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These Families Put Fashion First
It’s in the “jeans.” What else can explain the legacy of Jewish families owning Philadelphia’s finest clothing stores? At the turn of the 20th century, tailors and milliners turned South Philadelphia’s streets into fashion runways. Decades later, ready-to-wear retailers made the Northeast a shopping destination for generations of families. And toward the end of the century, boutique owners migrated to Rittenhouse Square, City Line Avenue and the suburbs.
What’s changed: Ever-increasing competition from department stores, malls and online shopping. What hasn’t changed: independent stores’ focus on customer service and a targeted retail mix that larger stores can’t match. Susan Cooper, co-owner of Gabrielle and Lizzy G in Bala Cynwyd, says, “Customers tell us that they still wear dresses that they bought from my mother-in-law 15 years ago. Knowing that we’ve helped a woman buy something that she loves and will wear for a long time makes us feel that we served her well.”
But how do these families get along with one another? Does the difference in age and taste create battles? Quite the opposite, says Ruth Krass, owner of Bedazzled Boutique in Newtown Square and Margate. Incorporating the views of her 27-year-old daughter, Sabrina, helps Krass craft her boutique’s approach and appeal to clients of different ages, sizes and budgets. “Her taste reflects her generation, while my taste reflects my generation, which is ... older,” Krass says with a laugh. “But the age difference between us is one of the biggest benefits of a family-run business.”
Debbie Ellick Wallace agrees. She co-owns Barbara Ellick Jewelry in Narberth with her mother, after whom the store is named. “It’s true in jewelry as it is in everything else that different generations want different things as their lifestyles change,” Wallace says. “My mother and her friends wear jewelry that is very different from what my friends and I wear, and that’s different from what my kids wear. We reflect all of those tastes in our store. We have the flexibility to do that because we’re not trying to appeal to a mass market of national customers. We’re trying to appeal to customers in our community.”
How did these women learn about the boutique business? None went to business school; all graduated from the school of hard knocks. Krass, Cooper and Wallace learned from their families, via the “nose to the grindstone” curriculum.
Susan Cooper’s mentor is her mother-in-law and partner, Marilyn Cooper, who learned the business from her mother’s family. In 1912, Marilyn’s maternal grandfather and his three sons opened a men’s clothing store in Paterson, N.J. They sold suits and high-end sports clothes until the three sons retired in 1975, just as Marilyn’s career was getting started. Armed with a business degree from Drexel University (and the title of Miss Drexel, which went to the prettiest and best dressed co-ed at the university), Marilyn worked as a marketing research analyst until she had children. Then, her innate love of fashion took over and she went into the clothing business.
Following a buying trip to New York, Marilyn began selling clothes from her first boutique: her Oak Hill apartment. “I took out my Mary Quant stationery and wrote letters to 150 people telling them what I was doing and that I had these wonderful dresses that they could come to my home and see,” she says. “Word spread — and kept spreading.”
After her neighbors reported her for doing business out of her apartment, Marilyn acquired a storefront in Narberth and opened it as The Clothes Garden in 1978. In 1983, she moved to a larger store in Wynnewood. In 1999, Marilyn retired, sort of. “She had loyal customers who had depended on her for decades,” Susan Cooper says. “Marilyn kept taking them to New York on buying trips. Eventually, I said, ‘I don’t think they’re going to let you retire.’ ”
Susan was then a successful lawyer and mother, and she turned out to be the perfect partner for Marilyn. They opened Gabrielle, the women’s special occasion boutique, then G Lizzy, which caters to teenagers. The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law dynamic mirrors the partnership that Marilyn had when she started her business. It was Marilyn’s mother who handled the business end of The Clothes Garden.
Like Marilyn, Barbara Ellick’s talent and flair emerged in the mid-1970s and after she had children. “It started 45 years ago on a trip that my parents took to Santa Fe,” her daughter says. “They met a husband and wife who were traders and jewelry makers. My mom bought $2,000 worth of jewelry from them. She wore some it on the flight home — and ending up selling all of it to the flight attendants and other passengers. Mom called the people in Santa Fe and said, ‘Send me more.’ ”
Ellick started selling jewelry out of her house in Merion; by 1975, she was designing her own pieces for Saks Fifth Avenue and 100 other stores. “I remember sitting in front of the TV watching The Brady Bunch and stringing necklaces,” Wallace says. “It seemed perfectly natural to be surrounded by gems, turquoise, silver and gold. Wasn’t everyone’s house like that?”
The business soon outgrew the house; Ellick opened a New York showroom and a smaller shop inside a Merion dress store. Eventually, she merged them into the Narberth store. By then, Wallace had graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in child and family studies. “It was interesting, but I didn’t love it,” she says. “My mom and dad suggested that I work at the store for a few days a week until I figured out what I wanted to do — and I never left. That was 24 years ago.”
But Wallace did have to get schooled on jewelry. She admits to having a “hearts and flowers” style with no real sense about what would sell to women who wanted more sophisticated pieces. “Mom educated me about the world of jewelry, but in a very gentle way,” Wallace says. “At the same time, I brought my generation’s fashion sense into the store and that proved to be essential to keeping us current and appealing to new customers.”
Ruth Krass’ fashion family tree grew differently than the Coopers and Ellicks. Krass married into one of Philadelphia’s legendary fashion families: the Krass Brothers. Famous as “the store of the stars,” as the ubiquitous TV ads touted, Krass Brothers on South Street was run by Harry and Ben Krass. Its success spawned other locations in Philadelphia run by Harry’s three sons, one of whom is Victor, Ruth Krass’s husband.
Ruth married Victor almost immediately after she graduated from Springfield High School in 1979. She attended Penn State for two years, then matriculated at the Philadelphia College of Textiles (now Philadelphia University) to pursue her interest in the clothing business. “I loved it there because I found people who were just like me: artsy and fashionable and not afraid to try new things,” she says. “I fit in.”
Despite her interest in design, Ruth decided to be a stay-at-home mom. “I didn’t want to miss a single thing,” she says. “Our kids were my top priority.” Not until her children were grown did she think of turning her love of fashion into a business; Bedazzled opened in 2006. That spurred Sabrina to follow the path that her mother had started. She studied fashion design at the University of Delaware, then went to work at Bedazzled. “I thought that my career would start at a large design firm or a department store where I could be involved with buying decisions and working on the floor with customers,” she says. “But then I realized that I can do all of that at Bedazzled — and work with my family. What could be better than that?”
Mimi James believes that a person’s fashion sense is all relative. Photos by JA Kemp. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.