Phila. retailing is dressing up

More upscale fashion comes to town.

Posted: March 27, 2007

Among the city's fashionable, there was much to-do when Zara, H&M, Lush, Club Monaco and BCBG Max Azria opened their doors on Walnut Street last year.

But when the local development firm ARCWheeler confirmed recently that Barneys Co-op - the cutting-edge offshoot of the high-end New York City department store Barneys - was coming to Rittenhouse Square, high heels clicked with excitement. The region's chic-ometer has officially been raised.

"For so many years, Philadelphia has had a reputation of being staid," said Stephanie Naidoff, commerce director for the City of Philadelphia. "But this really sends a signal. This is a public acknowledgment that we have arrived."

The addition of Barneys Co-op to Center City's shops is comparable to the $1,500 Prada bag that completes an already fashionable outfit - the necessary extra that ties a look together.

The city's fashion renaissance has been taking place over the last five years, as a spate of independent boutiques helped Philadelphia start to build a reputation as a place to find unique fashions.

The burgeoning restaurant scene, along with the multimillion-dollar condominium projects - and the well-heeled owners they hope to attract - fueled bigger fashion projects.

Last September, the contemporary women's department at Boyd's, B3, opened with much fanfare. The store carries fashionable favorites such as Diane von Furstenberg and Nanette Lepore alongside forward designers Roberto Cavalli and Fendi.

The Maryland-based retail chain South Moon Under, which carries the cute-top-and-denim combos that fashionable women crave, opened earlier this month on Chestnut Street, offering Pucci, Ben Sherman and Kate Spade. Blue Sole Shoes, an exclusive men's shoe store carrying Caporicci and Donald Pliner, also opened in March.

"I think fashion in Philadelphia is being revived now," said Steven Jamison, Blue Soles' owner. "There used to be a few select stores, and if you bought something from them, everybody knew it; you had to go out of the city to find uniqueness."

It's not only Center City that has seen an influx of upscale designers. A major remerchandising push at the King of Prussia mall has added more oomph to the fashion cachet of the stores there, too.

Over the last year, once only-in-New York stores such as punky designer Betsey Johnson, jeweler David Yurman, menswear store Boss Orange and shirtmaker Thomas Pink have set up shop at King of Prussia. Juicy Couture, the company known for its $100-plus track suits, will open a 3,304-square-foot store there later this year, said Mark Bachus, the mall's marketing manager.

While it would be good to be able to say that Philadelphia's potential for fashion fabulousness is reeling in the designers, the reality is that the city is merely being swept up in a larger trend toward luxury retail.

The National Retail Federation forecasts a 4.8 percent growth in retail sales for 2007, most of which centers on "luxury items." While high-end items such as cars and jewelry are natural luxury items, these days almost anything can fall into the category, including pricey coffee, designer T-shirts and super-size electronics, such as high-definition plasma TVs.

"Last year, luxury alone experienced a 13 percent sales increase," Bachus said. "Even in the first quarter of 2007, these brands have seen major growth. It's a lifestyle trend."

And where the money is, the posh names and fashion personalities will follow, as evidenced by the growing number of style-based events scheduled in Philadelphia this spring.

Next month, designer Tory Burch (Lance Armstrong's current flame) will make an appearance at Small Indulgences, a two-day shopping event hosted by the Women's Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

On May 9, Michael Kors of Project Runway fame will be this year's featured designer at the Daisy Days luncheon, a fund-raiser for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, held in conjunction with Saks Fifth Avenue in Bala Cynwyd.

Even as little as two years ago, it was hard to get Kors to come to Philadelphia, said Amy Schaeffer, director of public relations at Saks.

Another benchmark that could establish Philadelphia as a fashion enclave will take place on April 19, when the Shecky's Girls' Night Out franchise hosts its first shopping event in Philadelphia.

The event, which started as a one-night-only party in New York and has spread to 12 cities, charges women $10 for cocktails and access to high-end and underground designers. Organizers say they expect 2,000 women to come to the Philadelphia event at the 23d Street Armory, based on advance ticket sales and interest.

"Philadelphia is another amazing market full of women who are savvy and sophisticated," said Claudia Chan, a founder. "We wanted to stake our claim before anyone else got to it."

Those younger and sophisticated shoppers - and their appetite for celebrity-inspired fashion and $200-plus jeans - were what attracted Barneys Co-op to Philadelphia, said Simon Doonan, the company's creative director and well-known fashion personality.

The offshoot of Barneys - owned by Jones Apparel Group - is in the midst of a major expansion. Two and a half years ago, there were four Co-ops; the Philadelphia store will be the 19th free-standing store.

Stocked with casual, yet meticulously constructed, women's and menswear lines from the likes of Marc Jacobs, Phillip Lim, Rag & Bone and Alexander McQueen, the store is slated to take over 9,750 square feet on the ground floor of 10 Rittenhouse Square. Part of a $300 million luxury condominium project at 18th and Walnut Streets, Barneys Co-op is expected to open in September 2008.

"The Co-op is a great way for us to get our feet wet and introduce ourselves to the Philadelphia clientele," said Doonan, promising in a biting British accent that Philadelphia's Co-op would be on par with New York's.

"We like to think of the Co-op as a laboratory where the experiments never hurt. There is a big opportunity for us in Philly."

Doonan would not comment on whether a Barneys New York would come to the region.

While boosters are near ecstatic about what Barneys Co-op will mean for the city's style rep, the cautious are watching and waiting.

Yes, Naidoff said, 90,000 people live in Center City and more than 250,000 commute here every day to work. But the retail growth is still contingent on high-end housing, which is not immune to abrupt shifts.

And there's still room for improvement, some shoppers sniff. After all, the new stores are all considered "high-end casual," not "high-end chic" - and the difference separates style leaders from style followers.

"It is great that when a national retailer comes in, we can sustain it," said Nicole Cashman, a Philadelphia-based fashion publicist. "People aren't boarding up their businesses like they did 10 or 15 years ago.

"But it'll really be a sign when we see a Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Prada come to Center City. That will truly be the icing on the cake."


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704. To read her latest stories go to http://go.philly.com/elizabethwellington.

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