Joan Shepp is considered to be one of the country’s leading style makers. Ever since she started her eponymous boutique in Philadelphia’s Lafayette Hill in 1971 she’s been lauded by major fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Lucky.
By the time Shepp relocated her upscale shop to the heart of retail row in Center City alongside big names like Club Monaco, Michael Kors and Burberry, she was already very well known for her daringly fashion forward apparel. Over the years, Shepp has been host to some of the most important fashion events on the East Coast, including exclusive designer launches, trunk shows and the most talked about parties.
According to Jenn Lam, digital marketing strategist for Joan Shepp, the boutique has always been focused on finding exciting ways to spotlight new and well-known designers in the industry. In fact, Shepp has carved a niche by not always following trends, but also setting them with her lovingly curated looks.
“What is most popular in the store isn’t specific to trends or designers,” admitted Lam. “It’s our unique items. No matter what designer, our customers come to us for what is new, fresh, and exciting in fashion. This could be a plaid skirt with amazing zipper detail from Junya Watanabe to an elegant hand-painted scarf from Avant Toi to our one-of-a-kind vintage pieces. Our clients are always seeking the most creative items, and we often have items exclusive to our store in Philadelphia.”
Shepp has also found very potent ways of driving attention to great looks by hosting, for example, a red carpet fashion show in the spring and decking out her front windows on Chestnut Street with sleek looks by top designers like Sonia Rykiel.
This season, Shepp is focused on everything from socks to accessories – including really colorful and luxurious gloves, hats and scarves. The shop also exclusively carries scents from Eden Square Apothecary and bright geometric bags from Issey Miyake’s Bao Bao line. Donna Karan’s Urban Zen is also prominently featured this season. “Many of our clients are also interested in statement jewelry,” said Lam, “like large earrings by Monies Jewelry.” Shepp recently opened a pop-up shop within the store dedicated to all things Monies.
Other trends to watch here: “Elevated basics,” said Lam, “such as a simple white shirt for year-round wear, like a dramatic high-low white shirt from Palmer Harding or a unique ruffle detail by Comme des Garcons.”
Stylists are available to help clients create fresh looks with classic twists. It’s become a hallmark of the shop over the years. And because Shepp has been an independent leader in the fashion world for more than 45 years, local designers are often featured prominently.
“We love to support and collaborate with our community,” said Lam. “We host events with local and upcoming designers that always have special and unique items. We have sold Philadelphia favorite, John Wind Jewelry, for many years – and most recently we have a collection from an upcoming designer – Penrose by Sara Keel – who creates exclusive tops from vintage scarves.”
Currently, the boutique is also showcasing an art installation about the fusion of dance, fashion and art. Come December, the shop will also be hosting special events for Pedro Garcia Shoes and the New York Accessory Council Designers.
Keeping Prices Under $100
A few blocks from Joan Shepp on busy Chestnut Street is up-and-coming boutique DFTI, which is owned by Ashley N. Taylor. After working for more than five years as a buyer for other well-known retailers in the city, Taylor decided it was time to open her own boutique. What would make it different, she decided, would be that her handpicked runway-ready looks would retail under just $100.
“I hand-pick everything from Los Angeles and Australia,” said Taylor, “so I’m bringing a West Coast flare to the East Coast.” Think: Torn skinny jeans, comfy cardigans and leaf print dresses.
The small, airy shop has a vibe that’s both elegant and accessible. And with new looks arriving three times a week, DFTI carries apparel ready for everything from black-tie events to weekends in the country (yes, skinny jeans are still really big sellers).
“A lot of customers specifically come in looking for evening gowns for weddings and black-tie galas,” said Taylor. “DFTI Boutique is such an intimate setting that I’m able to keep track of who bought what and for when, eliminating someone else being seen wearing that same dress to that same venue.”
Taylor said that along with great customer service, she’s also becoming known for being on top of interesting trends. These days, she’s been carrying more apparel than ever with ruffles. Whether it’s on the sleeve of a sweater or the trumpet of a dress, she said ruffles are really huge this season.
Other trends she’s watching: pantsuits, sparkly holiday dresses, suede coats and faux fur. Taylor often uses Instagram to showcase the newest looks in her shop. A recent post shows Kim Kardashian wearing a jacket that just arrived at the boutique.
