Joan Shepp and the Rebirth of Chestnut Street

The city’s couture set shrieked when Joan Shepp — the self-made fashion icon who’s been dressing Philadelphia’s most fabulous for more than 40 years — closed her timeless boutique and decamped for Chestnut Street. Can she spark a retail renaissance on that woebegone stretch of real estate?

Joan Shepp and daughter Ellen in front of the outdoor garden in their new Chestnut Street digs. Photograph by Steven Laxton

Joan Shepp and daughter Ellen in front of the outdoor garden in their new Chestnut Street digs. Photograph by Steven Laxton

It’s a steamy evening on Chestnut Street, and not just because of the humidity. It’s the press opening for Joan Shepp’s new boutique, and the requisite champagne flutes and trays laden with hors d’oeuvres are present, as are the chic people who wouldn’t dream of taking a bite. (This is the fashion set, darlings.) PR maven Rakia Reynolds, wearing what appears to be a corset made of white wicker, gabs with Where Philadelphia publisher Laura Burkhardt, who will show up to the opening of an envelope. Nicole Paloux, another PR maven, though of the more mousy, elfin variety, peruses some jewelry near Nigel Richards, a fledgling fashion designer better known as the husband of the city’s brassy high priestess of PR, Nicole Cashman, whose absence is surely due to Ebola or some such catastrophe. Elizabeth Wellington, the Inquirer’s fashion writer, is here, channeling Audra McDonald chic, while in a corner flits Danuta Mieloch, the Polish beauty who has made Rescue Rittenhouse the place where Women of a Certain Station come to have their crinkly complexions turned to the texture of mayonnaise.

They’re here because Joan is here, and the style story line in town has been All About Joan since last fall, when her eponymous shop on Walnut Street suddenly shuttered and then turned up in the mall at Liberty Place (the mall! At Liberty Place!), and then she said she was going to open a new store on Chestnut (Chestnut!), and, well, kittens, it turned out she meant it. This has raised the fashion stakes considerably. Now the question isn’t whether Joan Shepp,who has been dressing the stylish Philadelphia woman for four decades, can make a success on Chestnut Street. It’s whether she can make a success of Chestnut Street.

When Joan first brought her majordomo, Tuesday Gordon, to see the space, Tuesday gasped. It was a two-story shell just off 18th Street, with a small foyer and a grand staircase that curved underground. It was dusty and mildewed. “Joan, the basement? We’re moving to a basement?!” Tuesday exclaimed. “Tuesday,” Joan calmly replied, because Joan always calmly replies, “use your imagination.”

Joan has certainly used hers, flipping a location that looked like Beirut circa 1982 into a 9,000-square-foot temple of style, all painted Crest-toothpaste white. Exposed pipes are splashed in metallic gold, which gives the illusion of a fat necklace snaking across the ceiling. There’s a cozy men’s loft upstairs, but the airplane hangar of a main room is all about the women, because that’s who’s buying the dream Joan is selling. Almost every dress, every boot, every blouse here is black. Like Joan, the salespeople are also clad in black, as if they’re all waiting to attend Bianca Jagger’s funeral. The lone exception is Tuesday Gordon, who is African-American and told Joan when she began work 15 years ago, “The colored girl wears color.”

Tonight, amid the Ann Demeulemeester frocks and Rick Owens t-shirts and R&R Surplus waffle jerseys, Joan is wafting through the crowd like Moses parting a particularly chic group of exiles. The walking pencils who are her devoted, cult-y customers grab her elbow and plant an air kiss, cooing, oohing and aahing Joan through her victory lap. Joan is wearing a black leather backpack because, well, she’s Joan, and as she gently touches my forearm, she inquires about the crepes. “You must get a crepe!” she commands, the way a doctor tells you to quit smoking. “They are absolutely uh-mazing.”

Joan’s pride and joy in her new store is her outdoor garden, a small brick oasis in the heart of Center City. Here, a tall, striking woman in an Erykah Badu head scarf and chef’s whites stands behind a cooking station, deftly sprinkling ingredients onto bubbling crepes, her gorgeous silver bracelet occasionally catching the light. It is, of course, Hermès.

Joan scampers out to the garden, though, predictably, she doesn’t eat a crepe herself. “I have to tell you, people said, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re old,’” she says of the reaction when word spread of her plans to plant her fashionable flag on Chestnut. “Okay, so they didn’t say that. But it was, ‘Why would you start to do all of this now?’ But that’s the thing. That’s the energy — you want to do it.”

