Philly’s Boutique Wars

For local independent business owners, the business of making us beautiful can get pretty ugly.

THE LIST OF INDEPENDENT BOUTIQUES that closed their doors in the past year is lengthy—Topstitch­, J. Karma, Grasshopper, Trunk Show, Sailor Jerry, Matthew Izzo, Bambi Gallery, Carmelita Couture, Lodge 215 (which lasted a mere 10 months before announcing its closing on Twitter)—and yet the crowd of hopeful would-be retailers­ vying for rack space seems to be largely undeterred. In fact, after a spate of closings in Chestnut Hill last spring, Doug Reinke, a boyish entrepreneur with wide-ranging­ interests (from rustic garden living to refined modern furniture), had the chutzpah to open not just one but three boutiques on the sometimes-sleepy stretch of Germantown Avenue. “I believe in Chestnut Hill,” Reinke says. “I feel it has huge potential to be a village to rival almost anything.”

But considering the recent track record of indie boutiques (three on North 3rd Street closed in 2011 alone), is having big vision—and big cojones—enough to stay afloat?

Jennifer Ramsay is a style-maker. A curly-haired scenester who radiates effortless cool, she opened her clothing boutique, Echochic, on South Street in 1995. It was instantly successful, and soon big-name stars like Eve, Pink and Gwen Stefani were stopping in to shop before their sets at the TLA.

“There were really no young women who had boutiques here then,” Ramsay says. “I ordered things that I wanted to bring to Philadelphia—I was the first in Philly to carry Marc by Marc Jacobs and Chloé.” Within a few years, reps from major design labels like Michael Kors and Vivienne Westwood were pursuing Ramsay. (To think, Michael Kors jockeying for space on South Street!) In 2001, she left a dimming South Street for the polished sidewalks of Rittenhouse, settling into a tiny space on Sansom Street. By this time, her boutique had developed a loyal following and racks of serious designer labels. Echochic was branded a success story­—and fellow­ shop owners paid heed.

“And then I started noticing things,” says Ramsay. Things like a trail of Philly boutique owners shadowing her at a trade show: “Other store owners would actually go up to vendors after I talked to them and say, ‘Have you seen her store? It’s so small, only 900 square feet, and mine is 4,000 square feet.’” She stops, still flabbergasted at the thought. “If I found out another Philly boutique was carrying a certain label, the last thing I would do is try to get it,” she says.

Today’s boutique owners echo Ramsay’s complaint: Healthy competition­ keeps you on your toes, they say, which stimulates local retail. But all-out backstabbing? So last season. “There’s only so much out there, so [product overlap] can be a natural occurrence, and sometimes I’m more understanding of it,” Sugarcube’s Buratto says. “And sometimes I’m more like, ‘Can’t you people find your own shit?’”

But Ramsay says that while local competition may have chipped away at Echochic, the death blow came in 2002, in the form of that glowing Swedish beacon of low-priced high-fashion knockoffs: H&M. In 2009, Echochic closed after 14 years.

Yes, lest shop owners forget about bigger threats while they’re focused on the store next door, the customers—those too busy, those too cash-strapped, those who didn’t get the Buy Local memo—will quickly­ remind them. Today, season-oriented,­ trendy mass-produced designs (“fast-fashion,­” in industry-speak) clutter the racks of increasingly chic specialty shops like Zara, Gap and Topshop—places that have actually picked up a thing or two about marketing from boutiques.

“These retailers are learning from the independents the value of the short-term opportunity,” says Joan Doyle, owner of Center City-based retail consulting firm Doyle + Associates. “They’ve learned that people like things that are unique and special, especially Gen Y. Last fall, Target came out with a limited-edition line of Missoni, and it sold out immediately. I was at Target at 9:08 that morning, and there was nothing left. It was brilliant.”

If the Black Friday-esque frenzy surrounding the Missoni launch is any indication,­ as long as big names like Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace and Roberto­ Cavalli keep rolling out bottom-dollar capsule­ collections at H&M, Philly boutiques will be going peep-toe-to-peep-toe with big corporations—and their big ad campaigns, big price-slashes, and credit cards that let customers rack up big reward points.

Even department stores remain part of the “big” problem. While both Doyle and Nixon note that Gen Y—the demographic now driving the retail force—doesn’t love the giant retailers, hordes of Gen X suburbanites do. And these are precisely the people Per Lei co-owner Candice Caprice is trying to lure into her Media boutique.

“Vendors are loyal to the big department stores because they have major buying power,” Caprice explains, a thick fringe of inky black bangs framing her face. “We’re the ones who build the brand and put it in our stores, and then the brand gets up there and the big people buy it, and they forget about the small people.”

But even that, Caprice admits, pales in comparison to the war every boutique owner in the country is fighting. Besides sheer buying power, the big guys have another advantage: “Online shopping,” Katra Michener says tonelessly.

Michener is the willowy owner of Newtown’s Love Illuminati, a five-year-old earthy-urban men’s and women’s boutique that sells her own line, repurposed vintage, and a handful of small-batch brands. She has a wild mane of reddish-blond hair and uses dreamy phrases like “keep true to our vibe” and “evolve naturally.”

“It’s changed the market,” Michener says. “And when you’re running a small boutique and you care about every single detail, there’s not a whole lot of time left to be able to do both that and an online store.” Not that she hasn’t tried: Love Illuminati had an online shop for nearly two years before Michener took it down last winter. She’s considered closing her brick-and-mortar to pour everything into an online boutique, but first, she’s giving her husband a shot at running the store so she can focus on her eponymous line. After five years of eating, sleeping and breathing boutique, she needs a break.