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March 11, 2015

By Design: 11 makers, mavens and models shaping Philly style

Lifestyle Style
Dom Streater Dan King /Skai Blue Media

Dom Streater poses with a design.

Keeping up appearances takes real work. Meet 11 style visionaries who are working hard to bring the designs and ideas inspired by the City of Brotherly Love to a global arena. They dress, cut and sew, walk glamorously down the runway, shove us into better shoes and show us how to put our best face forward. 

The Keeper of Clothes: Clare Sauro

Thom Carroll/

In the bowels of University City lays a treasure trove of artifacts providing insight into the daily lives, social structures and tastes of societies past. No, it isn’t a museum of old fossils and tools; it’s Drexel’s Robert & Penny Fox Historic Costume Collection. Including more than 12,000 pieces, it is home to garments and accessories dating back to the 18th century, many of which come from Philadelphia’s elite family lines.

Preserving the city’s fashion history is Clare Sauro, FHCC curator. Sauro has led the FHCC for nearly seven years. Before coming to Philly, she cut her curatorial teeth at the Calvin Klein archive, the Museum of the Moving Image and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Her bubbly personality and incredible wealth of fashion knowledge make her the perfect leader for such an exciting and important collection.

The collection she now protects began when the Drexel Institute opened in 1891; founder A. J. Drexel specifically put aside funds for collecting art, textiles included. The Drexels and their bevy of local high-class friends, from the Cassatts to the Biddles, donated to the FHCC. Now, it hosts everything from jeans worn to Woodstock (complete with real dirt) to drab Quaker dresses to a gown twice worn by Grace Kelly. Philly’s rich retail history is present, too, and is something Sauro would like to explore further, as she has a particular love for the legacies of John Wanamaker and Nan Duskin.

Though the FHCC is stored in a climate-controlled, sterile room with very little gallery space, one of Sauro’s goals is to get both the public and the academic world excited about it. 

“There’s something very tangible about costume and textiles that people relate to on a different level. We all wear clothing. We all have knowledge about clothing practices and how things are worn in a way that makes us experts,” she said. 

To that end, Sauro is working to give history nerds and fashionistas alike access to the FHCC through programming, such as giving lectures on Grace Kelly’s style and creating an exhibit of FHCC’s best pieces this October. Until then, Philly’s stylish history lies in Sauro’s clean, white-gloved hands. 

Fashion's Biggest Fan: Mary K. Dougherty 


Photo courtesy of Mary K. Dougherty and Associates                                                                                 

On a recent yoga retreat to an island south of St. Martin, a young woman discovered her fellow yogi was Mary K. Dougherty, founder of fashion marketing firm MKDA and owner of Nicole Miller boutiques in Philadelphia. For the next 20 minutes, she told Dougherty how she had bought her prom dress at her Manayunk store, visiting it again while shopping for a wedding dress, and Dougherty became the celebrity of the trip.

After 30 years in the fashion business, stories like these are not uncommon for Dougherty.

“When people have had a notable moment in their lives - whether that’s been a bar mitzvah, prom, graduation, guest of a wedding, wedding, bridesmaid, mother of the bride – an invitation drove them into the doors of our stores, and we’re part of their memory. We’re a part of their photo albums. We’re a thread of the fabric of who they are,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty and her team have become an integral part of Philly’s fashion scene. MKDA provides local brands with consulting, event production, public relations and marketing and styling services and contributes to philanthropic organizations from JDRF to MANNA. 

The woman behind it all has been fashion obsessed from a young age, growing up with five older sisters and tons of hand-me-downs. She began modeling in high school and later transitioned to the industry’s business side.

“Being able to have so many different ways that I can utilize my skill set and also give back to the community, and make a living and provide opportunities for other people and be able to help in a philanthropic way, it really is a gift,” Dougherty said. 

Now that Philly’s fashion scene will soon be in the spotlight thanks to big events headed our way, no one is its biggest cheerleader. Noting that almost everyone in the local industry “plays nice in the sandbox together,” Dougherty cites Rakia Reynolds, Nicole Cashman and Dom Streater as peers she admires.

And though she’s accomplished much – naming her three sons as her greatest achievement – Dougherty still has one big target to hit.

“My upcoming goal is to not be happy with what I did yesterday,” she said.

