Standing in the boutique that bears her name, Joan Shepp explains this among racks of Ann Demeulemeester tailored jumpsuits and Rick Owens draped jackets. Her glasses are perched on top of her curly auburn mop, and her striking blue eyes are smiling. “Some people have natural style,” she says. “It matches their lifestyle. It’s how they live, how they dress.”

Eleven years ago, Shepp single-handedly redefined how Philadelphians think about style. A little over a decade later, her Walnut Street boutique stands as a model for luxury retailers. Before she arrived, there was no big department store downtown, nor was there a large fashion store. Fusing the two retail concepts, she filled a void that many forget existed. Now Philadelphia is littered with fashion-forward boutiques, and a Barneys Co-op opened on Walnut last year.

“Philadelphia isn’t so much a city, as it is a town,” Shepp says. “It has grown and really has so much to offer.”

And it all started with Shepp, who is often described in the same terms that are used to describe the coveted clothes she sells: eccentric, brilliant and desperately chic.


As a young mother of two, Shepp set up the first manifestation of her shop in 1971 following a career as a travel agent. For seven years she operated out of Lafayette Hill before opening up a second store in Elkins Park. Her love of fashion drove her to leave a profession she wasn’t passionate about, though she had no clue what the next four decades would bring.

“When I opened up, I had $500,” she says. “There was more room for mistakes back then. There was more room for learning.”

After 15 years of operating the two suburban outposts, Shepp closed the Lafayette Hill location and doubled the size of her Elkins Park store.

“I was one of those kooky people who had a business in the suburbs and bought extreme clothing. And then I saw this space,” Shepp says of her boutique’s current location at 1616 Walnut St., just one block east of Rittenhouse Square.

In the late 1990s, she happened upon the space, which was a flower store at the time. According to store lore, Shepp moved her boutique because she fell in love with the Center City property’s magnificent two-story window that looks out onto Walnut Street. It took a unique vision to see the space’s potential, however, as the window was completely covered up and a low ceiling separated the interior’s two floors. She gutted the entire space and opened Joan Shepp in 1999.

The store itself is a sight to see — it is as raw as it is polished. The cement floor is painted black, though some parts are left bare and embedded with pebbles. Oriental rugs cover certain areas, enabling the warehouse space to be separated into distinct sections. Clothes hang on black wooden hangers with white “Joan Shepp” labels on silver industrial racks.

The walls and two-floor ceiling have exposed piping, and the entire loft-like canvas is painted stark white. There is a large-scale cover of the July 17, 2000 issue of Women’s Wear Daily displayed on one of the walls. The image on the cover shows a woman in an edgy, androgynous Jean Paul Gaultier suit. The oversized poster is cut into squares and attached by metal rings.

The back of the store is sunken, and a cheeky red message is stenciled on the floor: “watch your Shepp.”

Since its inception, Joan Shepp has been a refuge for creative Philadelphians looking for some stylish catalyst. This afternoon a table on the main floor is covered with jars of candy: gumballs, jellybeans, licorice. The display is bright and eye-catching. And maybe even more appropriate than Shepp realizes.

“Joan’s store is like a candy shop. So many treats everywhere. She was the first woman to carry Yohji, Chloé, Dries … she educated Philly on all things high fashion. If you couldn’t get to Soho, you went to Joan,” says Jaymie Morales, visual coordinator for Yves Saint Laurent.

When she was a Philadelphia-residing student at Temple University, Morales frequented Shepp’s store for inspiration and the occasional purchase. During Morales’s first summer at YSL, Shepp came for her annual buying trip during cruise market week. Cruise market week is fashion-speak for the period in late May when buyers from boutiques and department stores all around the world descend upon New York to pick out items they will sell the following winter.

“When I saw her work the showroom, I was a bit intimidated. Living in Philly for the past four years, I was well aware of her relevance. In the showroom she would go through the product like a Renaissance woman. Merchandising, mixing, cross-merchandising shoes, bags, jewelry — you knew she had the formula down,” Morales says. “Finally I introduced myself to her, and, like the observer she is, she immediately said, ‘My dear, where did you get those rings?’ Before I knew it, I was helping her pick out jewelry for her boutique. That’s Joan. Always paying attention.”

It’s not just European designers like Yves Saint Laurent who get Shepp excited. She is equally fascinated by the fashion-forward designers coming out of Japan; the edgy designs of Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe and Rei Kawakubo line the walls.

It is no surprise then that one of Shepp’s newer employees hails from Tokyo and embodies Japanese structural chic. Yoko McCarthy found her way to Philadelphia as a visual art transfer student from Temple University’s Tokyo campus. Two and a half years ago, McCarthy crossed over from avid Shepp admirer to full-time Shepp employee.

