Jen Green looks out at the 80-some millennials chatting it up with local designers at the art gallery studio: christensen in Rittenhouse Square.
Clad in this spring's must-have brights, the guests look swank. The rhubarb cocktails are flowing. And Green couldn't be more pleased.
The April soiree, featuring Germantown-based women's-wear label NIC*FISH and calligrapher/jewelry designer Danny Fox, marks the one-year anniversary of HyLo Boutiques — short for hyper-local — Green's consulting company and design collective that uses a unique-to-our-time business model to promote fashions conceived of and manufactured in Philadelphia.
"We curate the crowd," said Green, 24, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who has mastered the art of marketing speak. "We are refining the local retail experience and presenting it in a new way. We are repositioning hyper-local so that people want to reach for it."
In other words, Green brings in a cool crowd with cool friends, who think local is cool.
HyLo employs a marketing strategy that takes designers through a three-tier process: There's a party, like this one, where a featured designer is introduced to a HyLo bunch — a mix of other entrepreneurs and potential customers — in a studio setting where patrons nosh on snacks provided by hip restaurateurs. The party launches a monthlong showing at the gallery by the designer, where he or she can hold court taking orders and networking with visitors and other designers — a so-called revolving pop-up shop. And the third component involves consulting by Green, who teaches artists how to build their brand using local resources and social media networks, including blogging and posting on Facebook and Twitter.
Over the last year Green has worked with about 15 up-and-coming brands, including contemporary T-shirt line Duke & Winston and vintage jewelry line Moon & Arrow.
Ultimately Green wants HyLo to be the go-to place for Philly's independent designers to establish meaningful relationships with the retail community (so like-minded artists can help one another) and with customers — much like they did in urban centers before fashion moved to suburban malls.
There was a time not so long ago when the PR machine was paramount to getting started — landing a mention in a glossy mag could launch a business. HyLo cuts out the media middleman, and directly connects artists to customers, making mom-and-pop brands chic by bringing the right people together through a mix of social media and word of mouth.
Green's grassroots methods don't guarantee immediate stardom or QVC-level sales (in fact, Green has yet to make a profit), but as the fashion industry reembraces old-school adages like "quality over quantity" and "find what you need in your own backyard," they are slowly gaining momentum. Among local designers eager to build young brands, her collaborative efforts build a lot of buzz.
One of her most significant fashion coups is hosting a monthly trunk show for Bela Shehu, who, of the Philly-based up-and-coming designers, has some of the most well-heeled and chic customers.
"It's such a good marriage," said Shehu, who over the last seven months has found more than 50 new clients through her HyLo connection. That's significant for someone building a brand. "It gives us a chance to merge our energy." Not only are Shehu's clients introduced to HyLo's roster of other designers, but also the additional exposure helps Shehu generate more business.
Green is skilled at networking, but a big reason HyLo is gaining traction is, like the local food movement, homegrown fashion is hot.
When buying one of our most basic necessities, we have little choice but to purchase apparel made overseas. Now, with rising gas prices and high unemployment, consumers wonder: How can we support a global economy when our own marketplace is suffering?
Plus, mass-produced fashion has become synonymous with a negative throwaway culture.
"This is part of what's really driving the made-in-America trend," said Joseph Hancock, an associate professor in designer merchandising at Drexel University, who, over the last year, has noticed brands like Ralph Lauren and Levi focus more energy on promoting their products made Stateside. "People can't buy as much. But they want better-quality garments and they don't mind putting money into the local economy."
Hancock isn't aware of a similar business model in Philadelphia, but HyLo's success is more evidence that consumers are better educated about the link between the creative economy and flourishing neighborhoods, and how businesses used to be built on relationships. Yet today, instead of apprenticeships, designers work in co-ops, show in pop-up shops, or learn in incubators, all of which encourage artists to share costs and utilize one another's connections.
Green shows them how to do this.
At April's party, a half dozen models wrapped in Nicole Fisher's signature silk jerseys in popping purples and reds meandered through the art gallery. Fisher talked about her designs to potential buyers, and shoppers got to feel the fabric while eating tropical-flavored cupcakes.
Fisher, who has a local seamstress sew the pieces she designs, sells most of her clothes on etsy, the online marketplace for handmade items. But the former Urban Outfitters designer took one order at last month's event and has appointments to meet with four other potential customers.
"Events like this are key to helping small businesses like mine grow," she said. "We want to be sustainable, and part of that includes getting the word out."
The seed for HyLo was planted when Green, still in college, spent eight months in Paris studying French literature. There she witnessed the synergy between neighborhoods, retail, and fashion — well-dressed customers interacting with shopkeepers who interacted with one another in close-knit main streets — and she wanted to replicate that energy here.
After graduation, Green, who is originally from Connecticut, decided to stay put and take a job as a management consultant at the Center for Applied Research, all the while thinking of ways to connect communities through retail. The Philadelphia food scene was already vibrant, she thought, so she turned her focus to fashion.
A little more than a year ago, Green met Jt Christensen, the bespectacled gallery owner of studio: christensen, and the two decided the space was a perfect venue to cross-promote his art clients and her potential fashion clients. This would become her headquarters, as well as the venue for monthly parties, trunk shows, and the rotating pop-up shops.
Eventually she hopes to bring her business model to other cities experiencing urban renewal.
"We have to be accountable for supporting our local creative economy," said Green, who insists she has found her life's work. "It's a back-to-basics way of interacting that includes treating people well and appreciating what's in front of you."