We’ve heard it all before: Brick and mortar is dying. We’d rather shop at Amazon while we watch Netflix.
But the truth is, it really isn’t.
Standalone stores may be losing some of their permanence, but they’re trading on a new form of malleability.
Enter Bela Shehu, owner and founder of the airy yet edgy mostly women’s wear company NINOBrand. She is also arguably the coolest woman in Philadelphia. Last week, Shehu launched Private School 101, a unique marketplace on the eastern edge of the Fairmount section of the city that brings Philly fashion, entrepreneurs, artists, and chefs under one eclectic and cavernous roof. It will run through May 23.
Some of the entrepreneurs Shehu has recruited — like BusStop Boutique — have actual specialty stores, but a lot of the makers — like Jovan O’Connor — are young business owners whose customer bases mostly follow them on Instagram. In this space, which Shehu based on the original Dover Street Market in London, the city’s burgeoning fashion industry has a chance to mingle together and see customers in real life.
“Private School is a cultural event,” Shehu said hours before the kickoff party last week. She’s calling it a retail experiment. “It’s not just a marketplace. It’s an energetic space for makers and curators. This is where the curious mind can go and discover [what’s new] in food, product design, and music.”
The appeal of a place like Dover Street is that it offers uber-high-end fashion brands that still have an indie flavor, such as Vetements, Sacai, and Thom Browne. Though Private School has the potential to be that kind of place, the price points are more reasonable and the actual designers and vendors are often on hand to chat with you while you shop and possibly even make a deal with you.
Private School isn’t the only indication that brick-and-mortar retail is evolving into something new and less permanent. A combination of rising real estate costs and our lack of shopping is making retailers big and small rethink how they present their merchandise. After more than 50 years with a downtown location, Knit Wit owner Ann Gitter has all but abandoned setting up shop in a permanent Center City location and now hosts quarterly pop-ups in in Rittenhouse Square. The next is scheduled for September.
It’s not just small business owners: Last month, Macy’s introduced Story to its department stores across the country, including in Center City. Story, founded in 2011 by brand consultant turned entrepreneur Rachel Shechtman, invited shoppers to an always-changing installation that feels more like a museum than racks on a sales floor. In that way, Shechtman introduced new brands, too. People came back because they weren’t getting just new products, but a new experience. She sold the concept to Macy’s last year. This month for Macy’s first Story exhibit, which will be the same in every participating store, it teamed with the color experts at brands we know like MAC cosmetics and Crayola to sell brands we don’t know as well, like Julie Mollo’s rock-and-roll vinyl clutches and supercharged soaps from Barr-co. (When a unique experience is in every Macy’s, can we still call it unique?)
These kinds of shopping experiences, said NPD industry analyst Beth Goldstein, are popping up in smaller cities all over as a solution to the brick-and-mortar dilemma.
“It’s about elevating the experience for shoppers who, because of customer service and the glut of the same stuff, aren’t really enjoying shopping anymore,” Goldstein said. “These kinds of retail experiences are trying to bring people back to what they loved about shopping — the customization, the personal service.”
There’s an added benefit for vendors, too. Shehu said she also wanted to give young makers a chance to connect to customers in person with whom they ordinarily engage only through social media.
“These kids have a market, they have a following, and they make a good product,” Shehu says. “Private School helps them expand.”
By marrying the entitled highbrow vibe of a prep school with the inherent coolness that comes with being connected to underground music, fashion, and art, Shehu says she hopes the more than 60 brands she’s assembled — from established jeweler John Wind to newer ones like Forge + Finish — will form relationships that could evolve into business and personal liaisons. Think post-prep school graduation friendships.
Private School is a well-thought out concept, right down to the bleachers at the center of the 6,000-plus-square-foot space. Visitors are urged to make appointments if they want to visit the space during daytime hours. In the evenings, however, there will be ticketed events, including a fashion presentation Thursday night with specialty cocktails and hors d’oeuvres from local chefs.
Shehu also plans to host events with private school themes like a “Too Cool for School” picture day scheduled for Sunday, May 5. A high tea organized for Private School patrons will be held Tuesday, May 7. If Shehu is able to host additional Private School marketplaces throughout the year, she might just publish a yearbook at the end of 2019.
“Everything is on the table,” Shehu said with an uncharacteristic giddiness. “Perhaps we will even have a prom.”