The Era of Sweatpants Has Come to An End

We hope. For the past few years, local designers, style-setters and civic power players have been giving Philly a long-overdue makeover. But does this city have what it takes to make it work as a fashion power?

Okay, back up—fashion? Philly? Yes, we know, and everyone else rubbed our noses in that sad oxymoron in September, when marketing company Experian published its report that Philadelphia—for the second year in a row—ranked as “the nation’s top per capita consumer of sweats.” Not surprisingly, national news media ranging from Time to NPR milked the headline for all its pathetic worth, some summoning up the old Seinfeld sweatpants episode. Why not? Jerry’s take crystallized the whole sweats gestalt: “You know the message you’re sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You’re telling the world, ‘I give up. I can’t compete in normal society. I’m miserable. So, I might as well be comfortable.’”

Thanks for that, Experian, NPR and Time—we needed that like another tired Rocky reference. But underneath the knee-jerk Philly-as-underdog joke, do they maybe have a point? Is fashion too unlikely, too frivolous—too fabulous—for us? Maybe. Maybe not.

“It took us about a decade to arrive as a real foodie city, thanks to Stephen Starr and a lot of other dedicated restaurateurs,” says Sarah Van Aken, creative director of the three-and-a-half-year-old SA VA clothing label and CEO of S.V.A Holdings Corp., who designs and manufactures all her clothing in Philly. “We may be only a couple of years into Philadelphia becoming a real fashion city, but it’s happening. And it’s happening quickly.”

At least one point is dead-on. Fifteen years ago, if you had told most Philadelphians that ours was going to be an internationally known food town, we’d have laughed in your face. And yet, voilà: Today our chefs and restaurants make national press, on the regular. People from New York pack up and move here to open restaurants. We’re a big red push-pin on the foodie-town map. Should it be so hard to believe that with the same sort of momentum and pockets of talent, we could be a fashion town, too?

After all, it wasn’t that long ago that when New Yorkers thought of Brooklyn, they envisioned guys with open shirts and gold neck chains, and young women wearing size-two miniskirts no matter what size their bodies actually were. Today, a Brooklyn Industries tee is the totem in urban hip. The borough may not be fashion-capitol material, like Manhattan or Milan or Paris—but it doesn’t need to be. Nor does Philadelphia. What Philly could be is a place where designers like Kietponglert can make their dreams a reality, can launch brands that are worn everywhere, can make it big. And right now, there’s a lot at stake for a young designer in this city—a lot at stake for the whole city, really. Because even if you don’t give a fig about fashion, it’s hard to ignore what real fashion cred would do for this town—boost our economy, give us a cooler, edgier rep nationally, and draw a greater density of creative people here.

Over the past several years, the city has aggregated a critical mass of independent, gifted designers, whether self-taught or graduates of Drexel, Moore or Philadelphia University. They aren’t just cr­eating clothing that can’t be found anywhere else; they also want to stay on Philly turf to make it. Mariel Rojo, who won last year’s RAW Fashion Designer of the Year award (one of her dresses showed up at the Golden Globes in 2012), echoes Van Aken in no­ting the fashion momentum that’s building in Philadelphia: “I love that I’m in the middle of it, one of its pioneers.” Kietponglert sees no reason to leave, if only for practical concerns. “I’ve lived in Philly for more than a decade now. I like it here—it’s cheap, and I can market my clothes online or get on a plane and sell wholesale anywhere,” she says.

Indeed, it seems like a promising setup for a designer—we have the talent, the good geography, the design schools, the retail space—but the question is what comes next. Will promising up-and-comers be able to stay and thrive as their promise unfolds into success? And on a bigger scale: Can Philly make the shift from a city that makes, well, nothing to a city that makes clothes? From the city that wears sweats to a city that sells actual fashion?

Well, something fashion-y sure as hell is happening here.

