Let’s return to that moment in 2011 when the Philadelphia Retail Marketing Alliance realized it had failed to convince anyone that Philly was a fashion town with just a roster of big-name stores. Members were sitting down for a postmortem meeting when it suddenly dawned on them that the future of fashion retail in Philly—a business that could really have sharp capitalistic, cultural and creative teeth—was right under their collective nose. The city was already graduating ferociously talented designers. Why not work together with Drexel, Moore and Philly U., as well as select investors, to train these designers to become savvy, informed careerists and to grow their businesses here? The effort could ultimately boost the Chestnut East section of Center City, bringing much-needed creative-economy jobs and new life to the area—something the Mayor’s Office and the CCD saw as a great boon of the Fashion Incubator.
Edward Jay Goldberg, vice president of government and consumer affairs for Macy’s, began having serious talks with City Research and Big Events director Johnson and the CCD’s Shannon about launching a fashion-design program in Philly like the one Macy’s already had in Chicago. What would make Philly’s different was that its director and board would work with the city’s schools to draw in talented designers, advisers and teachers to help locals strengthen their brands, business-wise.
New York designer Elissa Bloom was hired to head up Philly’s Fashion Incubator, which would select four designers with several years of experience in selling their lines but little business sense or background. These would be the designers-in-residence. Bloom, Goldberg, the advisory board, and civic and city reps launched the whole program in March of 2012.
By the program’s end in December, the DIRs had gotten an expert course in business management and strategy, plus exposure they might never have had otherwise. Kietponglert, for one, ended up winning the 2012 National RAW award for fashion in L.A. in January; last time I spoke with her, she was lining up meetings with major L.A. retailers. DIR sisters Latifat Obajinmi and Moriamo Johnson have not only taken in orders for their spring line, but are also working on developing a children’s clothing line with Rachael Williams, owner of the Little Treehouse, Chestnut Hill’s popular children’s indoor play-space.
But perhaps the greatest single payoff from the Incubator’s maiden year is that Philly has now officially targeted fashion as a growth industry to push, and hopes to revive itself as a leading textile and clothing manufacturing center. Various non-government arm-twisters are even rumored to be putting the heat on hometown Philly fashion legacies such as Tory Burch to invest in Philly’s independent designers’ businesses.
The fashion bug has infiltrated the zeitgeist, too, inspiring an awareness and excitement for locavore Philly-made clothing. The ultra-luxe Rittenhouse boutique Adresse just ordered Rego’s spring line (plus, Rego says, “They love us in Texas!”). And Joan Shepp, who loves local Philly designers, will be carrying Kietponglert’s zipperwear in her store.
The energy in the city last fall was tangible, as gaggles of stilettoed glamazons came out to strut under glowing street lamps, hitting one store after another as part of Vogue’s “Fashion’s Night Out” celebration. It was a major coup that so many of the city’s powerful retailers insisted that the nationally known event be held here, outweighing officials who worried that Anna Wintour’s dazzle would outshine the similar, homegrown Philadelphia Collection event. Typical Philly, shrugs Ellen Shepp.
“Philadelphia has always had a problem with self-promotion and grandstanding, maybe because we’re a more friendly, laid-back city than power cities like New York or L.A.,” she says. Meaning, if you want to be on the fashion map, you have to market the hell out of yourself—outside the city.
That’s where Rakia Reynolds, owner of Skai Blue Media and Philly 360’s official Fashion Ambassador, comes in. In October 2012, Reynolds pulled off a genius move by luring two of the most powerful viral fashion leaders down from their high clotheshorses to Philly, to see us for themselves.
One was fashion photographer and author Scott Schuman (quickie CV: GQ, Vogue Italia, Vogue Paris, Interview), creator of one of the most widely regarded and well-read fashion blogs, The Sartorialist, which features shots of fashion-y people he spots on the street via his discerning (read: snooty) lens. The other was Schuman’s girlfriend, Garance Doré, a fashion-editorial staple at Paris Vogue, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and more, and the author of her own eponymous fashion blog. Put it this way: You and your city make The Sartorialist and Doré’s blog, and the fashion world starts whispering. At a party hosted at the new Barnes in honor of Schuman’s recent book, The Sartorialist: Closer, Schuman and Doré were duly impressed and snapped stylish Philadelphians in their e-pages. On Instagram, Schuman quipped: “I take back anything bad I ever said about Philly!”
But to make damn sure that Schuman and his ilk continue to eat their bad words, Philly will have to push fashion as hard as it did restaurants—maybe even harder. The Retail Alliance, the fashion PR machine, retail landlords, colleges, the Mayor’s Office, investors—all will have to help someone like Kietponglert make it so big that she lands wholesale orders from New York to L.A.—and then a flagship showroom in the new-and-improved Chestnut East. Or see to it that Kathy Rego’s Cabe line is snapped on Jessica Alba, Michelle Obama or Jennifer Garner—and that they love her in more states than Texas.
But we’re only into year two. That leaves the Philly fashion scene another, say, seven or eight to go until the pin gets stuck into the map. In the meantime, lay off the damn sweats, Philly—at least, outside of Eagles games. As the White Stripes song says, “Honey, We Can’t Afford to Look This Cheap.” For real: We need the business.