home or quickly handing over one of her own clutches when they don't have the right purse to match a gown.
“Kelly's store is like an old- fashioned salon,” says Nancy Dowdle, 59, of Northfield, who buys 10 to 15 pieces per season from Neapolitan. “You feel like you get to know the designers and find pieces you can't find anywhere else.”
A cheery, blonde mother of three with a home in Winnetka, Ms. Golden cuts a different figure from other top Chicago boutique owners like the late Joan Weinstein of Ultimo and Ikram Goldman, first lady Michelle Obama's style consigliere.
But Lela Rose, a Manhattan-based fashion designer who used to sell her line to Ultimo and now sells to Neapolitan, sees parallels.
“Both Kelly and Joan made it a point to really get to know their customers to be able to anticipate their needs,” she says.
'PERFECTLY PUT TOGETHER'
Growing up Kelly Rourke in the Sauganash neighborhood on Chicago's North Side, Ms. Golden was “always perfectly put together,” says Dawn Burns, 39, a friend from Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette. The daughter of a real estate manager and a stay-at-home mother who was an excellent seamstress, Ms. Golden says she graduated from Indiana University “with no idea what I wanted to do.”
She bounced from marketing to sales and executive recruiting during stints at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and Motorola Inc. while earning an MBA at night from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
She had an entrepreneurial streak and after graduating from Kellogg decided to combine her desire to open a business with her interest in fashion—despite retail's reputation as a killing field for startups.
“My mom called my husband and said, ‘What's she doing? She's got an MBA and she's opening a retail store? Stop her!' “ Ms. Golden recalls.
But her husband, @properties co-founder Michael Golden, understood the entrepreneurial bug: He was in the process of growing his River North real estate firm from a four-person team into a 700-person company. Two years ago, the couple moved from the city to a house five blocks from the store.
She chose Winnetka for her shop because the North Shore lacked a high-end boutique despite its wealth. Using personal savings augmented by a line of credit, she opened in a 1,400-square-foot space at 715 Elm St.
“We started small, and we started at lower price points,” Ms. Golden says. “I don't think you can just start offering $5,000 dresses without building your brand.”
North Shore residents immediately took note.
“When I found out about Neapolitan, I was paying at the pharmacy across the street, and the woman told me this shop had just opened. I remember saying, ‘I think heaven just dropped into my backyard,' “ recalls Cindy Galvin, 54, wife of former Motorola CEO Chris Galvin. Ms. Galvin, who owns Maze House, an interior design store down the street from Neapolitan, has largely curtailed her downtown shopping trips.
“I'll still drop down there on occasion, but I have this wonderful high-end place right here,” she says. Ms. Galvin says Ms. Golden lent her a silver purse to complement a Carolina Herrera gown she wore to a Millennium Park gala years ago.
Designers also started paying attention. “I remember seeing her adorable and chic business card and had a feeling she was going to have a very successful store,” says Ms. Rose, the fashion designer. Today, Neapolitan is the only Chicago-area boutique to carry Lela Rose, and the designer's dresses have become the favored attire of the younger North Shore set.
In 2006, Neapolitan doubled its size to make room for more accessories, handbags and shoes; in 2009, it added a men's store. Ms. Golden won't disclose sales figures but says revenue is up 400% since 2003 and that 2011 is on track to be the store's best year.
She reciprocates her customers' loyalty, even when it comes at the expense of a label. She stopped carrying Oscar de la Renta fashions after the designer refused to take back a skirt from a Neapolitan customer who had spent “tens of thousands” of dollars at a de la Renta trunk show Ms. Golden organized, according to Ms. Dowdle.
Ms. Golden shops with specific customers in mind when she's at runway shows and designer showrooms in Paris, Milan and New York. She puts photos of fashion pieces in electronic “lookbooks” for customers, so they can pre- select items before Ms. Golden buys them from designers.
That control of inventory helped Ms. Golden scale back fast when markets collapsed in September 2008. She immediately cut her inventory by 25% but says her 2009 sales dipped only 10%, while 2010 rebounded by 20%.
Ms. Golden travels to New York and Europe up to 20 times a year but also brings international designers to the North Shore for regular trunk shows and dinners at clients' homes. The gatherings allow designers to get to know the North Shore shopping contingent, which increasingly is recognized as a national force.
In November, Ms. Golden brought Paris-based designer Andrew Gn to the Midwest for the first time. Mr. Gn visited the city but did all his business in Winnetka. In April, Ms. Golden will host a similar event for designer Derek Lam.
“People see fashion as a frivolous thing, but it can be a powerful tool,” Ms. Golden says. “And it's a business first.”
© 2011 by Crain Communications Inc.