THE NEW PHILADELPHIA
DIFFERENT AREAS OF THE CITY ARE EMERGING AS HOT SPOTS FOR TRENDY RETAILERS.
Byline: Kathleen Nicholson Webber
PHILADELPHIA — This most historic of American cities has been best known over the years for its cheese steaks, Ben Franklin sightings and feminine dress shops catering to the financially endowed. Then came the mammoth malls in the suburbs that served the masses.
But in the mid-Nineties, when a younger crowd started moving into town, retailers began to take notice of the home of the Liberty Bell as a hip shopping mecca.
Banana Republic snatched up Center City real estate, followed by Bebe and Arden B., a division of Wet Seal. Kenneth Cole opened a huge emporium on Walnut Street to house both his accessories and clothes, as did Lucky Brand Dungarees, who yearned to tap into the youth market with its trendy jeans.
“Walnut Street in Philadelphia is a cornerstone of the Philadelphia market and we were attracted to its eclectic retail mix,” said Greg Scott president of the 85-store Arden B. chain, which has three stores in the Philadelphia area, including Walnut Street, King of Prussia and Willow Grove.
But what has also emerged amid the chains are boutiques with trendy brands that are not as available to the masses.
Here’s a look at three shopping areas — Manayunk, Olde City and Sansom Commons at the University of Pennsylvania — that show that there is life outside the mall for the teen and 20-something set.
Just a few minutes drive from Center City lies Manayunk, a former mill town that’s now home to about 65 boutiques and 30 restaurants. This artsy town draws crowds from Philadelphia as well as the suburbs, upstate, Delaware and even New York. One notable retailer is Public Image, which spent eight years in Lafayette Hill, another Philly suburb, before it opened its doors seven years ago here, prior to when the town starting drawing crowds.
Owned by the mother and daughter team of Claire Fuhrman and Laura McCann, the boutique caters to the same.
“We have high school students and their mothers who shop here,” said McCann, who has stuck with most of the same lines since the beginning, including labels such as Anna Sui, Catherine Malandrino, Vivienne Tam, Chaiken, Spooner, Custo Barcelona, Nanette Lepore and Katayone Adeli. Other collections have been added with their two expansions, including a separate shop for accessories.
“We got a whole new customer with the accessories store. People tend to be more adventurous with accessories,” explained McCann, who has carried Kate Spade from the beginning of the designer’s career, and also stocks Herve Chapelier nylon totes, Stella Pace bags and jewelry, belts from Tracey Watts, bags and shoes from Petro Zillia, and bags from Amy Chan, Rafe and Frou.
For spring, the duo said there will be plenty of color, dresses, denim, T-shirts and knits. Colored or trimmed T’s come from Juicy Couture, Michael Stars and Petit Bateau, novelty denim from Trina Turk, Daryl K, William B. and Rebecca Taylor, and knits from Acrobat, Cashmere Studio, Margaret O’Leary and Icon.
Just down the street is Smith Bros., which had been heavily into denim before the category became hot recently. Owner Wayne Shulick started the five-store chain in the area 10 years ago and opened this unit in 1997. While Shulick said he carries 200 vendors, the bulk of the store is in the category du jour: denim.
“There are a few stores in the country that specialize in denim and we are one of them,” he said.
His arsenal includes Miss Sixty, Mavi, Diesel, Earl, Pay Per Jeans and Frankie B., as well as the requisite T’s from Three Dots, Michael Stars and Juicy. There are chunky knits from 525 Made In America, slinky striped knits and matching melon capris from Susanna Monaco, along with layered mesh tops to go with low-slung pants from Poleci.
Shulick said the activewear category is strong now in the store, especially sweatpants. He stocks them from Hard Tail, Puma and Blue Marlin, who specializes in the vintage athletic look.
For spring, hot items are expected to be short denim shorts, stretch denim and colored vintage cords from Mavi.
