Philadelphia-based retailer Joan Shepp runs her namesake boutique on Rittenhouse Sqaure with her daughter Ellen. By featuring an eclectic mix of designers including Rick Owens, Dries Van Noten, Yohji Yhmamoto and Junya Watanabe, Shepp’s establishment is often credited as one of the first destinations responsible for making Philadelphia more fashion forward.
What do you two enjoy most about working together as a mother-daughter team?
Joan: It’s different. For starters, you know that someone has your back and it’s not like the employer-employee relationship. Ellen happens to be amazingly creative and we bring different things to the table. That’s why I think we are very lucky that we have each other. We have this unspoken bond; we can laugh at each other’s mistakes and we can laugh at the things we do together. It’s just nice to have this best friend you can trust.
What would you say is the biggest challenge about working together?
Ellen: Sometimes we have trouble separating the work and the family. They can intertwine; I will have one of my kids’ birthday parties and get sidetracked and we will start talking about work…but over the years we’ve learned how to communicate and I think a big part of that is respecting each other and respecting our taste. I don’t see it as a negative experience.
Did both of you always think you would work in fashion?
Joan: I have been in the business for a while and when Ellen went away to college and came back from school, she decided she wanted to be in the business.
Ellen: I think I had trouble figuring out if I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer, but nothing really came naturally. I had bumped into a high school friend during Christmas break my first year of college and I had dinner with my mother and started talking about transferring schools by the end of dinner because I was so excited to transfer schools and start working in the store.
How has your business evolved over the past 28 years?
Ellen: I think one of our gifts is that my mother has this crystal ball—not really sure where it is—and for some reason every season, she will come back half way through and say, “Ok. I have it. I got it,” and she will finish the buying for the season. I think we are always a little bit ahead of our time and I give my mother full credit, but she doesn’t take credit for anything.
Joan: I do listen to what the customer has to say and where they are. We went through times where our customers were not buying collections; they were buying pieces and things that we love. What I buy a ton of is accessories. I could sell 150 hats and scarves and things that don’t do as much in a one-unit store.
Who is your best selling accessory designer right now?
Joan: There isn’t necessarily a specific designer, but in accessories it’s more about what the actual accessory is, like scarves or shoes.
Is there a particular brand that has done well from season to season for you?
Joan: Things like Dries Van Noten clothes and shoes are doing really well. And we sell tons and tons of hats. I would also say the Givenchy Pandora. It’s more about the piece and the shape; Johnny Farah has been selling for twenty years. And we do a lot of handbags and wallets too. We are just starting out with menswear, which we are going to bring upstairs.
Why did you decide to branch into menswear? Were people asking you to start carrying it?
Joan: We have Y-3 and we were selling both men’s and women’s. The men kept saying, well where is the men’s fashion? Where is all the stuff that you’re selling to my girlfriend?
What are some of the menswear collections that you are going to carry?
Ellen: Rick Owens, the DRKSHDW collection, Levi Vintage and Transit. We started with a big assortment and many different kinds of men’s collections because we have a lot of different guys that come shopping. In spring we broke into Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela and Issey Miyake. There is a mix of prices and styles so it’s not all expensive and it’s not all inexpensive.
What do you admire most about the women in Philadelphia? Are they adventurous? Fashion forward? Do they like staples?
Ellen: They are very adventurous and classy and I think they come to us because they want to be adventurous, but they also want to be respected for their style. They want to be adventurous without going off the deep end and we can give them style that they’re comfortable with. The women in Philadelphia have a lot more style than the women in other places.
Joan: I think the women that I interact with have made a big difference in Philadelphia’s government and styling. There are really some amazing people here.
Do you find that the customer that shops in your store is also shopping online, or are you shipping to other states?
Joan: The people in the area are on the website to see what has come into the store. The other customers in Middle America, California and Europe are looking for something specific that we may happen to carry.
You are amongst an exclusive group of women like the Linda Dresners—you all really have a knack for what your doing. What’s your secret (aside from the crystal ball)?
Ellen: We’re not sharing our secret with you!
Well, what is it that intrigues you about a designer? You obviously have some long-term designers, like Maria Cornejo, but you also bring in fresh designers. Your store has been around for a long time and people are still coming back to you.
Ellen: This is because customers want to see what we are presenting and they know it will be high quality. Right now, we are doing a big promotion for Made In America for Fashion’s Night Out, and the following week we’re doing something on Paris. Right now the manufactures are much more conscious of the product they’re presenting. Some of these new designers we’re carrying have products and collections that are made so unbelievably and I think the customers are more conscious about what they’re purchasing. I want to go back to that secret, I don’t want you to think I won’t answer it.
Ok, let me hear it.
Ellen: I think when you’re in business for 40 years, people will trust you and believe that you must know what you’re doing. I think what I have always learned from my mother is that we really keep an open mind and we’re open to changing things. It seems that this is what happens when you see people closing doors; they just do the same thing over and over. That is pretty much the opposite of what we do.
You two seem like you have a great relationship—you’re even finishing each other’s sentences! If you could work on anything else together, other than retail, what would it be?
Ellen: We would open a bed and breakfast. We always said if this whole retail thing doesn’t work out, we should open a bed and breakfast.
Joan: And then we could have some cool antiques and get into furniture.