The concept behind Maark Concept - a South Street showroom where emerging designers offer a curated selection of deliberately stitched, athletically inspired, and slightly ethereal clothing and accessories - had been stewing for quite some time.
That's why, when Ethan Nguyen spotted, post-brunch, a vacant storefront one Sunday afternoon in December, he called the landlord the next day.
"I knew just the people I wanted to make this happen with me," said Nguyen, 31, a University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist-turned-luxe-unisex-clothing-designer of the brand Sans Marque Sans Marque (think T-shirt tunics fashioned from cotton jersey, and trousers with roomy front folds that have a kilt effect).
Nguyen reached out to designers he met at Coshare, a pop-up emerging-designer co-op space at 15th and Walnut started by Wharton MBA graduate Natalie Vane.
They were: Nicole Haddad, who designs comfy, quilted women's wear under the name Lobo Mau; and Melissa Choi, 32, and Pia Panaligan, 33, former designers-in-residence of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator program who make day dresses and dusters as the design duo Senpai + Kohai.
He also buzzed Samantha Connors, 23, who produces silk scarves and statement jewelry labeled Vexot.
Two weeks later, the five new collaborators were scrubbing toilets, painting walls, and building dressing rooms for the Maark Concept boutique that opened in the second week of February. There, they sell pieces from their individual collections, plus those from 11 other designers, most of whom hail from Pennsylvania.
Prices range from $12 for refrigerator magnets to $250 for a holographic print dress.
"We want to celebrate the work of emerging and local designers," said Nguyen.
"And we also needed a permanent space for our work," said Haddad, 35.
At a time when the fashion industry is rethinking how it does business - most notably moving away from a model that mass-produces collections that aren't on sales racks when people want to buy them - Maark Concept can be considered a timely, homegrown solution.
The designers featured at Maark Concept generally produce only two collections a year, and, for the most part, they are seasonless. Sure, there may be a few chunky sweaters and sweats - I'm eyeing a Lobo Mau navy-and-orange dressy patchwork sweatshirt - but for the most part, the clothes are layering pieces that can easily move from season to season.
Maark Concept is a hybrid showroom, co-op, and traditional boutique.
As in a showroom, to avoid clutter, there are only a few items on the floor at a time.
And similar to a co-op (at least for now), the collaborators take a percentage of each of their 11 designers' sales. Eventually, Nguyen says, the business model is to buy the clothing from the designers wholesale. That's a good deal for emerging designers because who else would take a chance on a young brand other than another young brand?
"We know the challenges," Nguyen said, "because we are out there in the trenches."
Like a concept boutique, Maark Concept will rotate merchandise monthly. That way, people will have to come in to the store rather than shop online. And when customers see something they love, they will more likely buy it at full price. The goal is to avoid markdowns.
In return, as designers who are selling clothing directly to customers, they will be able to listen and curate the store's offerings based on customer feedback - the co-owners vote on potential merchandise each week. They plan to offer customers styling advice and to incorporate what they learn in the retail space every day into subsequent seasons' collections.
"This is how we can give shoppers an experience," Panaligan said.
At the moment, the Maark Concept experience is quite pleasant.
The 2,000-square-foot store is filled with the oaky sweetness of a vetiver-scented candle. A center table is packed with the cutest of accessories, including delicate chain necklaces and key chains with Philadelphia zip codes. A custom-made metal-pipe chandelier by Fishtown interior designer Lauren Dombrowiak amps up the space's modern feel.
There are lots of navy, orange Aztec, and patchwork prints. And because what I want to buy may not be there next week, I felt compelled to purchase.
Maark Concept, 1540 South St.
Information: 215-839-9154 or www.maarkconcept.com.