A glimpse into the creative process of four eclectic studios
by Emily Kovach
Our burgeoning fashion scene bears all the hallmarks of the Philadelphia spirit: authenticity, cooperation, grit and ingenuity. Pia Panaligan, a co-owner of the local line Senpai + Kohai, gets to the heart of it: “Philly isn’t thought of as a big fashion city, but that’s OK with most of us because we get to define it,” she says. “Fashion isn’t just about fashion shows and Fashion Week—it’s about having your line, owning your quality control, coming together, pushing each other. Everyone we meet is open about experiences, and learning from each other.”
This month, we get to know a few of the designers helping to define what Philly fashion is, and where it’s going.
Clothes for the City Ninja
Technical fabrics and sleek designs from the NINObrand
Life for the city-dweller can be a harrowing hustle, and Bela Shehu, owner of NINObrand, designs garments as protection for what she calls the City Ninja. Her clean, almost severe shapes in a muted palette—mostly black—are constructed with technical fabrics that possess antibacterial properties, wick moisture, insulate, and protect from water and wind.
“Women who wear these clothes transform,” says Shehu. “It’s not a harness you strap yourself into—it allows you to be fluid and protected.” Plus, the pieces can transition through the many moods of a long day. With her designs, she says, “You don’t look like a fool in the morning, but you’re not underdressed in the evening.”
Shehu has been making clothing since she was a child in Albania. She came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student and, due to political instability in her home country and other factors, made Philadelphia her home. As a young adult, she dabbled in designing and making clothing, gained a cult following, opened a flagship boutique on 13th Street in 2004 (shuttered in 2008), and founded NINObrand in 2011.
Her coveted line is not available for retail in shops or boutiques—customers must schedule an appointment at her Rittenhouse atelier/showroom space. “Wholesale is not my strategy,” she says. “I want to keep what I do close to heart.” All of her pieces are hand-sewn by a team of seamstresses in Center City, and range in price from $180 to $600. The advanced fibers she uses are extremely durable, meaning the pieces are true investments—the Asher Jacket, one of the line’s most popular items, has a 15-year guarantee.
She’s doesn’t sew much herself these days—she’s too busy being the “boss lady” of NINObrand and her fashion consulting business, Shehu. But the South Philly resident has a softer side, too, just like her clothes. “I still do therapeutic things, like iron my handkerchiefs and make jams,” she says. “I like tending to things.”
To schedule a private appointment, visit ninobrand.com