Philadelphia's 25 greatest fashion folk
From Ben Franklin’s glasses to Patti LaBelle’s crazy ’80s hair to Grace Kelly’s, well, everything, the City of Brotherly Love’s impact on American style goes beyond Phillies ball caps and Eagles jerseys.
New York runway designers Ralph Rucci and Tory Burch call the region home. And dynamic boutiques such as Center City’s Joan Shepp and Lafayette Hill’s First Impressions keep us dressed in high style. As of late, our town is home to a burgeoning class of innovators such as Michelle Shannon of the Center City District and FBH Philadelphia Fashion Week founders Kevin Parker and Kerry Scott, who are coming up with fresh ideas to spotlight our creative economy.
With all of this good fashion energy around me, I was inspired by Time’s recent list of All-Time Top 100 Icons in Fashion, Style and Design to create my own Philadelphia list.
Some of my choices might be expected, but there are surprises, too. These style makers have left an indelible mark not just on local, but on global, fashion.
1. Grace Kelly. The actress is known for more than her ultrafeminine, classically tailored wardrobe. The East Falls native had one of themost coveted bags in history named in her honor. In 1935, Hermès introduced Sac à dépêches, which was renamed the Kelly Bag in 1956 when a then-pregnant Princess Grace of Monaco used it to shield her baby bump from the paparazzi. The bag became the first “it” bag.
2. Patti LaBelle.No one has owned skyscraper hair like West Philly’s own Patti LaBelle. Starting from her days as the lead singer of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Miss Patti mixed mod-’60s chic with shoulder pads, sparkles, feathers, 5-inch nails, and a bevy of wigs, giving the girl-next-door look a dose of West Philly funk.
3.Teddy Pendergrass.With his signature open-to-the-navel collared shirts and tight bell-bottoms, Teddy P made women swoon decades before Justin Timberlake brought sexy back. We still see the late crooner’s swag, which includes a full 5 o’clock shadow, on today’s performers, from will.i.am to Philly’s own Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the Roots.
4. Joanna McNeil Lewis. Always my top pick at the Academy of Music’s Anniversary Concert & Ball, Lewis brings celebrity red carpet fashion to Philadelphia. Over the years I’ve seen the Academy’s youngest president flawlessly wear Versace and Valentino, proving time and again that Hollywood glam is better with a Philadelphia twist.
5. Allen Iverson. Iverson’s last season with the Philadelphia 76ers was forgettable, but the player’s affinity for cornrows and tattoos influenced how athletes and fans dress on and off the court.
6. Tory Burch. Burch mixed a bit of Banana Republic with a dash of Chanel luxe to create the casual clothing line TRB by Tory Burch. Debuting in 2004, it has grown to an empire of 26 boutiques including flagship stores in New York, Los Angeles, and the King of Prussia mall. Burch, who was born in Valley Forge, is best known for tunics and those perfectly round-toed Reva flats that helped bring the classic shoe back in style.
7. Ralph Rucci. This South Philadelphia-born designer has worldwide appeal among fashion’s most elite. In fall 2002 Rucci became the first American-based designer invited to show as part of Paris’ haute-couture official fashion week calendar. He’s best known for marrying simple silhouettes, such as the long-sleeve A-line dress, with luxurious silks.
8. Willi Smith. Considered one of the most successful African American fashion designers, Smith, a graduate of Philadelphia’s Mastbaum Area Vocational Technical School, is best known for his colorful activewear line Williwear. His other fashion credits include sketching the dress that Mary Jane Watson wore when she married Spider-Man in the comic strip in 1987, and most of the clothing featured in Spike Lee’s School Daze the following year.
9. Paula Hian. She’s had a few ups and lots of downs, but through it all, Hian’s aesthetic, an explosive use of color in slim silhouettes, has remained consistent. Hian rose to fashion prominence in 1988 after she won a French fashion award that landed one of her dresses in the Louvre, where it is on display today. Hian recently changed the name of her ready-to-wear collection to PH Paula Hian, and these days her French knits and American-manufactured wovens are available at Joan Shepp and 30 specialty stores nationwide.
10. Joan Shepp (and Crew). Joan Shepp’s look — all things black, draping, and asymmetrical — is easy to spot on the artsy Rittenhouse Square crowd. One of the first retailers to bring fashion-forward designers such as Rick Owens, Sonia Rykiel, and Thakoon to Center City, Shepp was also the first downtown retailer to incorporate the shop-in-shop concept featuring Yohji Yamamoto’s sporty Y-3 collection. Shepp, with her daughter, Ellen, and top saleswoman Tuesday Gordon, continually give fashion devotees permission to think outside the box.
11. Ann Gitter. For 40 years now, the low-key owner of Knit Wit and Plage Tahiti has brought to Philadelphia and its surrounding burbs her hippie-infused version of American fashion with a hint of European glamour and West Coast ease. And with her June move to Chestnut Street, she’ll have more than double the space to surprise us with new lines from Haute Hippie to Elizabeth and James.
