By Wendy Donahue
As a 24-year-old newlywed in 1983, Lori Andre rented a vacant storefront on Armitage Avenue just west of Halsted Street, unsure how she would fill it.
It was an unlikely address for either of her ideas, gourmet takeout or women’s footwear, with its view to a tire shop, on a sketchy stretch that didn’t yet buzz with young professionals and new moms pushing strollers in Lululemon yoga pants.
But Lori’s Discount Designer Shoes grew into a destination for them. Dozens of other boutiques and restaurants followed.
Lori’s has outlasted many, weathering three recessions and the ascent of ultraluxury brands such as Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin. Evolving along the way, Andre and her husband, Brian, dropped “Discount” from the name, opened stores in suburban Northfield and Highland Park and launched online sales at lorisshoes.com.
Fundamentally, though, Lori’s has stuck to the original vision: fashionable, high-quality shoes that you don’t find everywhere, at these prices, with this retail model.
Rather than having sales associates ferry sizes back and forth, Lori’s always has stacked boxes right on the sales floor, for customers to help themselves. The self-service aspect reduced overhead, and no one seemed to mind standing on their own two feet to try on styles.
She honed her eye for aesthetic value in college, studying abroad in Italy while earning an art history degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She returns to Milan twice a year to uphold her store’s subtitle as “The Sole of Chicago.”
After raising their three boys in Northfield, she and her husband recently moved back to Chicago and live in Lakeview. Here, in an edited transcript of our conversation, she walks us through her journey.
Q: How did you decide to start the business?
A: When I graduated college, I was working for a noncommercial print gallery, helping to curate collections for art collectors and doing corporate sales. I loved my job, but I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I wanted to do something on my own. My husband was in law school, and we had just gotten married and were living in the neighborhood, off Armitage and Orchard Street. We saw there was a space for rent.
Initially I wanted to do gourmet takeout. But I was talked out of it by a lot of people who said it’s really a tough business. I thought, I love food, but I also love shoes. I’ll open a shoe store.
The concept was a discount store. At the time, shoes were still being manufactured in the U.S., as well as in Spain and Italy. So I went to St. Louis, where there were a lot of jobbers (who sell overruns and canceled orders at wholesale). I started buying all these job shoes. It started on a shoestring budget. My parents gave me a $20,000 loan.
Q: Now you go to Europe for your shoes. I don’t see a lot of the brands you carry elsewhere. How do you choose?
A: We don’t want to be like everyone else because then I don’t think it’s an added value to shop here. So we select shoes from small factories in Italy. We look for styles that are on the forefront of fashion, but not so aggressive that people can’t understand them. We’re also very conscientious about the price point. It’s just having an eye, homing in on certain items that are new or fresh or that might not be as commercial.
Q: From its boutique height, Armitage has lost a lot of stores. How have you survived?
A: When I first started, we were just coming out of a recession. In ’90-’91 we had the savings and loan crisis, then 9/11 in 2001, then the 2008 recession. We were very resilient because we’ve been in business so very long and we actually have capital in the bank. A loyal customer base and being not just proactive but also reactive, and able to make changes quickly, have also helped us persevere.
Q: What accomplishments make you proud?
A: The first is that I have three amazing kids. The second is that I’ve stayed in business 31 years and still love what I do.
Q: Do you consider having all boys to be?
A: A blessing? Yes, it’s a great thing. They treat me like a queen. My oldest is 28 and just became an M.D. My middle one is 25 and has been working in the business for two years and really loves it. My youngest is 22. He just graduated from the University of Dayton, he played football, and is living in Florence, Italy, working for a shoe manufacturer. He’s living the dream.
Q: What is your greatest attribute?
A: My determination. There are so many challenges every day in business, and if you don’t approach every day in a positive, determined manner, you can’t continue to be successful.
Q: What is your greatest fault?
A: I probably obsess too much about certain things. If we’re out of a $2 hair accessory, that drives me crazy.