TYPICAL OF PEOPLE in fashion, Joan Shepp is a bit odd. Not “odd” odd, but more like a retail version of Mary Poppins (whose caricature is stenciled on a $518 Faliero Sarti silk scarf in the store), or an eccentric aunt who quotes obscure poetry and bicycles the streets on a penny-farthing. And she has a peculiar way of talking — counterintuitively, the more excited she gets, the more Monroe-breathless her voice becomes, making her, quite literally, the Clothes Whisperer. She’s the type of unique character Philadelphia used to manufacture in bulk and desperately needs more of.

It’s been said that fashion is theater, and this is a lesson Joan seems to have taken to heart. Her sales force can be divided into two groups: what Gordon calls “The Elders,” the genteel ladies who cater to the wealthy older clients who are the bread-and-butter of Joan’s business; and the Kids, the hipsters whose adoration for Joan borders on the Mansonesque and who are best represented by Ricky Cantando, the 23-year-old with frosted blond hair who’s been known to wear leggings, black suede wedges and filmy skirts to work. (Did we mention he’s male?) “When I interview people for the store, I ask them if they’re fashion victims,” says Joan’s daughter Ellen, who runs the boutique with her. “And they think they’re supposed to say no. But they’re supposed to say yes. Because if you’re not a fashion victim, if you don’t live and breathe it, you shouldn’t be here.”

“You can’t just be in the clothing business anymore,” Joan whispers (naturally), sitting in the rear of her new store one quiet morning. “It has to be entertaining. It has to be exciting.”

She’s in an Yves Saint Laurent jacket (black, of course) and harem pants from Ivan Grundahl, along with a pair of silver-gray ankle boots. Is the outfit vintage? “I’m vintage,” she deadpans, definitely not in a whisper.

Joan has gorgeous pale blue eyes and creamy skin that makes her look far younger than the 72 she is (she’s sensitive about her age and does not — does not! — understand why people need to know it), and a mane of wild, curly hair that can sometimes make her look like Phil Spector, the Murder Trial Years. She’s perennially calm, as if she’s just returned from a Zen Buddhist retreat somewhere (the Mount Airy native actually fly-fishes in Colorado to unwind), yet also comes off as a little dotty, the lady who’s forever wondering where she left her car keys. The voicemail inbox on her cell phone, which she never picks up, is always full; she never answers email. “You have to show up,” says Tuesday Gordon. “She’s quirky like that.”

IT’S NOT EASY to become a style icon in Philadelphia, a city that’s constantly being told how fat and unkempt it is by magazines that should, by now, know better. But a few women have succeeded. First there was Nan Duskin, perhaps the greatest fashion legend in the city’s history, whose brownstone at 1729 Walnut stood as a beacon of Parisian panache for decades. (Nan was an Army general in pearls; her withering commentary rivaled Coco Chanel’s and sent more than one salesgirl scurrying out for a good cry.) Nan begat Sophy Curson, the diminutive dynamo whose tony atelier, opened in 1929, still stands on the corner of 19th and Sansom as a monument to the Slim Aarons aesthetic. “In those days, with Bonwit Teller and those types of stores, the world was different. Women got dressed, put their gloves on, and came into town to lunch with their friends,” Joan says. “As time went on and more and more women went back to work, the clothes changed. Everything changed.”

In the ’70s and ’80s, former preschool teacher Toby Lerner sized up the new working-woman market and dressed an entire generation of cosmopolitan professionals. Then there was … Joan.

The whole thing started, her ex-husband Burt Shepp will tell you, when he opened his second hair salon in Abington in 1967 and had space in the front for some small retail. So Joan sold a few handbags. Then she returned to New York to get more handbags. “The third time she went back, she went without me,” Burt says. “And when she came back, she came back with some clothing. And that all sold. So she went again, and again, and again. We sold it all. And that’s when I realized that this girl had a talent.”

Joan opened her first shop in 1971, tucked away in “a very obscure-looking office building” in Lafayette Hill, in the words of Mary Dougherty, who owns two Nicole Miller boutiques in the city. “I had never seen anything like her, or the selection of clothing, or the way fashion just came out of every pore of her body. She was just über-cool.”

In the words of the old Ideal jingle, from the get-go, Joan had a passion for fashion. (The craving for saving, not so much.) A cross between Vogue’s idiosyncratic Grace Coddington and a matzo-ball-soup-making bubbe, over time she built a formidable clientele populated with chic women like Jamie Lilley, the co-owner of restaurant Friday Saturday Sunday, and Rittenhouse socialite Maxine Morgan. Joan (amicably) divorced Burt, remarried, was widowed. Ask about her second husband at your own peril — on her personal life, Joan’s as silent as a cloistered nun.