12.Sophy Curson. Philadelphia’s high-society doyennes wouldn’t be nearly as swank without gowns purchased here. The boutique has been a special-occasion staple since it opened its doors on South 19th Street in 1929. Just ask A-list philanthropist Anne Hamilton, who credits Curson’s nephew, David Schwartz, with finding a special blue gown for her each and every Academy Ball.
13.Suky Rosan. Think Suky, and you think high-fashion bridal. Rosan, who died in 2004, was the local home to lacy Vera Wangs, but she was loved for her personal touch and innate ability to find the perfect dress for every woman who shopped there. The store closed in 2009, but Rosan’s legacy lives on.
14. Tom Marotta. Marotta did more than help women find the right cocktail dresses and interview suits. Saks Fifth Avenue’s late vice president of couture introduced designers like Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, and Zac Posen to Philadelphia when they were up-and-coming. In 2009, 17 designers donated one eveningwear piece to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection, “Inspiring Fashion: Gifts From Designers Honoring Tom Marotta.”
15. Syreeta Scott. Owner of East Falls salon Duafe, Scott helps hype the beauty of natural black hair at a time when Remy weaves rule. Scott, who is singer Jill Scott’s stylist, has been featured in Essence magazine numerous times and can be credited with keeping locks luxurious on such celebs as gospel singer Tye Tribbett, Glamour editor Veronica Chambers, and movie producer Lisa Cortes.
16. Ben Franklin. Yes, Mr. Franklin discovered electricity, but where would modern eyewear be without the small, square granny glasses Franklin wore in the 18th century? The specs became super-popular in the 1960s thanks to John Lennon and John Sebastian. Franklin also invented the bifocal, but that’s another fashion focus story.
17. Mary K. Dougherty. Even Philadelphia’s most fashionably well-versed confuse Dougherty with New York’s Nicole Miller. Dougherty, who owns the Nicole Miller boutiques in Manayunk and the Hyatt at the Bellevue, has built a rep promoting Miller’s curve-friendly ruched gowns and exotically printed silks. A frequent stop for Philadelphia first lady Lisa Nutter, the store hosts an annual wedding fashion show and regularly hosts high-fashion fund-raisers.
18. Pamela Katz. Katz’s Lafayette Hill boutiques First Impressions and Down 2 Earth Kids bring L.A. Style to Philly. One of the first local store owners to cash in on the connection between fashion and celebrity, Katz introduced contemporary denim brands such as J. Brand and Current/Elliott, and kid-friendly bracelets SillyBandz to the cul-de-sac culture.
19. Sebastian McCall. Without Charlie’s Jeans owner Sebastian McCall, there would be many a Philadelphia backside that never would have met the perfect pair of premium jeans. McCall, who has stores in Old City and Rittenhouse Square, discovered his fashion niche early in the new millennium when Seven for All Mankind and Citizens for Humanity made $150 jeans a must-have. Known around town as the “Jeans Whisperer,” McCall is the first name that comes to mind when you’re looking for a new pair of indigos.
20. Richard Hayne. When this businessman opened Urban Outfitters in 1970, he had no idea his company would become the country’s premier boho-chic chain featuring everything from crass T-shirts at Urban Outfitters to darling polka-dot coatdresses at Anthropologie.
21. QVC. This West Chester company changed how we shop for clothing by making it fun, funky — and fast. Because of this home shopping channel, designers from Isaac Mizrahi to cosmetics diva Mally Roncal have become household names. Even reality TV divas such as Kim Kardashian and stylist Rachel Zoe are clamoring to sell lines on the network. QVC began hosting live runway shows during New York Fashion Week in September 2008, proving to the fashion world what consumers had been saying all along: Folks would rather shop for the current season than wait six months for runway presentations to appear in stores.
22. Michelle Shannon. Shannon, vice president of marketing and communications for the Center City District, was instrumental in the March opening of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator at Macy’s. The incubator, which organizers hope will be the catalyst for boosting the area’s creative economy, houses five designers-in-residence, who are learning how to make their lines profitable. Shannon also was key in starting the annual Philadelphia Collection, 10 days of cocktail parties and fashion shows at local boutiques.
23. Karen Giberson. In the seven years Giberson has been president of the New York-based Accessories Council, her team has helped hundreds of accessories brands become early adopters for social media, and created a strong network of bloggers and tweeters who are talking high-end fashion accoutrements on a grassroots level. The Media resident also turned the annual ACE awards into one of the leading events in the New York fashion industry, with past honorees including entertainers Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Flo-Rida.
24. Kevin Parker and Kerry Scott. Parker and Scott have consistently produced a Philadelphia Fashion Week that includes a down-home approach to high-fashion runway drama. The first FBH Fashion Week was held here five years ago, and today designers from New York to Baltimore, along with Philadelphia-based artists, show the current season’s collections.
25. Tweety Elitou. At just 17, the Northwest Philadelphia-based beauty/fashion blogger has a keen eye and a fashionably accurate voice. Through her blog younghipchic.onsugar.com, Elitou has figured out how to make high fashion accessible to a teen audience, showcasing everything from makeup to ridiculously exclusive designer trends. Watch out for her fashion commentary as she matures.