Villa has been in the hip-hop fashion game since the baggy days of Cross Colors and Fubu. So execs of the retail chain figured if anyone could help designers from "the block" make fashion, they could.
In winter 2012, Patrick Walsh, vice president of marketing, launched a contest calling on designers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and surrounding states to submit their best work. More than 250 entered, and the winner, Khaleel Salaam, 30, saw his collection of men's fitted T's, hoodies, and tanks produced by the Philadelphia-based company.
A little more than a year later, Salaam is among six up-and-coming fashion groups working directly with Villa on fledgling menswear lines under the umbrella label Home Sewn.
"It's a way for me to share my message," said Salaam.
His own label G.E.E.K. is an acronym (close enough) for Good Energy =Quals Kreation. His apparel features images of glasses - as in, it's cool to be nerdy. One shirt bears the likeness of Steve Urkel, the nerd nonpareil from the 1980s series Family Matters.
Thanks to a heavy social media presence, targeted marketing events, and old-fashioned grind, Home Sewn is gaining steam in Philly with the graphically funky lines. Right now, pieces carrying the label - accompanied by the designers' individual labels - are in each of Villa's 67 stores, most of which are in Philly and environs. T-shirts can be had for $20, hoodies for $50.
"We've done surprisingly well," Walsh said. For example, "once we got the T-shirts made, he [Salaam] wanted to [put them in stores] immediately. We said we'd think about it . . . maybe . . . if he sold 100 shirts. That first day he sold 141."
Villa's Home Sewn program is emblematic of the made-in-America aesthetic being embraced on fashion's leading edge. These days, fashion is a melting pot of punk, skater, and hip-hop influences that foster more of a DIY mentality than one weighted with luxe and lofty labels. It's indisputable that what starts out in the streets now often ends up on the runways.
"Ten years ago, if you wore a shirt to the club that was designed by a friend, you would be laughed at," said Home Sewn designer Billy "Abstract" Nearn Jr., 29, who works with his brother, Aaron "DJ Aye Boogie," on T's and tanks for his Abstract Thought line.
"Now people are so much more receptive," Nearn added. "It's what people want."
Other designers include Philly-based Curran J. Swint, 23, whose fitted, indie-brand Kings Rule Together has developed a cult following, including Will Smith's son, Jaden.
Also in the group is West Philly rapper Chill Moody, 28. The video for Moody's single "Chains" plays on VH1 and MTV. He recently performed at the Wawa Welcome America! July 4th Jam on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. He named his collection Nice Things because, well, he likes nice things.
Home Sewn designer Mont Brown says his Astronauts collection was inspired by Guion Bluford, the first African American in space - and, like Brown, from West Philly.
"Where I come from, people just don't have any hope," said Brown, 26, who is also a musician and has helped organize stop-the-violence events in his neighborhood. "Anything is possible. You don't have to be an astronaut to be able to fly."
Fashionably speaking, urban clothing is trendsetting, but also often embedded with political messages. Twenty years ago those graphics would have included, no doubt, an in-your-face red-black-and-green fist.
Today, though, the images are almost subliminal: G.E.E.K.'s signature glasses suggest intelligence, Abstract Thought's clever use of the idea bubble conveys the sense that ideas are limitless.
The Home Sewn lines are also a declaration - that "we are American, and our collections are made here," said Salaam.
"We try to put out a positive message and stay positive. We value ourselves."
Villa was founded in the early 1990s in Reading. Walsh, who has been with the chain for seven years, identifies Home Sewn designers through community engagement, whether at a basketball tournament or a Meek Mill concert. He was behind the North Philly rapper's Dreamchasers line.
Walsh has seen the urban clothing industry morphing from one dominated by rappers with clothing brands, like Jay-Z and Damon Dash's Rocawear, to one nurturing independent designers.
"At one point," Walsh said, "I was getting two questions from people: 'When were the new Jordans coming out?' and 'How can I get my stuff in your store?' "
So they put a call out to potential creators where Villa has stores: Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio, New Jersey, and western New York.
Villa helps the designers source materials, sets them up with graphic designers, fronts the initial investment, and even guides them through copyright deals and contracts. Depending on the level of Villa's involvement, the company takes a percentage of the sales. The designer retains his rights.
"We want them to keep what is theirs," Walsh said. "They worked hard for it."
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.