In 1999, Joan was strolling down Walnut when she came upon what would become her Camelot — a store for rent near 16th Street. She found herself slack-jawed, salivating over its two-story picture window. “They wouldn’t rent it to me,” she remembers. “But I had to have that space. The big ceiling, it was like, mind-boggling. And so I just kept after it.”

Over the years, Joan dressed not only the starry downtown set, but also visiting glitterati like Anne Hathaway, Bette Midler, and Denzel Washington’s wife, Pauletta. “I’m not a woman of great means, but I always walked by the store,” recalls local artist Denise Fike. “I felt like I shouldn’t be there. And then Joan walked up to me, and she looked like Elizabeth I, with this head of curly hair and this white ruff and dressed all in black. She was just so warm and generous and gracious, and she put a hat on me. I bought it.”

That kind of “great means” apologia drives Joan insane. She’s especially sensitive to the recurring charge that her clothes are affordable only if you have a Main Line zip code or a husband on the Phillies, and preferably both. While it’s true that she offers the occasional pair of three-dollar socks, a spin through her shop produces enough sticker shock to send most people into a retail coma. A corset made of zippers — zippers — from Autumnlin Kietponglert (yes, that’s a real person) will set you back anywhere from $500 to $1,300. A t-shirt from Elixir-Marais is $130, while a men’s mustard baseball jacket from Dries Van Noten (which Joan puts on and ends up wearing almost one entire afternoon) goes for $995. My personal favorites are the Maison Martin Margiela black mittens — 100 percent polyester — for $218. “I didn’t come from money or any of that, so I was always conscious of the price,” Joan insists. “We’re going to have these [higher] prices, but we have to have something for 20 bucks if we’re going to have something for $500. The goal was to mix this all together, so if you bought a good piece, you could mix up the price points and leave with a nice wardrobe.”

The H&Ms of the world offer “disposable clothing,” adds daughter Ellen. “We are not looking to be that. People do not come to us because we’re cheap. They come to us because we’re fashion.” The core Joan customer, she says, “is addicted to fashion. It’s up in the top three priorities in her life.”

Which may explain why there was such gnashing of veneers when the news broke last fall that Joan was closing the Walnut Street store. Rent on her lease was being raised “by two and a half times,” Joan says, and the news she was vacating shook every closet hanger in town. “There was this whole story going around of how everyone around her was almost despairing,” says John Wind, a local jewelry designer who, as an orange-haired club kid in London, met Joan more than 30 years ago, and who has designed many of her store windows. “There was a lot of that talk and gossip: ‘What’s going on with Joan?’ I was asked that a couple of times a week.”

Joan kept the faith, even as she marched her stylish army into a placeholder until her Chestnut Street dream could be realized. “I was devastated to leave Walnut Street,” says Tuesday Gordon. “So was Joan. I think she was more in denial than me, because she knew a long time ago that we had to make this move, and she kept putting it off. Then she had The Talk with me: ‘I need you to be the cheerleader, because we have to leave and go to the mall.’”

The staff was depressed. The customers were depressed — many refused to step foot in Liberty Place, forcing Gordon to roll racks of clothes onto the sidewalk to serve them curbside in their cars. Then Joan signed the Chestnut lease. “My girls,” she recalls, “I brought them down here before I fixed it up. And they go, ‘Joan, we’re not working here. It’s awful!’ But I knew it would be exciting, because it’s different than we ever had before, and there’s so much we can do with it.”

As renovations began, Joan walked by one day to see construction workers putting in the picture window facing the street.

“When they put in the new window, I was like, Oh my God, it’s a store,” she recalls in that wondrous whisper. “It’s going to be a store.”

SPEAKING OF THE pigeon situation on Chestnut Street … The Executive Secretary in his report devoted considerable space to this health menace. This report quoted Mr. Packer, Chief of Sanitation, as stating he would not “stick his neck out” by starting any movement to correct the situation because it is “hot”; the “sob sisters” who feed the pigeons would start some trouble.

— From the minutes of the Chestnut Street Business Men’s Association, January 4, 1945

If only the pigeons had stayed the biggest problem on Chestnut Street.