Down the road, Taylor said she would like to carry apparel by local designers, but price tends to preclude her for doing so. “It’s hard to match their price point,” she said. “I keep everything retailing under $100. Local designers put in time and effort on their pieces; therefore their higher price points exceed my motto.”
Florals, Vegan Leather and Fanny Packs
In the heart of Philadelphia’s Fabric Row is Urban Princess, a boutique that’s both funky and casual – and ultimately quite creative in its approach to women’s everyday fashion. With ombre thermals, printed dresses, long wrap skirts, graphic tunics and geode jewelry, the shop reaches free-spirited consumers interested in making a statement with their clothes. It’s a little bit hippy and a little bit rock n’ roll.
Mary Harvey, owner of Urban Princess, said that right now comfy casual is big. “Every piece arriving at the shop is softer than the next,” she said. “We want to feel like we are in our PJs, but look ready for work or a night out.”
As a buyer for more than 10 years, Harvey has built great relationships with many designers, manufacturers and resellers, which offers great opportunities to really customize the shop. “I can negotiate special deals for overstock inventory or discounts for bulk purchases,” she said. “I have also been a bargain hunter since birth and I am always shopping – so I just keep my eye open for a phenomenal deals and I’m ready to pounce at anytime.”
Cost and comfort are two major themes at Urban Princess. Harvey is also paying attention to trends in florals.
“More than one designer calls them ‘couch florals,’” she said. “You will find flowers of all shapes and sizes on blouses, dresses, scarves and even embroidered on jeans and classic leather jackets.”
She’s also looking toward retro-inspired looks this season. “Right now, every decade is back and represented in fashion today,” admitted Harvey. “Past trends like fur, high waists, leather accents, fringe, bodysuits, flannel, feathers and even flare bottom pants all have a place in fashion today.”
Whatever the look, she encourages her customers to be themselves. “Rock what makes you feel best about yourself,” she tells them, whether it’s with an art print dress, knit poncho or kid’s rock star tee.
A trend that never seems to go out of style is denim. “The past few years have seen leggings, skinny jeans and jeggings dominate the market,” said Harvey. “This year, even more styles and cuts of denim are flooding the market.”
Also making a comeback are fanny packs. While shops like Urban Princess are calling them ‘belt bags’ nowadays, these hip-hugging packs (popular among the tourist set) are selling so fast Harvey can scarcely keep them in stock. “They sell like wildfire,” she said.
This time of year, she is also selling a lot of cold-weather accessories like fingerless gloves, wrist warmers and fleece-lined leggings. “We also have the softest, most comfortable tunics and tanks that we keep in store all year long because people come back for seconds, thirds and more as gifts,” said Harvey. “Our most popular new pieces are a cold shoulder sweater and a new line of vegan leather jackets. We also do very well with fall and winter dresses. People tell us it’s hard to find good winter dresses.”
Harvey has a few rules of thumb when she buys for the boutique. One of the most important goals is making her loyal customers happy. “We really focus on what makes our customer look and feel best about themselves – and help them to get out of their box,” said Harvey. “We try to find statement pieces to brighten up their wardrobe and help them have more fun with fashion.”
She also jokingly said she’s on the lookout for what she calls “muffin top covers,” clothing that flatters women’s waistlines at any size.
“I have a significant following of women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s,” she says. “Many women who walk into my store have specific body concerns. The most frequent areas that women focus on are belly, love handles, ‘jiggly’ arms and one that I still don’t understand – many women are concerned with showing their knees. So, when I see fashions that I like, I always assess how they will fit an everyday woman. We want people to walk out of the dressing room feeling amazing about themselves.”
She said customers are generally interested in two things: whether a piece of clothing is comfortable and affordable. “Once they pass the comfortable and easy-to-wear test,” she said, “I am basically looking for timeless pieces that will turn heads. I look for pieces that are different, pieces that you can’t find in every store, and pieces that are going to make people leave the dressing room saying, ‘I can’t wait to wear this!’”
One trend she refuses to indulge: crushed velvet. “Sometimes we boycott a trend,” she said. “And this is one of those times.”