Mirror, Mirror: Designer Bela Shehu debuts NINObrand pieces at Black Friday Rittenhouse cocktail party

Shehu (pointing) helps guests with drinks during the party. Below, her NINObrand fashions, a monochromatic mix of modern and futuristic.
Shehu (pointing) helps guests with drinks during the party. Below, her NINObrand fashions, a monochromatic mix of modern and futuristic.
Posted: November 29, 2012

While Black Friday shoppers were winding down frenzied searches for flat-screen TVs, designer Bela Shehu hosted a swank meet-and-greet at studio:christensen with Harper's Bazaar associate editor Lisa Luna.

In total Shehu fashion, the designer toasted her new retail space on the biggest shopping day of the year, confident her customers - women who would rather wrap themselves in asymmetrical black cloaks than get caught up in the buttons of a tan trench - would come to the Rittenhouse studio to check out 30 new pieces of her NINObrand collection.

The designer, who is 33, was right: The high-fashion soiree attracted about 100 of the city's quietly chic, from fund-raiser Geri Covington and her daughter, Alex, to pediatrician and sometime Joan Shepp model Heather Ruddock.

Doreen Creede, who writes the Style Maniac blog, was also there, as well as high-powered lawyer Carla Eichler and former vintage boutique owner Brooke Dillon.

"NINObrand is absolutely amazing," said Luna, who was introduced to the brand in September when she was covering the Philadelphia Collection. Luna considers herself a collector of the brand.

"What she's doing is setting a trend for Philadelphia fashion. She totally embodies the trend where people are taking advantage of local."

Philadelphia has made a concerted effort to get its local fashion treasures into the national spotlight, but its lack of household-name designers who live and work here makes it harder for the city to claim true style cred. (Tory Burch and Ralph Rucci are from here, but they don't live here.)

Shehu, though, has the best chance for reaching that kind of status because her commitment to be local, small, and boutique-oriented is very of-the-moment.

Not to mention, her clothing is phenomenal. It embodies the easy movement of activewear with the class of a little black dress. (One of my favorites is a mixed-media pencil skirt fashioned from wool jersey and Persian lamb - snuggly and sexy at the same time.)

The monochromatic shades hail from nature's stormier palette: black, slate, navy blue, with a bit of sand. And the aesthetic is a mix of modern and futuristic - think of the layering of Rick Owens with the origami folds of Yohji Yamamoto pieces.

She calls some of her newest pieces "genderless." For example, a fitted jacket or a pair of skinny drop-crotch pants were designed with the fashion needs of men and women in mind.

There are elements of yesteryear in Shehu's approach, too. Shehu doesn't advertise, and she refuses to sell her pieces online. If all goes well and she decides to stay at studio:christensen beyond her three-month contract, she will open an atelier where shoppers can enjoy an aperitif and a fitting.

The whole concept - creating androgynous looks out of what we consider classic gender-specific silhouettes, and marketing them to a ladies-who-lunch crowd - is very 1920s Coco Chanel. And like Chanel, Shehu is sort of shrouded in mystery. Even though the sun was beginning to set, she talked to me from behind a pair of oversize black Moss Lipow sunglasses.

Shehu was born in Albania and moved to Iowa in 1996. She visited a friend in Philadelphia the next year and fell in love with the city. She enrolled in Temple University, where she majored in accounting. After graduation, she took a job bartending at Panorama.

She liked shopping at Charlie Porter and became friendly with owner and "jeans whisperer" Sebastian McCall. One day she walked into the store wearing a funky top she had made. McCall asked her for a few to sell, but when she delivered them, the construction just wasn't right.

McCall encouraged Shehu to go to design school, so she enrolled at Moore College of Art & Design. She didn't graduate, but she began designing her own lines of womenswear, and in 2004 she opened bSHEHU, a boutique on 13th Street that sold Jill Stuart and Alice + Olivia. After a successful run, she closed the store in 2007.

That same year, Shehu began designing collections and helping independent designers brand themselves.

Her first client was Aman Athwal, a former designer with Stella McCartney, but she eventually helped revive several well-known local brands including Sailor Jerry, Commonwealth Proper, and Zahra Saeed. She developed the workout-to-lifewear line for the Lithe Method, including its leather leggings. She is currently working on a project with Bridgeport-based collegiatewear line League.

In January 2011, Shehu and a few of her interns decided to work on a collection together. The pieces sold out. Two years and close to 200 clients later, Shehu has invested about $160,000 in NINObrand, which retails for $150 to $400.

She hasn't turned a profit yet, but she's content in developing it slowly in Philadelphia. What counts, she says, is that a new generation of movers and shakers is starting to value her work - that, more than anything, drives the success of a luxury fashion line.

For example, Lafayette Hill public relations specialist Jamie Joffe just bought $2,000 worth of Shehu pieces, including an army-green poncho and an off-the-shoulder black wool dress she plans to wear to the Grammys and the international art show Art Basel.

"She's very good," Joffe said. "Everything feels so good. Her finishes are wonderful."

So Shehu's strategy to stay in Philly and build her name might just work - especially in this economy, when paying for an apartment and studio in New York could bankrupt a person.

Luna sees the strategy working, too.

"It's a matter of joining forces between New York and Philadelphia and having her slowly establish a very small Dior or Chanel-like clientele in New York," she said.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.

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