Fashion, Consistency and the Embrace of a Community: The Lake Forest Shop Turns 100

There are landmarks in our communities that have withstood the passage of time and the steady alteration of society, and their legacies persist thanks to the dedication of those who helm them.

The same must be said of Ellen Stirling, third-generation owner of The Lake Forest Shop — which this September celebrates its 100th anniversary. A century’s worth of clothing, customers, fashion trends and community support have gone in and out of the shop’s doors since they opened in 1922.

The Lake Forest Shop, Ellen
Ellen Stirling, third-generation owner of The Lake Forest Shop | Courtesy of The Lake Forest Shop

The shop’s humble beginnings were a solution to a familial problem. The founders of the store were Stirling’s paternal grandparents and Lake Forest residents, socialite Margaret Baxter Foster and her husband Volney Foster, who upon returning from a visit to Paris — after a chance run-in with Coco Chanel herself — decided they needed a solution to the overflow of clothing and fashion accoutrements collected through their travels.

Thus, The Lake Forest Shop was born, though that name didn’t come along until the 1980s. It first opened as The Lake Forest Sports Shop “because it was a new kind of dressing, in the sense of presenting more casual looks and separates [such as] a blouse, a skirt, a cardigan — it was a new and different way for women to get dressed,” Stirling said of her grandmother’s original concept for the shop.

The Lake Forest shop exterior
Modern exterior of The Lake Forest Shop | Courtesy of The Lake Forest Shop

As time marched on so did etymology, and the term “sport” was becoming more literal. What finally pushed Stirling “over the edge” in regards to her business’ oft-mistaken identity was an anecdote she shared from a “very cold” Christmas Eve many years ago.

“I was in the shop and it was early afternoon, and this man came in all in black and he was carrying a bowling bag. … And he turned to me and he said, ‘Do you carry bowling balls?’ And then he started to look around. And so I said, “No, we really don’t.” And he turned around and walked out. And that was when I said, ‘Okay, yeah, it’s out.’ So the timing was perfect, as of January 1st, [the original name] was gone.”

Interior of The Lake Forest Sport Shop, 1957 | Courtesy of The Lake Forest Shop
Interior of The Lake Forest Sport Shop, 1957 | Courtesy of The Lake Forest Shop

This was, of course, only after Stirling had taken over control of The Shop from her parents — Volney and Adair Foster. Her father, at the end of a long career, was looking to loosen his grip on the store and was considering packing it all in. Then, one day, “out of the blue, I don’t know what I was thinking, I said to him, ‘You know, would you like me to try?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Are you sure?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not sure, but I’m willing to give it a go.’”

And that she did, and has been persisting for 30-some years now, alongside a shop full of team members she graciously calls “consummate professionals, wonderful women and people that I admire and respect, each and every one of,” and a community of devoted customers in Lake Forest and beyond.

Ellen Stirling becomes the owner of The Lake Forest Shop, 1986 | Courtesy of The Lake Forest Shop
Ellen Stirling becomes the owner of The Lake Forest Sport Shop, 1986 | Courtesy of The Lake Forest Shop

The shop doesn’t just measure success in sales numbers and sharp outfits — it prioritizes supporting and collaborating with a community that knows how to give as much as it receives.

“I think, especially today, community is vital and community enables people to feel connected. And to feel that they belong to something, and we really believe that. We do something called Shop Your Cause every October. And what it does, really, I hope, is support the community. We work with 10 to 12 local nonprofits and regional nonprofits, and they represent to us the soul of our communities [in the] Lake Forest/Lake Bluff region. … We really want to support those nonprofits that are endeavoring to really make a difference as far as education and public policy go. … We really have to focus on partnering, awareness and funding — each one making a difference.”

The Lake Forest shop interior
Current interior of The Lake Forest Shop | Courtesy of The Lake Forest Shop

Working with nonprofits and their respective boards, getting to know the “amazing” people that are doing the work to make the community better, and being able to support them, as well, is an important bottom line for Stirling. That same community has been keeping the store going all these years, after all. To that end, Stirling spoke of the privilege it is to be an institution for loyal customers and expressed gratitude for their friendships.

“We just love it when they come in the shop; we love working with them and exciting them. And making them feel special and taking care of anything that they feel needs taken care of. One of my favorite things … is experiencing The Lake Forest Shop when it’s full of people. And you hear them in the fitting room or on the selling floor, just happy and excited — it’s just full of good cheer. That is very special to me.”

The Lake Forest Shop, Ellen working
Stirling at work at The Lake Forest Shop | Courtesy of The Lake Forest Shop

At a mere “100 years young” The Shop, aided by Stirling, will look to the future with the mindset “It’s only going to get better, right? Because everything has to get better.” And while she can’t flesh out the future plans to the public just yet, she knows the key to another century of success is the same as it has always been — persistence, patience and community support.

265 E. Market Square, Lake Forest

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Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based writer and editor with a passion for socio-political storytelling about their community. They are a graduate of Columbia College Chicago.

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