One of the Manayunk’s other mainstay’s is Ma Jolie. Owned by sisters Nickie, Mariann and Desie Boston, Ma Jolie opened a second location in August 1999 at Sansom Commons at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The vice president of the university called us in 1998 to tell us about this idea,” said Mariann. “We went to the press conference where he spoke about the Sundance Theater coming there.”
Even though the theater was put on hold because of the bankruptcy of proposed operator General Cinema, the Bostons went ahead with plans to move into the Commons, near the already existing Urban Outfitters, Steve Madden and Barnes & Noble-run campus bookstore.
“We thought the area had great cultural potential,” said Mariann, referring to the university-run development. “In addition to the student population, the 180-room Inn at Penn is there with lots of transient consumers.”
Restaurateur Steven Starr has just added more foot traffic to the area with his futuristic sushi bar called Pod located right behind Ma Jolie.
While the Bostons tried to put the same product in the new store as in the old, they found the price point had to be altered to fit this younger customer. Price points range from $20 to $600.
“We’re selling more volume in younger lines,” said Nickie. “Accessories are blowing out. The girls do a lot of impulse buying for a weekend party or a school event.”
The three sisters brought in young buyer Robin Yanase to help navigate the murky water of this more trend-driven market. Labels they carry include Kenar, Devan from Los Angeles, For Joseph, Indigo Hands and Lucky.
“Our customers like denim, but it has to be very fashiony,” said Robin and Mariann in unison.
Yanase also found a contemporary line of sportswear called CHR from eastern Russia they’ll launch for spring. While the Charlie’s Angles look — shiny pants, neck-tie blouses or dresses, prints and hoop earrings has been selling well to date, the romantic Forties will be the news for spring. Also new will be a section of the shop they will dedicate to young designer talent they hope to find in the area through an open call.
“It’s more competitive now to do business in Philadelphia,” said Nickie. “We wanted to do something that would generate excitement. This will cater to the people who don’t want to be wearing what the masses are wearing. We want people to come in to always see what we are doing next. We will try to nurture these designers.”
The sisters will initially dedicate 15 percent of the store to their work.
Urban Outfitters has been in existence for 30 years, with Philadelphia as its company base, and the chain opened a store in Sansom Commons in August 1999. Walnut Street is the company’s second location in town.
While the college student has always been the core of the Urban Outfitters business, this customer likes to be ahead of the curve when it comes to trends, the company said.
“It is important for them to be first and to be cool,” said Jennifer Pritchard, general merchandise manager for Urban Outfitters’ 41 U.S. stores. “If it becomes mainstream, than it becomes less appealing to them.”
In addition to the chain’s proprietary brands — Free People, Co-op and Bulldog — the store carries Mavi, Deisel and Red Tab Levi’s Jeans and T-shirts are seen throughout the store: Ankle-length, trumpet-hem denim skirts by Mavi are paired with a silkscreen print T-shirt of the Empire State building by Itsus; there are sneaker mules from Diesel, metallic coated T-shirts from Charlotte and Seventies’ optic print T’s sprinkled with sparkles from Lux.
While prices for most items generally don’t go over $60, Pritchard said price is often no object. This fall, the store sold scooters for $600 and leather jackets for $569. Long the purveyor of the hippie look, Pritchard said the customer has moved on.
“Now it could be Zen or Bombay,” she noted.
Next to the clothes are kitschy, life-size ducks that illuminate, butterfly chairs with zebra covers and a table filled with books like “Valley of the Dolls.”
“It’s important for our customer to be an environment that is unique, that encourages guys and girls,” Pritchard said.
Following the success of the initial stores in this area, the university continues to search for shops that fill a need for students and parents, said Daria Fink, director of marketing for business development at Sansom Commons.
“When developing the Commons, the university looked to the community to bring something unique here,” she said.
The eclectic mix of stores includes European cosmetics shop Douglas Cosmetics, Eastern Mountain Sports and an upscale jeweler and optometrist. More developing is being done, including a hip diner going in just up the street by real estate developer Tony Goldman, who transformed South Beach and will soon conquer Philadelphia.
