Philly’s Boutique Wars

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

 

It was, quite literally, a great branding idea.

The simple wooden hangers that lined the racks of the bustling Philly boutique had been nondescript: They did nothing to either detract from or call attention to the quietly stylish clothes that hung from them. In an effort to distinguish the shop from the sea of others in the area, the boutique’s owner decided to burn the name of the store into each hanger. The branding—old-time hot-iron-style—looked perfect with the industrial, rough-hewn aesthetic of the store. It was a smart marketing move, too—hundreds of hangers silently reinforcing the boutique mantra: “We are different. We are special.” The problem was, those special hangers also looked perfect with the aesthetic of another nearby boutique—so good, in fact, that soon the second shop also featured wooden hangers branded old-time hot-iron-style.

It could be coincidence, the first boutique owner allowed. After all, stamping wooden hangers with the name of your store isn’t exactly rocket science, especially when the retail look du jour is all about handcrafted ruggedness. But what about the boutique’s sales racks? The owner had crafted those out of steel pipes and hung them so they jutted from the walls, looking less like a merchandising move than a happy accident. When another neighboring shop also installed sales racks made of piping, coincidence started to look a lot like brazen copycatting to the irritated boutique owner (who requested that his name not be attached to this scandal, due to the small scene and long memories of the boutique world). And while borrowed details may seem like small snags in the complex fabric of running a successful store, ask any retailer in the city: Too much of a good thing in Philly’s delicate world of independent retail—a product, an idea, even a branded hanger—leads to oversaturation, which leads to desensitization, which leads to, well, empty stores.

“It’s like you’re taking a test next to somebody and you don’t want them to look at your paper,” Elisa Buratto, owner of Old City’s Sugarcube boutique, says in a sweet voice. “I mean, I’ll tutor you afterwards, but stop using my same formula or I’ll smash you.”

Not so long ago, something like Hangergate would have warranted little more than a dismissive wave of a white-gloved hand from the city’s boutique pioneers—the Nan Duskins, Sophy Cursons and Joan Shepps who blazed trails decades ago. Then, the smattering­ of boutiques didn’t compete with one another so much as with marble-floored monoliths like Strawbridge & Clothier and Wanamaker’s, which had enjoyed a largely unopposed reign. But as the age of grand department stores drew to its much-documented­ decline, the scene opened up for new fashionistas ready to make their mark.

“When Wanamaker’s left, that was a turning point in terms of who got to fill that gap,” explains Natalie Nixon, director of the fashion industry management program at Philadelphia University. The store’s 1995 departure spurred a seismic shift in our retail landscape: The Boutiquing of Philadelphia had officially begun.

Philly’s increasing number of indies enjoyed strong support from power players like Paul Levy and his Center City District, and Meryl Levitz’s GPTMC (whose website links our independent shops with our “independent spirit”), while a national Buy Local movement had us all thinking more about sourcing everything from bread to boots from local vendors. The entire shopping culture changed: It became cooler to get something unique from an unknown boutique and spurn the masses at the malls.

These days, hundreds of independent shops line Philly streets, and opening a boutique is the ambition du jour for every 20-something clotheshorse who fancies herself a style-maker. But keeping an indie alive in this city is fraught with a whole slew of challenges Nan Duskin never had to face, from local turf wars to spies from big-box stores to the massive and growing appeal of online shopping. Today, Philly boutiques have to work harder than ever to stay one Louboutin-ed step ahead of the big guys, the small guys and the guys next door. The business of keeping this city well-dressed isn’t always so pretty.

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