Inside the Macy’s Fashion Incubator—a tiny and cluttered space, like a plastic-laminate gift-
wr­apping room placed deep inside C­enter City’s behemoth Macy’s department store—Kietponglert and her three fellow designers-in-residence often brainstorm together around the office conference table, or huddle over sewing machines, working. Sometimes they meet with key wholesale fashion buyers in the city and beyond, or take detailed notes on custom fashion brand analysis produced by a crackerjack team of MBA candidates at Wharton’s Baker Retailing Center. Sometimes they host exclusive trunk shows of their creations.

Outside the Macy’s scene, too, there are flurries of activity that get the fashio­n types all hepped up with increasing regularity. Pop-up fashion shops featuring Philly indie habiliment and accessories are springing up everywhere from Chestnut Hill to NoLibs to Old City. And there’s always North 3rd Street, which has, over the past decade or so, become the city’s hotbed for indie jewelry, perfume, clothing, even snooty moonshine with the crucial “authentic” appeal. Van Aken’s petite boutique at 17th and Sansom has a loyal clientele. And what about 13th Street? Have you checked out the fashion showroom at Skai Blue Media lately? Go. Run.

While all of this may seem to have materialized almost miraculously from thin air, the business of fashion has deep roots here. “Philadelphia always had a rich textile manufacturing business, throughout the 1800s and well into the 20th century,” says Melanie Johnson, City Director of Research and Big Events. “It wasn’t until the 1970s that those factories closed.” Consumer demand shifted from silks and cotton to synthetic fabrics, and Philly’s manufacturing plants weren’t built for those changes. Work left, landing largely overseas.

Still, even a city with a time-honored textile industry isn’t the same as a city that loves fashion. And traditionally, we haven’t. Could it have something to do with our Quaker roots—a distaste for immodesty or conspicuous consumption? Philadelphia’s affluent classes have long preferred the timeless attire of the area’s cricket clubs. Think of all those Biddles and Graces in their Fair Isle sweaters and Harris tweeds.

But saving the city from the fate of a fashion ghost town was a handful of retail pioneers. From the 1930s through the 1980s, elegant Nan Duskin was bringing couture to Philly at her eponymous shop, paving the way for fashionistas to come. Joan Shepp opened her first boutique in the Philly outskirts in 1971 before moving to Walnut Street in 1999­—from the start, she has championed edgy, haute designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Dries Van Noten and Rick Owens. Equally important to whetting Philly’s appetite for beautiful clothes was Ann Gitter, founder of Knit Wit. Since 1967, she has consistently brought to Philly retail the most coveted designers of every era; today, Knit Wit carries labels such as Alexander Wang, Helmut Lang and 3.1 Phillip Lim.

Of course, a few chic boutiques do not a fashion city make. And the King of Prussia mall doesn’t count.

But something interesting happened during the first decade of the 21st century, not just in Philly, but … everywhere: People started learning about labels, learning to think about design. Fashion enjoyed a cultural comeback. Celebrities were being “styled” by stylists who became almost as famous as the stars themselves. Cable TV influencers like Project Runway and What Not to Wear meant that suddenly, no woman could get dressed in the morning without hearing Tim Gunn tsk-tsking her A-line skirt. High-end online boutiques such as Net-a-Porter and discount high-fashion warehouses like the Outnet became household names. In 2010, the perennially cutting-edge New York designer Norma Kamali launched a cheapo line at Walmart; the following year, one of Italy’s most elite
fashion houses, Missoni, tossed Target low-cost versions of its famous knits, which sold out almost immediately. Fashion wasn’t just for industry insiders and the very, very rich anymore: It was, suddenly, for everyone.

These cultural-commercial changes weren’t lost on Philly’s civic, business and City Hall power crowd. In fall 2009, Michelle Shannon, the Center City District’s vice president of marketing and communications, joined with other bigwigs to form the Philadelphia Retail Marketing Alliance, to bring more and better retail to Philly. Not that Philly’s retail scene was suffering, really—in addition to Shepp and Gitter, the city had also gained Nicole Miller’s Philly powerhouse, Mary Dougherty, as well as the über-brand power of Richard Hayne, CEO of Philly’s Urban Outfitters retail dynasty. Rittenhouse shopping had grown to include such names as Barneys Co-op, Burberry and Coach—
basically, the same chichi storefronts that line the streets of just about any upscale shopping district in the U.S. Even Kansas City’s.

