Fashion District Philadelphia, an 800,000-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex, opens Thursday, replacing the beloved behemoth that was once the Gallery.

The fancy-schmancy Gallery remake, which spans three Center City blocks, was the subject of criticism even before it opened.

Fashion purists were offended by the perceived lack of fashion. Where is the Louis? Where is the Fendi? A movie theater does not a haute mall make.

And then there were those who had fond memories of the Gallery and who expected to feel displaced, seeing the Fashion District as another way to disenfranchise people in the city — especially black folks.

During the last three years of construction, I hovered between “we sure don’t need any more fast-fashion haunts” and “I sure do miss Basic Black Books.”

I was smack dab in the middle of A Tale of Two Phillys.

But after my tour through the Fashion District — with its gleaming white walls, hot lights, and King of Prussia Mall feel — I decided the District, with its generously sized Nike, Levi, and Skechers outlets, and soon-to-open AMC Theatre, is the answer to what kind of fashion city we really are.

Work continues at the Fashion District Philadelphia on Monday outside Skechers in preparation for its Thursday opening.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Work continues at the Fashion District Philadelphia on Monday outside Skechers in preparation for its Thursday opening.

We want to think we are a Gucci town, but we aren’t. When it comes to luxury labels, we are armchair fashionistas who turn our noses all the way up at expensive pieces and wonder aloud (and in my voicemail), “Who in their right mind would pay so much money to look so, well, basic?”

That doesn’t mean we don’t have style. It’s evident everywhere, from the androgynous teens who melt down the streets of Midtown Village to the de la Renta divas who populate the annual Academy Ball. And, of course, the way we wear our Eagles sweatsuits is Philly all day.

It’s just that most of us are more Lulu than Louis. We’d rather eat, drink, and work it off at SoulCycle, than spend all of our discretionary income on just one Chanel bag. We’re smart shoppers who rent rather than buy.

In our own Philly way, we mirror the rest of America. High fashion simply doesn’t drive retail anymore.

How did we get here?

Most of us are just confused about this identity because high fashion used to mean luxury in Philadelphia. The city was a fashion capital of sorts. Labels mattered. We were the definition of classic with a twist.

We used to have a Louis Vuitton store. Through the early aughts to 2010s, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, and Coach defined Walnut Street’s tony reputation. For a hot minute we even had a Michael Kors.

Yet after the 2008 recession, luxury became synonymous with all things ostentatious. We still liked designer brands, but we preferred more reasonably priced ones, like Main Line-bred Tory Burch — Tory is still a quarter of the price of Louis. In the late aughts, the Center City District launched a program to attract Burch and her sisters in New York City runway fashion — Rebecca Minkoff, Milly, and Alice+Olivia. The idea was that cool stores begot other cool stores.

But those stores never came. And that ship has sailed, said Michelle Shannon, the Center City District’s market and communications VP.

Some of our retail woes were unique to Philly. Our close proximity to New York didn’t help. King of Prussia became the destination after an extensive renovation and the opening of its luxury wing in 2016.

There were also national trends. Online shopping made deep cuts into the brick-and-mortar market. Millennials were spending money on cool experiences rather than cool stuff. Women’s wear boutiques were replaced with boutique fitness spots.

This summer, what was left of Philadelphia’s luxe label scene took a major hit. In August, days after Barneys New York announced its bankruptcy, it closed its Rittenhouse Square location. After 22 years in Center City, Mary K. Dougherty closed Nicole Miller at the Bellevue. The Bellevue is in the midst of a renovation and that same renovation is forcing Tiffany’s to find a new home, too. But Nicole Miller’s exodus means there are no more stand-alone designer stores in Center City. Timberland is also closing, said Paige Jaffe, managing director of the private real estate firm JLL. And it’s well known in town that Swarovski and Steve Madden are looking for subleases, which often signals that a closing is near.

Where does this leave Philadelphia?

High fashion presence is waning, but it isn't all gone.

Joan Shepp, one of the few shops in town that carries the likes of Balenciaga and Comme des Garçons, celebrated her business’ 48th birthday last Wednesday. Boyds did an amazing job overhauling its women’s department, offering Alexander McQueen to Zac Posen and all the names in between.

Once digital-first brands like Warby Parker and UNTUCKit have found permanent homes on Walnut Street. And, says Jaffe, we are ripe for, perhaps, a Rent the Runway store.

“We sit somewhere between luxury and middle of the road,” Jaffe said. “Tenants like Anthropologie, Free People, Theory, Lululemon, they all thrive here and they aren’t at an inexpensive price point. We’re not luxury, but we’re not an outlet city, either.”

But the Fashion District has the power to unify the disparate parts of Philly. Next week, the District will host Philadelphia Fashion Week, where more than 50 local, national, and international designers will send their confections down the runway.

“Fashion is not defined by retail,” said Kevin Parker, one Philadelphia Fashion Week’s founders. “Fashion is about freedom, freedom of expression. It’s about perspective and having an eye to put it all together.”

Work continues at the Fashion District Philadelphia.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Work continues at the Fashion District Philadelphia.

In addition to the huge outlets, The Fashion District will be home to Aerie, American Eagle, Hollister, and Ulta. And on the concourse there will be a Uniquely Philly Section. Here local emerging retailers Dolly’s Boutique, The Sable Collective, American Hats, and South Fellini will get a chance to reach new customers.

Speaking of connections, Fashion District’s other anchors include co-working spaces like Industrious and REC Philly. These are the business that can connect Philadelphia, not haute couture. And if we are smart, we will let the Fashion District bridge the worlds between East of Broad, west of Broad, and everywhere in between.