Mirror, Mirror: Giving Philly its showroom space
Skai Blue Show is a place where buyers can appraise the creations of local designers.
In cities with established garment districts, showroom space is more than a one-stop shop for department store buyers to find the latest and greatest for their sales floors.
It is a hub of creative energy.
In these sunlit spaces - different from runway shows and cocktail parties - industry insiders strike deals, cement friendships, and find some of fashion's biggest stars.
Philadelphia, which is now home to a bevy of emerging designers, finally has its first successful fashion showroom, and it's attracting buyers and magazine editors from New York.
Its mission is right on time.
Nestled in the heart of America's birth city, Skai Blue Show is run by fashion czarina Rakia Reynolds, and it features only designers who manufacture their clothing and accessories in the United States.
"I feel compelled to work with designers that are made in America, because honestly, this is my country," said Reynolds from behind her tempered glass and stainless steel desk. "That is what will help Philadelphia become something bigger than what it already is in fashion."
Looks like it's all coming together.
In the nearly five months Skai Blue has been up and showing, it's attracted visits from major department stores such as Barneys New York and Macy's, and local boutiques including Knit Wit and Arcadia. The click-clack of heels on the hardwood floors is constant.
And as Skai Blue Show enters its first market season - when buyers try to translate what they saw on the runways to their sales floors - InStyle this month featured a faux leather pencil skirt by local plus-size designer Patricia Stewart.
For local designers, attention like this is huge.
"This is special," said Kimberly Frye, as she looked through a rack of eco-friendly custom-dyed cotton pieces by Caterine Sanchez, one of six womenswear designers and two jewelry lines featured at Skai Blue. Frye is the director of multicultural marketing and vendor relations at Macy's. "That's different," she said, pointing to a red, all-weather coat with a built-in scarf/hoodie. "You don't see things like that all of the time."
All of the lines in the showroom are unique, and retail prices are moderate - more expensive than discount department stores like Kohl's but not as expensive as designer lines. New York-based designer Shauntele offers crepe-thin floral dresses that retail for $300 to $500. Concrete Polish's chunky and thin gold and rose-gold pieces are between $50 and $200.
Among my favorites are Marina Makaron Moscow's silk floral scarves and dresses, which got some attention from Bloomingdale's, but Reynolds is still working on her presentation to get it all just right.
"We are trying to help her with the branding," Reynolds said. "We want to make sure that it's labeled well, but not in your face, because fashion is shifting away from in-your-face logos to a quieter message."
Located in the middle of the 1300 block of Sansom Street, Skai Blue Show is at the center of Philadelphia's burgeoning creative economy. But it's a key part of a national fashion story that revolves around the growing grassroots interest in clothing made and manufactured in America.
Within the last year, the Made in America tag has become almost as important as the celebrities who wear the clothes. In a recent survey by the NPD Group, 76 percent of consumers said it was important that their clothing be made in America.
Local manufacturing is a key element in a thriving local fashion industry. Without seamstresses, cutters, and patternmakers here, independent designers' only option is to ship the work abroad, where they have to meet manufacturers' minimum-order requirements. But as costs to manufacture overseas continue to increase, those designers need people and plants here where they can get small quantities of their designs made at a reasonable cost.
"I'm so glad this space is in Philly," said Mary Clark, who walked over to the showroom from Vagabond, her boutique at 37 N. Third St. Clark picked up a few pieces from Lobo Mau, a cleverly colorblocked custom-made line by Nicole Haddad.
Skai Blue Show "does a lot for Philadelphia fashion. It helps make the case there is a growing group of fashion designers here and that will help us get more manufacturing here."
Reynolds, 33, known around town for her vintage style and eye-catching fascinator hats, has been slowly building a reputation as the go-to person in Philadelphia's emerging fashion community for about five years.
Having sewn and knitted her clothing as a young woman, she graduated from Temple University in 2000 with a degree in international business and marketing, and took a job in New York City producing content for MTV, TLC, and Discovery Health.
In 2006 she started her Philadelphia-based public relations company Balahu promoting artisans; she got her first taste of fashion PR.
Two years later, she decided to expand to become a multimedia firm. Then, putting her New York connections to work, Reynolds helped launch the citywide Philadelphia Collection and was integral to bringing Fashion's Night Out to Center City.
When designers working on those projects asked her for help getting noticed by local and national boutiques, the idea of a showroom was born.
Reynolds hopes to soon have 15 designers at Skai Blue - including menswear and handbag lines - and estimates the area could stand at least five more showrooms to create a critical mass: The more space designers have to show their wares, the more demand for manufacturing and, potentially, the more jobs that can be created.
Her hope is that customers also become more mindful about where their clothes are made, which, in turn, is better for the environment and the economy - even if it is a little more expensive to buy that great coat with the built-in scarf.
"There is enough [business] to go around," Reynolds says.
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.