Our Next Great Fashion Icon: Bela Shehu 

Photo by Brian Lauer                                                                                                             

Every city needs a great designer to set the style standards. Paris has Coco Chanel, New York has Donna Karan, Milan has Gianni Versace – and now Philly has Bela Shehu. With an aesthetic at once totally her own and effortlessly universal, Shehu’s designs for her line NINObrand have become collectors' items for the city’s chic set. 

Shehu grew up in Albania, moving to Philadelphia in 1997 after studying as an exchange student in Iowa. Despite growing up a world away from her current home, it’s the creative and utilitarian attitude Shehu fostered as a child that makes her work so popular here. 

“Growing up in a country where you only have limited items of clothing, you had to be creative about how to get the most looks out of the same items of clothing, and that’s the idea behind the stuff I make,” she said.

Thus, Shehu designs her work to be functional in multiple ways, using fabrics that can be washed less and used more without wearing out. In other words, her shape-focused, neutral-toned clothes are made for real, busy women who want to look chic without sacrificing quality or time. 

“I live that life. I leave the house at 7 a.m. and don’t come back ‘til 9 or 10, and in between, there are several scenarios that I have … a business meeting or a cocktail hour or an appointment or running errands. [NINObrand] is truly made with that in mind,” she said. 

Luckily for the local fashion scene, Shehu has made her home here and understands how valuable that is.

“Philly’s conservative and resistant to newness. They love the idea of a heritage brand, something that has staying power, and they like stability. It helps me that I have created some sort of stability here to cater to my clients in a comforting way for them…They like to invest in someone who stays,” she said.

If Shehu’s cult following is any indication, Philly is happy to keep her. 

Color Block Brilliance: Najeeb Sheikh

Najeeb Sheikh
Photo by Jasmine R Hawkins

Designer Najeeb Sheikh’s simplistic color-blocked pants have captured the attention of streetwear enthusiasts around the world. 

The genesis of the Najeeb Sheikh brand sprouted from a natural desire to blend color and texture. 

“I bought four pairs of pants one day, says Sheikh. “When I went to pull them out of the bag, I really loved the way the colors worked together, and it just clicked. I was at the tailor creating samples the next day.”

His growing brand has collaborated with record label Fool’s Gold, Jimmy Sweatpants, Philadelphia-based apparel company The Decades, Ubiq and apt 120. All of his designs are manufactured in the United States.

What’s next for Sheikh? The designer is expanding his line to include overshirts and jackets for a Fall 2015 collection. 

Philadelphia’s Top Model: Cory Wade

Cory Wade
Photo by Victoria Blithe

Philadelphia-native Cory Wade rose to national fame as second-runner-up of the 20th cycle of America’s Next Top Model – the first to allow men as contestants. The exposure helped carry him to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York in February, where he modeled for sportswear-with-an-edge collection, House of Byfield.

You can find Wade on the upcoming cover of Acapella magazine and as host of the 2015 Queer Fashion Week in April. He says he’s been doing plenty of hosting gigs since wrapping up his season of “Top Model” while he works on finding his niche in the fashion industry. It’s a particularly grand endeavor as a more adaptive and androgynous model.

“My look is a little different, so it’ll take time to break in,” he says. “I’ve experienced quite a lot after 'Top Model,' and it hit me hard at one point, but you have to remember why you did this in the first place and stay passionate, stay passionate and stay passionate.”

The Shoe Whisperer: Elena Brennan

Elena Brennan
Photo by Lendl Tellington                                                                                                               

After decades of mulling it over, Elena Brennan, owner of Queen Village’s Bus Stop shoe boutique, finally bit the bullet and launched her own shoe collection – and she's already planning her second. (Details on that are hush-hush.) 

“Making shoes is a lot harder than making clothing or jewelry; there are a lot more steps involved in the manufacturing of a shoe -- up to 150,” she says. “It’s a big commitment. But I felt now was the right time.”

Her current 12-shoe collection, which is a collaboration project called Bus Stop X All Black, was inspired by icons like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Jean Harlow. The Oxford-style slip-on shoes, which are “minimalistic with a twist,” are made with luxury leathers, she says. 

“The idea is, ‘Which girl are you today, and which are you tomorrow?’ We want you to buy multiple pairs,” she says. “And it looks good from day to night and works well with trousers or a dress.”

