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.


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.

MOST OF THE TIME, THE BIG STORES aren’t concerned with what the indies are doing. They plow through, striking down tiny boutiques with crazy sales and seemingly relentless online presences. They want shiny and new for their marbled sales floors—what good would a bunch of rustic, iron-branded wooden hangers be to Neiman Marcus? Then again, those hangers would look great in, say, the mecca of the mass-produced handmade look, Anthropologie. …

This past May, the Huffington Post reported that Philly-based Urban Outfitters had ripped off a jewelry design by an artist selling her own pieces on Etsy, the expansive e-commerce site hawking handmade and vintage items. The story hit the blogosphere, and scores of angry consumers vowed never to shop at Urban again. In an embarrassing twist, though, it turned out that while Urban may have knocked off the necklace design (store reps refute this), several other Etsy sellers had listed a similar piece before the Etsy artist who called foul on Urban. All of which begs the question: Is there such a thing as a truly original idea? And if there is, how the heck are you supposed to compete with a behemoth who can see your idea, mass-produce it, and then sell it for $9.99?

“It’s a free country,” says Buratto, who was once an assistant buyer in the vintage department of Urban Outfitters. “But I definitely know when buyers come in and they’re out for ‘inspiration day.’ I had that job. I don’t know if you want to call them spies or whatever, but they’re out for inspiration. They’ve gotta get it, too, you know.”

“Urban has a bad reputation, and they know it,” says Erin Waxman, one of the perky owners of NoLibs’s Art Star, a quirky shop selling art and crafted goods by independent artists. “But they’ve been working­ to change it. They’re at least not looking at the artwork and completely copying it; they’re getting in touch with the artist. We’ve had a handful of artists who have done projects with Urban and have had decent experiences.” She pauses. “But I go back and forth. I want our artists to be successful, but at the same time, I don’t want people coming into our shop and being like, ‘This is at Urban for $10. Why do you have it for $30?’”

But the next great hurdle for shops like Art Star will probably fall outside the hulking shadow of Urban Outfitters, and instead come courtesy of the very instinct that for so long helped them, that propelled people to shop small and find special. Enter those Etsy-ites: Not only do these one-man retailers sell special and unique, but they do it online. And since many hobbyists can charge far less for their crafts than professional artists do, says Waxman, consumers balk at higher prices in brick and mortar stores—then flick on their iPhones to buy that handmade tea cozy from a stay-at-home mom in Minnesota.

In 2010, the New York Times wrote that Etsy was on track to handle about $400 million in transactions for the year—twice as much as the year before. On Cyber Monday of 2011, the paper reported that Etsy sales were up a walloping 80 percent from the previous year. It would seem that as vendors whittle themselves down smaller and still smaller, for Philly’s indie retailers, the littlest competitors might be the biggest threat.

JEN RAMSAY DOESN’T SHOP; she never really has. When you own a boutique, you plump your wardrobe by buying things wholesale. These days, Ramsay—who still works under the Echochic name as a stylist, PR rep and fashion-and-lifestyle consultant—relies on designer friends to send her clothes. But she’s nostalgic for the time she spent in her own brick-and-mortar on South Street. “They were really incredible years,” she says wistfully.

Recently, a new wave of boutique owners gathered at a party for the Old City Business Collective. Sugarcube’s Buratto chatted­ with friends, all fellow shop owners in the little square-mile cobblestone patch between NoLibs and Society Hill. There was no talk of Hangergate, or Urban, or the recent store closings, or even the crappy economy. No one brought up the stress of being in business for yourself, or the worries over department stores and online shopping. They just laughed and swapped stories, a well-dressed group of friends and colleagues, in the foxhole together.

“We’re all just getting by,” says Art Star’s Waxman. “But Philly is supporting us, and it’s exciting.” Whether Philly’s support will continue to be enough for all of these boutique owners, time will tell. But there is this:

A few weeks later, Buratto is on the phone with a journalist, talking about the life of an independent boutique owner. “Can you hang on one sec?” she says into the phone. The door to her shop keeps swinging open with a little ping as customers wander in. A couple minutes of conversation, and then again: ping. “I’m sorry, give me one more minute?” she asks. A few more questions, then ping. Finally, the writer relents and lets her get back to minding her store. She’s got clothes to sell, and today, business is looking good.

 

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