Get your fashion right here

Philadelphia struts its shopping stuff just fine. A happy alternative to New York for boutique and vintage. All it lacks is the big retail names - and respect.

The shopping scene along Walnut Street in Center City, Philadelphia. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)

As New York Fashion Week wrapped up last week, all eyes were on the Big Apple - in the conventional wisdom, the capital of all things haute.

And for good reason: It is home to all the high-end department stores. Boutiques are on every corner. And just to stand on a New York City subway platform is to rub shoulders with the fashionable.

But Philadelphia is no slouch; in fact, those in the know would say that at this moment our fashion cred rivals New York's, especially when it comes to shopping. (Cue the naysayers now: That can't be right!)

Well, just look at the facts:

In December, named Philadelphia No. 6 among America's top shopping cities based on factors including prices, sales tax, and number of retail centers. (New York came in at No. 22.)

Two months ago, online luxury retailer Rue La La, which already offers deals to Boston and Seattle shoppers, bypassed New Yorkers to offer deals specific to Philadelphia.

"When it comes to retail, the opportunities in Philadelphia are tremendous," said Justin Fine, general manager of Rue Philadelphia. "We've offered deals at top-notch stores like Knit Wit, Giovanni & Pileggi, and Denim Habit. These are local jewels."

Bela Shehu, a longtime local ghost designer who just launched her own fall 2011 Bendel-worthy womenswear line, decided to work with a Philadelphia-based brand consultant this month instead of getting lost in the hoopla of New York Fashion Week and the subsequent market week.

And have you noticed the city seems to be growing fashion events like weeds? In fall it celebrated 17 Days of Fashion, two Philadelphia Fashion Weeks, and the city's Philadelphia Collection - what amounted to four groups hosting four events in eight weeks. In fact, FBH-The Agency is gearing up for its presentation of fall collections starting Thursday.

Philadelphia also is touted as vintage central, with boutiques such as Vagabond on Third Street, and the city has its share of specialty boutiques like Pileggi, where you can buy Diane von Furstenberg and Rebecca Minkoff - both of whom had shows at New York's Lincoln Center last week. And on Valentine's Day, homegrown Anthropologie debuted a much-anticipated line of bridal gowns that's near couture-worthy.

There really is no brand on the pages of Lucky magazine that you can't find here.

The problem, as with many things in Philadelphia, is that there seems to be a disconnect between perception and reality.

"People think we are limited," said Kelly Boyd, a local publicist known for her designer taste (she wore Carolina Herrera to last month's Academy Ball). "But I disagree. Anything I really want, I can find here. I can get it from Boyds or Adresse. I don't have to go to New York to get great fashion."

That's not to say the Philadelphia shopping scene is a carbon copy of New York's. Some are quick to point out the city is missing the three B's: Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, and a full-fledged Barneys. (Philadelphia has a Barneys Co-op on Walnut Street, which offers casual clothes and appeals more to the daughters of Barneys customers.)

"When I think shopping, I'm always going to think New York," said local stylist Adrienne Simmons. "Philly is getting better, but when I want something specific, I go to New York because I'm not going to run out of options."

Philadelphia does have the fourth B - Bloomingdale's, in the King of Prussia mall and Willow Grove Park mall. But Center City could use a Bloomies, too, say those with a passion for fashion.

"Sometimes people are looking for the concentration . . . and it makes it a little harder to establish Philadelphia as a shopping destination," explained Meryl Levitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.

For instance, while you can buy Gucci here in boutiques or department stores, the brand doesn't have a free-standing store downtown.

"A lot of people shop by store brands, and if they don't see it, they assume Philadelphia doesn't have the cachet," Levitz said. "Philadelphia does not easily reveal itself."

So GPTMC has been working hard to boost the city's retail. During the last week in January, it put up $300,000 worth of signs in New York's Penn Station on ceilings, pillars, steps, and billboards urging visitors to Philadelphia to shop - and stay overnight. The agency will launch a similar campaign in Washington this year. Here's an example: "Dear browsing beauties, leave no boot behind. P.S. Trust me, you'll need the whole weekend."

New Yorker Thandekile Shange, 43, travels to Philadelphia at least three times a year to shop. The Bryn Mawr College graduate's favorite haunts are eclectic boutiques on South Street and in Old City, as well as on Walnut Street.

"It's like this: If you are going to New York for New York, that's one thing," Shange said. "But if you are going to find deals . . . I find better deals in Philadelphia," she said, pointing to a leather jacket she paid $35 for. "I'm sure that jacket would have cost me at least a couple of hundred dollars in New York."

Yet there's one hurdle Philadelphia might never clear - New York's high style standards. Philadelphians may not feel compelled to dress to the nines whether going to dinner, walking the dog, or heading to work, but many New Yorkers do. And that cadre of well-dressed men and women becomes a glorious advertisement for the city's retail smorgasbord. Philadelphians are more apt to advertise for the Phillies.

People in the fashion industry, however, seem to recognize the region's benefits and make it a point to shop local.

"I really enjoy the vintage and consignment shopping here," said Maren Reese, a Philadelphia-based stylist who often travels to New York for work but shops for clients here. "Everything in New York is so picked over. I go to [stores like] Second Time Around at least once every two weeks. I can get anything here that I get in New York; I just have to go looking for it."

That's good news for the Philadelphia Retail Marketing Alliance. Comprising local organizations including the Center City District and the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, the nearly three-year-old group touts the city's retail potential.

Michelle Shannon, vice president of marketing at the Center City District and one of the alliance's cochairs, wants to make sure Philadelphia takes advantage of its stable retail market, which can be measured, in part, by retail vacancy rates.

As of August, Center City's rate was 11.9 percent, just 0.8 percent higher than the previous year. She cites the number to show that even when the economy was at its worst, most of the storefronts in Center City were occupied.

"It says people are buying," Shannon said. "People are still spending, and Philadelphia is a healthy and vibrant retail climate."

And such a climate might allow Philadelphia to win the ultimate coup, she said, getting retailers such as Prada, Louis Vuitton, or Diane von Furstenberg to open stand-alone stores downtown.

"They are always looking for evidence that their customer is there," Shannon said.

Those kinds of places, in addition to Philadelphia's vibrant independent boutiques, would create a kind of critical mass - think Chicago's Magnificent Mile or New York's Fifth Avenue - that many experts believe will change people's perceptions of the city. If they can see designer retailer after designer retailer, it gives the impression of abundance.

Shannon also would like to see the city work harder to become an incubator for young designers. In a perfect world, Philadelphia's stars - Carmelita Greco of Carmelita Couture, Sarah Van Aken of SAVA, or Shehu - would gain a national following and people would flock from other cities for their sample sales.

In the meantime, the local fashion industry will have to prove itself.

"It has been challenging," Shannon said.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854- 2704 or Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.