Q: What is the best lesson learned from your parents?
A: My dad taught me you have to have just an amazing respect for people, no matter where they came from. From my mom I learned to ask a lot of questions. Information is just so valuable.
Q: They were both entrepreneurs?
A: My dad owned an advertising agency, and mom was a franchisee for The Athlete’s Foot back in the ’70s when the whole running craze was just coming around. She owned a couple of franchises for maybe 10 years and then sold them back to the corporate headquarters.
Q: What’s your rule of thumb?
A: Trust your gut. It’s usually the right way. If you ponder too long or debate it, you’re not trusting it.
Q: What is one piece of advice you’d give a young woman now?
A: Weigh all of your options.
Q: That doesn’t fly in the face of trusting your gut?
A: It’s different when it pertains to long-term ideas, like choosing your career or making a decision about taking a job. That’s when you need to think about what a year from now will look like, so that you can make a good decision and a practical one.
Q: What are your favorite shoes of all time?
A: When I first started in business, I got myself a pair of Perry Ellis robin’s egg blue pumps that laced up. I can’t wear them anymore because they’re too small. But I still have them. I think they were $78. Now couture shoes sell for $1,000 and up. It’s incredible. But the luxury market definitely wants to and is able to set themselves apart from everybody else, and the person who consumes that is thinking the same thing.
Q: Are couture shoes better?
A: The quality? So much of what you pay for is the name. They might be made in some of the same factories that we buy from in Italy. But they have the name. Or they find some fabrication that’s exclusive to them. But I sometimes wonder why they charge what they do and why, and how, people pay what they do.
Q: What’s one of your top-selling brands?
A: Bernie Mev. They’re made in China. We’ve carried them 20 years. This whole trend toward comfort has given them such broad appeal. We also do really well with Jeffrey Campbell, Franco Sarto, Sam Edelman, a lot of contemporary brands.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten?
A: “Ugly sells,” from someone who’s still in the shoe business. It’s true. I always tell that to my staff. They say, “Who’s going to buy that?” I say, “You’d be surprised.”
Q: What is one secret to success?
A: Listening to your customer. I’m on the selling floor three days a week. I love it.
Q: What do you consider your biggest mistake?
A: My mistakes are the little yellow sale tags on shoes.
Q: What do you look for in staff?
A: I ask them what someone would say about them behind their back. It’s a really uncomfortable question. I also look for people who actually know what the definition of hard work is.
Q: Is that harder to find these days?
A: You hear about that with the millennials; I think there’s some validity to that. We have a generation of self-entitlement. They don’t really understand that it’s OK to long for certain things. They want something right away and they don’t want to take all the steps to get there.
Q: How did you keep that from infecting your sons?
A: People learn by example, and they saw how hard we worked and what it took to be successful and how much you can appreciate the success, knowing how much effort you put into it.
Q: What’s a guilty pleasure?
A: Italian cheeses. One called tomino is incredible tasting. And a glass of Italian wine. I like Grifone sangiovese.
Q: What couldn’t you live without in your closet?
A: My bathrobe. I’ve had it since my oldest son was born. It’s cozy, comfy and just reminds me of home.
Q: What’s something essential in your vanity?
A: Profumi di Firenze Terrarossa. My signature.
Q: How do you wake up/revive in the morning?
A: Two shots of espresso with some hot water, half-and-half and Truvia. We make it in a Jura-Capresso machine.
Q: What is one shortcut you take in life?
A: When I cook, I don’t measure. I just taste.
Q: What did you want to be at age 13?
A: What I actually was, an entrepreneur. I was selling beads by the scoop and making necklaces and selling them. I grew up in South Shore.
Q: You work with your spouse. Is that hard?
A: No, it’s the greatest thing ever. We do different things, so that helps. He does all of the merchandising and the inventory control. We’re very fortunate that we can work together.