Elyse Koren-Camarra walked into My Sister’s Circus, a women’s clothing shop on the fourth floor of 900 N. Michigan. She was looking for …. something.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Whatever jumps out at me.”
In this case, a vest by Alembika.
“A snuggle kind of vest,” she said. “It’s warm, lined with that little fur stuff.”
Victoria Fuchs, the store manager, walked over.
“I’ve been waiting on her for 25 years,” she said. “I was born the year the store opened.”
That would be 1968; Dec. 1, 1968, to be exact, when Sue Gantz and her older sister Janis Siegel opened a boutique within a larger store on Walton.
“My sister and I had been on vacation and we saw these bikinis at a store,” Gantz explained.
Not just bikinis — but ensembles, with matching hats, shoes, purses and cover-ups.
“A very unusual thing at the time,” said Siegel, who now lives in Florida. “They were darling, really, really cute.”
“We came home, borrowed some money from a friend, went to Hialeah, Florida where the company was,” recalled Gantz. “We filled a suitcase with stuff and came home. Made a deal with our friend who owned The Wig Warehouse on Walton.” He gave them a counter in the corner and “said you can do what you want as long as you also sell wigs.”
They were on their way. My Sister’s Circus — named in honor of Circus Circus, the Las Vegas casino — next year moved to Oak Street, with a window featuring palm trees and the store’s live monkey. It was the end of the 1960s. Clerks wore the bikinis they were selling.
“It was a very big deal that we sold tops and bottoms in different sizes, which is really how women are built,” said Gantz. “The department stores didn’t have swimwear departments. They just didn’t have them. It was very hard to find a bathing suit when you were going away on a trip.”
They put a display case in the lobby of the Drake and guests would see items they liked, including Elton John, Cher, and Aretha Franklin.
“We did a lot of business that way from out-of-town people and celebrity people,” said Siegel.
I don’t cover the women’s store beat. But today’s topic seemed apt for the Black Friday secular shopping holiday. I browsed with Koren-Camarra, who’s on the art department faculty at Roosevelt University.
“Comfy is a brand I like,” she said. “‘Comfy’ because it’s comfy. Planet is a brand I like. I just bought another one. See how nice it is?”
She pointed out “a mink vegan leather outfit.”
“Mink” is a color. And “vegan leather?”
“It’s actually fabric, not animal” said Fuchs. “It’s a man-made fiber. It’s chemical.”
What I used to call ‘plastic’?
“Kind of like an ultra-suede,” said Fuchs.
In the store’s first decade, they sold lots of actual suede.
“In the 1970s, Susie had one of the hottest stores on Oak Street,” said society scribe Candace Jordan, of ‘Candid Candace’ fame. “Her things were fun, colorful, chic, unique. It was a great place to hang out. You’d go, hang out with your girlfriends. She was not only a great salesperson, but a great therapist. I’d spend hours in the store.”
Jordan’s girlfriends were often, like her, Playboy models; the magazine shot part of Jordan’s 1979 centerfold layout at the store, showing her wearing one of the store’s catsuits.
She doesn’t wear catsuits much anymore, but Jordan still shops there, and has found the selection has changed along with herself.
“Still chic, but a little more forgiving, for older figures,” said Jordan. “A little more comfortable. She keeps up with the times.”
The store moved into the upscale mall at 900 N. Michigan Avenue 18 years ago.
Knowing something of sisters in general, I marveled that they worked together for 30 years.
“What can I say? We got along well,” said Gantz.
How does a store stay in business for 50 years?
“We’re total service,” said Gantz. “We deliver packages. We make it easy for them to shop. We started relationships.”
“So many women shopped there in the ’70s and still do,” said Jordan.
Such as Koren-Camarra, in both senses of the terms: since the ’70s, and into her 70s; she’s 71. She tried on a Heydari quilted vest — $288 — and a rubber Anna Mieke bib interwoven with pearls from Amsterdam.
“Elyse, I love the vest on you,” said Gantz.
“I know, it’s so cute,” Koren-Camarra said. “I’m buying it.”