Her collection will launch Thursday, March 12, and the shoes are first-come, first-served.

Masters of Menswear: Kurt Souder and Jennifer Burks

Kurt Souder and Jennifer Burks
Photo by Chelsea Irwin                                                                                                               

These two have a lofty goal: They want guys to be able to dress themselves in the dark and still come out looking fabulous. 

“You’re only as good as the best stuff in your closet,” Kurt Souder says.

Souder and Jennifer Burks are childhood friends who launched Weft (a weaving term) as an appointment-only men’s clothing company out of their South Philly home in January 2014. They specialize in custom-print shirts, classic trousers and, most recently, outerwear -- like the pictured “Bateman” spring trench coat.

Moving forward, Weft can be found at two upcoming spring trunk shows and will soon introduce gender-neutral accessories (bags, specifically), showcasing their knack for custom-design prints and textiles in new forms. Promises Souder: “It’s the kind of thing you won’t be able to find anywhere else.”

The Young One to Watch: Brandon Bermudez

Brandon Bermudez Portrait
Photo by Wade Lee Richards                                                                                                                   

Twenty-two-year-old Brandon Bermudez (stylized as “BronBermudez”) found his great moment of inspiration when he was handpicked by “Sex and the City” designer Patricia Field as a model for her Fall 2013 Lookbook. Bermudez says that, upon meeting, she convinced him to go back to school for fashion design. (He’d previously spent months custom-making sunglasses for models and celebrities as a side project.) Now, he’s one of the Art Institute’s most promising: His Maleficent dress – which combines a Disney-meets-Alexander McQueen design aesthetic, he says – will be on display at 16th and Chestnut streets for the next three weeks. 

“I’m a dark artist,” he says. “Everyone knows me as black-on-black -- leather, lace, etc. I went to the villains’ section of Disney [for inspiration] and decided to make it into – not couture, per se – but a gown creation. One that’s not just the typical Disney ‘poofy gowns with a petticoat.’ It’s more Oscar de la Renta.”

Bermudez is currently working on a Cinderella gown (see his GoFundMe page) and hopes to complete a 15-piece Disney-derived collection to pitch to magazines. He hopes to ultimately go the route of Alexander McQueen, he says, but “I wouldn’t mind seeing myself as the next Eduardo Castro.” 

Senpai + Kohai

Senpai and Kohai
Photo by Manuel Dominguez Jr.

Melissa Choi and Pia Panaligan of Senpai + Kohai give old jeans a new lease on life. Design Your Denim is a jean-rendering service that accepts mailed-in denim and transforms it to your liking, adding Indian textile appliqués or handwoven patches and dyeing fabric by hand. “Denim jackets are timeless,” Panaligan told

And so is talent. What started as a college idea became a bona-fide business after a period of corporate occupation at Free People and Anthropologie. Now, you can buy one of their custom jackets at Toile boutique in Fishtown. Case in point: You don’t have to sacrifice to live on your own terms. 

Dom Streater

Dom Streater
Photo by Dan King 

Royals is the name of Project Runway winner Dom Streater's most recent collection, which debuted at New York Fashion Week. It celebrates the power of real-life queens from around the world, including Queen Elizabeth I and Japan’s Empress Michiko. Loud prints take her into territory few women — let alone designers — would dare to venture into.

“I know what it’s like to kind of be a rebel amongst the followers of the world and try to make your own voice,” Streater told

Just like her girl, Streater is definitely “not a wallflower.” And yet it’s on walls that she's finding her inspiration these days: Botanicals and plants, sourced in part from an Ellsworth Kelly painting that caught her eye. Expect wild things to come from the girl with the hair. 

LeGrand Leseur

LeGrand Leseur hands

LeGrand Leseur, 24, describes his style as “super-villain” chic. He’s tired of following the rules — period — especially those that “don’t really apply” to men’s suit design anymore. While a standard pattern for a suit remains intact, the devil’s in the details. 

The music school grad has made a name for himself with bias-cut buttonholes and cuffs that are continuous with the sleeve, rather than sewn over top. He says he’s marketing to Tim Burton, not James Bond. 

“Any bad guy in any movie is going to have a better outfit than the good guy,” Leseur told 

You choose your own aesthetic.