For decades it was the city’s go-to thoroughfare for high-end retail, an elegant street so admired that it was feted with a two-page illustration in Esquire. Until, of course, urban planner Ed Bacon managed to kill it as part of the debacle that was the 1976 Bicentennial. That year the city closed off traffic on Chestnut, the street that boasted Brooks Brothers and Bonwit Teller as well as boutiques that had thrived for decades — Jacob Reed’s Sons, J.E. Caldwell & Co., the Blum Store — from 8th to 18th Street, allowing pedestrians and buses only. A move that was supposed to promote window-shopping in the end only drove traffic, foot and otherwise, onto Walnut. The closure remained in effect for almost 25 years. As Chestnut languished, the revamped, shiny King of Prussia mall delivered come-hither, climate-controlled promises of retail glory with plenty of parking, which, coupled with the city’s escalating crime rate, sent shoppers out of town in droves. By the time Chestnut was reopened to automobiles, it was pizza joints, discount retail and tumbleweeds.

The opening of Joan Shepp is the latest in a series of organic moves that may be heralding a Chestnut Street revival of sorts. Skyrocketing commercial rents on Walnut, a boom in surrounding great dining and upscale apartment spaces — it’s all dovetailed into a second look at the city’s tattered, once-grand avenue of retail. “I knew that Joan was moving in, and that was like the number one,” says Seun Olubodun, who in May opened Duke & Winston, the spiffy men’s boutique (named after his bulldog and Winston Churchill) that sits across the street from Joan Shepp, the store. “I felt like it was me, Boyds, Joan and a few others, and we could get this block to become a fashion block.”

Ann Gitter, another always-clad-in-black doyenne whose Knit Wit has been one of the city’s signature boutiques for more than 40 years, had been on Walnut for two decades. But when it came time to renew her lease, “I had an ‘aha’ moment. I realized I was shopping on Chestnut Street, not Walnut Street,” she says, citing stores like Di Bruno Bros. for food and Sephora for cosmetics. “There was not one store on my block of Walnut that I was going to on a daily basis.” She opened on Chestnut, a block from Joan, two years ago.

But while there is certainly evidence that the street is on the way back — if not to retail prominence, at least to retail relevance — the Internet may have something to say about just how relevant it again becomes. The curtain could be dropping on the age of the chic boutique. The savvy fashion customer can now spend hours mouse-clicking her way through the latest looks. Sites like Rue La La, Gilt, Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi roll the runway right into your living room, and can have you wearing those strappy Gucci sandals without the schlep to a shop. “The consumer today is very educated,” says Gitter. “Now, by the time it comes into the store, she has already looked at it, followed it, tweeted it.”

If Joan is worried her white temple will turn into a white elephant, she’s hiding it well. She says she has her core shoppers, the women (and a few style-savvy gents) who have been with her for years. And she touts her personal touch. One afternoon I watched three 20-something African-American men who work in City Hall walk into the store; Joan greeted them like they were just back from a tour of duty in Iraq. Though clearly jolted by some of the price points (“Man, I need a better job,” remarked Curtis Le Blanc, 23), the trio spent almost 45 minutes trying on things they couldn’t afford. It didn’t matter to Joan. These guys are investments. She directed them to reasonable stuff they can buy now even as she stoked a stylish dream she hopes will bring them back later, when their wallets (but, God forbid, not their waistlines) are fatter.

“The young people, they come to play with the clothes,” she says. “Other stores make them leave, because they’re not buying. They come in here, they’re treated just like everybody else. And I learn. If I’m riding the subway in New York City, I’m learning. I see those pants they’re wearing, that outfit they’re wearing. I’m always learning. Those young people are bringing something to the table: creativity, new ways to do things, talent.”

And eventually, she hopes, their Visa cards.

THE NIGHT OF THE PARTY to celebrate the store’s public opening in late August is Cirque de Joan, featuring a gaggle of live models (including four sitting in the front window); an artist painting caricatures on one of the walls; catering from Barclay Prime, Alma de Cuba and the Continental Mid-town; and a swanky guest list that includes celebrity chef Hope Cohen, Fox 29’s Mike Jerrick (in a jaunty fedora), and film-office diva Sharon Pinkenson and her signature corkscrew curls.

Again, no one eats.

As Joan takes yet another series of curtain calls, in a corner I find Curtis Le Blanc and Dominique Harper, two of those City Hall guys Joan roped in a few weeks ago. They seem slightly overwhelmed to have been invited, but then, that’s Joan’s plan — seduce the customer early and often. I ask them if they think they’ll become regulars here.

“Definitely,” Harper says. “I mean, the other stores, they’re clothes. This,” he says, glancing around at the style aristocracy assembled, “this is fashion.”

Originally published as “The Clothes Whisperer” in the October 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.