Say Olde City and some may think historic sites synonymous with Philadelphia, but the area also also has industrial connotations.
“Years ago, the neighborhood was filled with ironworks shops and machinery companies,” said Rescue 138 store owner Brigette Valenzano. “In the Sixties, the first gallery owner moved in and they have been coming ever since.”
Naturally, the art galleries, artists and mod furniture shops were then followed by restaurants hoping to capitalize on the hip factor. In 1995, restaurateur Steven Starr opened up The Continental martini lounge and restaurant nearby, and the crowds began to come to this sleepy area.
Shortly after began First Friday, a night when local galleries and shops kept their doors open late to showcase their wares. Held on the first Friday of each month, it drew throngs of artsy types from the city and the suburbs and the word was out about Olde City.
“This area is still catching on,” said Valenzano, who credits Starr’s two other hit eateries — Buddakhan and Tangerine — for bringing in more potential shoppers to the area.
Valenzano, a shoe design major at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, worked for the edgy Foley and Corrina on New York’s Lower East Side for years, and was always scouting potential store locations in Philadelphia on her trips home. Finally, she found the right spot and the right timing and opened Rescue 138 this past fall on North 3rd Street.
“I am getting just the kind of customer I had hoped for in this neighborhood. The hip 18- to 30-something girl,” she said.
Valenzano noted that nearby shops like Charles Porter, which sell lines such as BCBG, Daryl K and Laundry, help to bring shoppers into the area.
Valenzano, who sports low-slung hipster pants with an attached asymmetric belt, likes to find local talent or former Philadelphians from her days at Philadelphia College of Textile and Design.
Among her offerings are dark denim totes by Angie, which retail for less than $40, braille T-shirts for $38 from Dee Dee and Eighties’ style skirts and tops from Maitatoo. She also carries brands like Earl Jeans, bdg, Lucky Girl accessories and Holly Would shoes. Her former boss, Dana Foley also wholesales a small signature collection that Valenzano said she can’t seem to keep in stock.
While the store had carried vintage to mix with the new, Valenzano will switch her mix to all new next season, and is banking on funky, casual and hip offerings.
Vagabond, which is also located on North 3rd, is new to the area. Owners Mary Clark and Megan Murphy got their feet wet with their alternative surf shop in resort town Cape May, N.J., back in 1997, before opening the store four months ago.
The new Vagabond draws everyone from the local high school and art students to the 20-something working girl.
“We wanted to carry things here you can’t get in the mall,” said Murphy.
While the racks and armoires are filled with looks that range from colored cords from Bella Dahl to pearlized leather skirts from New Frontier, the duo said they sell lots of dresses.
“We’re actually like an old-school dress shop in a way,” said Murphy, standing next to a vintage lamp from the Sixties near an exposed brick wall as a backdrop.
The wrap lives here from Diane Von Furstenberg in jersey print, in wool jersey from San Diego designer Veronica M., in crisp cotton poplin from New York designer Miki P. and in a kimono style from Los Angeles designer Miah Y.
Denim and Ts are hot here, too. There’s William B from New York, Hollywood jeans from Canada and Motor Montenegro low-slung dark or colored denim pants and matching jackets made locally, along with quirky western-themed Ts from Fly By. Knits are either basic like the Joseph A. silk turtlenecks or novelty like the fun Hi-Time color-blocked sweatsuits.
For spring, there will be Eighties-inspired wares from New York’s Plum, classic shirtdresses and feminine floral ruffled-neck wrap blouses from Motor.
They also carry Twelve Pounds, Blue Plate, Sugar and Red Tread sneakers. Local underwear company Frisk Me, rumored to be a favorite with Madonna and Christina Aguillera, fills an armoire, while Kinu bags and scarves by local designer Leslie Fraley fill another.
Oversized wool totes from Inge Sport were a hot seller this season and next the duo plans on carrying vintage inspired Lulu M bags, as well as Cynthia Rowley.