It all made for fancy enough shopping, but the fashion world’s response was still “Meh.” The retail alliance saw that real change would probably need to come outside of retail efforts: Becoming an appealing shopping destination didn’t hurt, but Philadelphia had hardly been propelled into fashion-town territory. (See: Kansas City.)

One thing that actually did seem to start helping the local fashion cause was the growth of a certain breed of customer. The famously grungy Generation X is, today, not only old enough now to afford fashion; its style-lovers came of age when DIY was the only legitimately fashionable way of dress, style and music—long before some marketing firm came up with that acronym. If you’re old enough to have known South Street when it was punk, you know what we mean: piercing your nose in the bathroom of the Khyber; Xeroxing album covers and wheat-pasting show posters for your friends in the Dead Milkmen and Electric Love Muffin, the Uptown Bones and Sink Manhattan; ripping your t-shirts and hinging them together with rows of safety pins. This is to say that Gen-Xers like handmade stuff. They’re the first ones who were ready to appreciate the local cheeses, the grass-fed beef, the homemade moonshine. To them, handmade is the new luxe.

And with their help—and maybe some from intrepid Gen Yers, who’ve been exposed to the idea of “fashion” now for much of their adult lives—an appreciation for Philly-made fashion has slowly been emerging. These Philadelphians shop, for example, at US*U.S. on Arch Street in Old City, Philadelphia’s first and only indie-designer-owned co-op boutique. All seven designers take turns each day at the shop, selling each other’s collections in the showroom while the rest work in sweatshop-like conditions to design and sew in the basement. Member-owners include Lele Tran, a technical-design instructor at Moore and mentor to the boutique’s young designers, known for her custom-made gowns that mesh an artful billow with form-fitting designs. And Mariel Rojo, 2011’s RAW award winner, is here, too, showing both chromatic day dresses and couture gowns.

But there are as many indie designers in Philly as there are notches on the style gradient scale—and they’re not all kids or avant-garde doyennes. Head out to the Main Line, for example, and step into Cabe Studio, the light-filled domain of Bryn Mawr-based designer Kathy Rego. A 50-ish, g­orgeous, “You kids keep me young” type of mom, Rego is in fact a dead-serious veteran te­chnical designer who presided over all the Urban Outfitters brands for 10 years before launching her own line, Cabe, last year. Philly through and through, Rego grew up learning how to sew alongside her seamstress grandmother McCabe, for whom the label is named.

Rego’s flawlessly fitted suits, skirts and dresses, which fuse the elegance of Elie Tahari and the sexy suggestion of Dolce & Gabbana, are designed for working women who want clothes that transition from office to evening. It takes subtle talent and a big brain to tailor clothing like that.

“I’ve spent my whole career getting to know women’s bodies and how to fit them in the most precise and flattering ways,” says Rego, pins in mouth, as she takes barely perceptible tucks in the seat of a pair of pants, to ensure there’s no bagging.

Make no mistake, though: It hasn’t been easy—nor is it much easier yet—for Philly’s talented designers to scrape by financially. Many can’t afford to rent shops or mount mar­keting-advertising campaigns. How could shoppers find them? How could designers even get their work seen?

Take Bela Shehu, whose gorgeous, wearable clothing line, NINOBrand, bears whiffs of Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester. For years, Shehu says, she literally had to send taxis to Rittenhouse Square to pick up her small but loyal clientele and deliver them to her apartment in South Philly. (In November, Shehu moved into a Rittenhouse gallery space.) “The locavore movement caught on in Philadelphia just as it did in New York. But unlike in New York, fashion hasn’t quite taken off in Philadelphia,” continues Shehu. “It takes a lot of education to convince Philadelphia customers that there is value in locally made and designed clothing.”

Designers are lucky if they get a nice handful of devoted Gen X “collectors,” as Shehu calls them. But to become successful in this or any city, never mind nationally, it’s essential to do a volume business—and for that, Philadelphia needed a civic-business infrastructure that understood the value of keeping those visionary, and potentially nationally successful, designers here.

And that lightning has just begun to strike.