“I wanted to work here because it’s a cool store, and I used to shop here,” McCarthy says. “Well, not necessarily shop. I didn’t buy a lot because a lot of what I wanted was like $2000!”

But therein lies the brilliance of Shepp’s buying strategy. While she certainly stocks big, expensive names like Balenciaga, she also mixes in trendy items with lower price points, like jewelry by Philadelphia’s own John Wind.

Shepp motions to a petite woman with wild blonde hair.

“This is my partner,” she says.

The woman grins. “I’m her daughter.”

Ellen Shepp is 45 years old, but looks at least 10 years younger. Her curly mane and sparkling eyes leave little doubt that Joan and her are genetically linked. For over 20 years, she has been her mother’s partner, manager and buyer. Ellen explains that while her mom is responsible for the business side, she takes care of operations. When Joan comes up with a window concept or an event idea, Ellen figures out how to make it happen.

“Growing up, I remember my mom going to New York every weekend to do buys,” Ellen says. “She would close the store at 2 or 3 every day to pick my sister and I up from school — you could never do that these days.”

After spending her freshman year at the University of Maryland, Ellen transferred to Philadelphia University to major in fashion merchandising. It was at that time that she began working at the store.

“She lets me be creative,” says Ellen. “It’s amazing working together, though it’s definitely harder than working with strangers. She is a wealth of information. I have so much to learn from her, and she has so much to teach.”

Like her mother, Ellen has a penchant for black because “it allows me to wear more creative clothing.” It is important to the Shepps that the store sells clothes that are both comfortable and stylish.

“And if a customer buys something that’s expensive, it has to be worth it. If it’s not expensive, it can’t look cheap,” she says.

Ellen maintains an office in the store’s basement (along with her mom, the webmaster and the operations team), but she spends most of her time on the floor. As such, she’s set up a small black desk in the corner of the store. The desk has a laptop and a phone on it, and an ottoman on either side. You might otherwise miss this detail when scouring the shoe wall next to it, but it stands as a testament to Ellen’s dedication to her customers.

Ellen lives in the suburbs of Philly with her husband, Eric, nine-year-old son, Jesse, and seven-year-old daughter, Maya. Maya loves coming into the store, just as her mom did when she was her age. “Yes, she loves fashion,” Ellen says.

Having Ellen’s children around is also an added benefit for their grandmother. Shepp’s other daughter, Susan, is in the steel business and has one son. The admiration and respect that the mother-daughter team have for one another is more than mutual.

“She has amazing taste,” Ellen says. “She sees things well in advance. She is often ahead of her time by a season or two. She gets her ideas from such an assortment of places, from things she sees, conversations she has.”

Likewise, Shepp sees the same strengths in her daughter: “Ellen is amazing. She has great taste. With her, I know I will get what I want in a short period of time.”

Sana Kavee has been a sales associate at Joan Shepp for 29 years. She has seen the boutique move from the suburbs to Center City, and subsequently triple in size and rise astronomically in profile. When asked to characterize Shepp as a boss, Kavee smiles wryly. “You want me to be honest?” she asks. “She’s busy. Very busy. Busy every minute of every day.”

Today Shepp is in New York visiting showrooms for fall market week before heading to Europe to do the same thing. Kavee credits Joan Shepp’s success to Shepp’s desire to constantly have the latest and greatest items for her store and for her customers.

As the boutique’s most-senior employee, Kavee has a longitudinal perception of the store, much like Shepp herself. As someone who “always liked clothing,” Kavee found herself applying for a sales position at the store nearly three decades ago, and she’s never left. What makes working at Joan Shepp different than at other high-end retailers is the fact that sales associates don’t make individual commissions. Instead, they receive team bonuses.

“My team gives incredible service, and we are like a family,” says Shepp. “They don’t make commission on their individual sales, which really enables them to help each other and to communicate with their clients. It’s not unusual to see three or four associates and assistants helping out one customer.”

Every morning before the store opens, Joan and Ellen conduct meetings with the staff. They discuss new items on the floor, customer trends and sales strategy. There is no typical Joan Shepp customer, but the team knows that everyone who shops there has a great appreciation for what they sell.

“Our store is for any girl or woman who loves fashion,” Ellen posits. “We’re all fashion victims. If you’re a fashion victim, we want you.”


Joan Shepp is indeed the kind of store where an 18-year-old and an 80-year-old can wear the same thing. The difference comes down to styling. Shepp isn’t afraid to mix the high and the low, the European and the Asian, the playful and the serious.

An elderly woman enters the store with her middle-aged granddaughter. She is wearing a brown houndstooth knit hat and an oversized wool coat that is black on the left side and gray on the right.

“I just bought a dress here yesterday,” the granddaughter tells Kavee, “and she thought it was so fabulous that she wanted to stop in.”