Lele Tran's US*U.S. boutique offers made-in-Philadelphia aesthetic

Next door to the Old City fire station and Ben Franklin Park is a darling boutique with a timely fashion mission and a perfectly patriotic name.

US*U.S. is a 600-square-foot designer co-op led by custom clothier Lele Tran that houses a practical mix of easy-to-wear clothing, including a boho-inspired children's line, bold-hued bikinis and a collection of Gothic couture wear featuring corsets and fitted skirts.

But in addition to delivering this spring's latest colorful styles, US*U.S. (read Us, U.S.; the star is a reference to the American flag) gives shoppers the satisfaction of knowing their purchase was conceived of and manufactured in Philadelphia.

"It's important that we keep the economy strong here," said Tran, who sells her collection of day dresses and custom-made gowns from the store. Tran is a technical design teacher at Moore College of Art & Design. "It was my way of giving emerging designers a chance."

The four other designers sold at US*U.S. are at the very beginning of their careers, and like many young entrepreneurs, they are directly involved in all parts of the design process, from sketching to securing fabrics to making patterns. Most of the artists do everything themselves; a studio downstairs includes a cutting table and industrial sewing machines.

Each of the designers want to grow their brands, but they don't have plans to be mega-conglomerates; it's that kind of greed, they say, that hurts new designers' chances of breaking into the business. So to ensure independent designers can make a living (it's difficult to afford the cheaper labor abroad that demands larger-than-necessary production), they are part of movement to help return clothing manufacturing to the United States.

In essence, US*U.S. is a throwback to the old-school way of marketing fashion, when custom design was valued more than the ability to create hundreds of the same item at the cheapest price possible.

"I have no interest sending manufacturing work overseas," said Tran, 42, who moved to the United States from Vietnam when she was 11 years old. "We want to keep the integrity of our work. And we want to create jobs."

"We can make good livings as designers," piped in 21-year-old Rachel Sadler, whose swimwear line, Corazon, is available at US*U.S. Even though she purchased the bright-colored fabrics in Guatemala (she was there, she liked it), Sadler designs and sews all of the two-piece suits herself. "And we can provide jobs. But we need the support of our community."

Co-ops, where designers split costs and responsibilities, seem to be growing in urban centers nationwide as design school graduates realize they can't find enough manufacturing talent in the States. Etsy is one online example of the phenomenon. There aren't enough jobs at bigger fashion companies like Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters, and many students don't have any interest in working there anyway; they'd rather stay true to their personal aesthetic.

"We are all so good at making clothing," said Nicole Haddad, a 31-year old designer from Lansdowne who sells a collection of soft cotton, seasonless dresses, ranging in price from $65 to $100. Haddad's Lobo Mau, which means "big, bad wolf" in Portuguese, is the most recent addition to the store. Mau sold 10 dresses last month from US*U.S. - enough to pay her rent. "This opportunity has helped me build my brand, oversee my production and actually have a shot in this business."

And it seems a made-in-the-USA label is more coveted in certain fashion circles than designer mass-produced items-of-the-moment. In the last few years, a handful of fashion designers-turned-boutique owners have successfully set up shop in Philadelphia - from Smak Parlour, the Old City design duo that makes much of their own merchandise, to Ardmore-based special occasion czarina Janice Martin.

Yet Tran isn't new to the Philadelphia fashion scene. She opened her first store, Lele, in 1997 and became the go-to-girl for the Rittenhouse Square crowd seeking custom-made dresses. When her son entered kindergarten, she wanted to spend more time with him as he transitioned to school, so she closed her boutique in 2007.

Three years ago, when Tran took a job at Moore helping seniors finish collections for their end-of-year show, she met young designers who wanted to break into the business, but as the economy changed, they feared they wouldn't find work. From that experience, the concept for US*U.S. was born. After working with the Old City District to secure a space, she and her members painted the walls, sanded the floor, put in track lighting and installed the shelving. They even picked up decorative knickknacks from secondhand stores - anything to keep costs down. With less than $1,000 invested, Tran opened the store in February.

In addition to Sadler's swimwear line and Haddad's dresses, Tran asked 21-year-old Moore senior Cari Brezina, whose children's wear collection Secret Bohemia reminds me of mini-me fairy godmother clothing, to join. Also in the mix is Heartless Revival, by Autumn Kietpolnglert, one of the five designers-in-residence at Macy's Philadelphia Fashion Incubator.

"I know how hard it is to start a business, and I see these girls have talent and they have the passion," Tran said. "I have all of these things. Why not share it talented students?"



Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @ewellingtonphl. Read her blog, "Mirror Image," at philly.com/mirrorimage.