September 16-22, 2004
Drawing the Curtain
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Bela Shehu's couture builds on a past of repression.
Bela Shehu's stark, sexy designs encapsulate neatly the Albanian-born couturier's very being. The raven-haired woman's sequestered conservative upbringing opened the door to liberated clothing meant to last.
Whether a deconstructed classic like an A-line skirt or an elegant backless dress, everything she makes sold at her new 13th Street boutique, called Bshehu is sensual, deceptively complex, organic and free.
"Both my parents were conservative, certainly," says Shehu, walking along 13th Street on a windy day. "But growing up in a communist country, there isn't much room for diversity or creativity. Not when everything is dictated. Even your clothing."
While this is not a saga of political intrigue or communist repression, Shehu's designs were born behind the Curtain. Not a silk or cotton sheer curtain. The Iron Curtain.
Just turned 25, Shehu remembers vividly life before the fall of the wall in 1989.
"Everything was exactly the same," she recalls. "Government-run, factory-made clothing of corduroy or hard cotton burgundy or blue. Bags were red or black. The pieces would come into the state-run stores before each season of school both of them. By the time everyone bought them, the look everywhere was just like a uniform."
Say what you will about the atrocities of communism having two seasons and four colors: appalling.
Her family an accountant-turned-retail-entrepreneur father, a mom who worked in pop's shop, and an older brother and sister lived in Tepelene, a town near northern Greece. Having endured communist rule until age 11, Shehu believes conservatism of look or frugality is part and parcel of her work. Indeed, the majority of her minimalist designs reflect that fact. But it's conservative with a twist. "I try to make seasonless clothing. That definitely comes from my upbringing," she explains. "That's why I use all-natural and organic fibers. The clothing has to last. I grew up in an environment where all the clothes are made at home. Mom hand-knitted all my sweaters, clothes were passed from generation to generation. We never threw anything away. The clothes I make will stay in your closet forever."
Her mother passed her skills on to her. Though she wore her own hand-stitched designs after the wall fell, she didn't sell clothing in Albania. She wasn't lauded by her family for dreaming to design. "My dad wanted me to be an accountant. He wasn't so into my creative side," she laughs. "But now that I own my store and my own company, he's happier. "All-righty. You have your own business,' he says."
Shehu came to America as an exchange student in 1996 to get an accounting degree at an Iowa university. She took time out, added machine sewing to her couturier's retinue of stitch witchery, came to Philly, and hung around Charles Porter, the first shop owner to feature her clothing. She took basic design classes at Moore College of Art and Design and creative cues from French fashion maven Jean Paul Gaultier and Helmut Lang.
Her first summer as a retail entrepreneur found her at the former address of Scarlett Messina's deca-disco cosmetics salon. Rather than radically remodel the brick house, Bela made it radiate her personality she's someone who not only has a naked woman tattooed on her shoulder but whose initial designs were made and worn in the cloistered privacy of her Albanian home. The dusky boudoir setting seems naughty with well-hidden nooks. Though individual pieces ("just one or two of each style") are hung on water pipes bolted to the exposed brick or tin-roofed ceilings, the rest of her designs are nestled in 900-year-old Indian bedroom furniture. "It is meant to look like a young woman's closet an armoire with jeans; a bureau whose drawers contain jewelry. Every woman hides her jewelry in drawers," says Shehu.
The focus for Shehu is on quality and materials: sturdily sewn, soft deconstructionist designs, cleanly elegant lines and sensual constructs done in organic fabrics. Though her summer was filled with chiffons and silks, her winter is rife with cashmere-wool blends, organza and heavy cotton.
Currently, she's featuring a dress coat inspired by Tiffany's boxes; a wool-layered fitted coat of robin's egg blue luxuriously lined in white China silk with white silk ribbons and lace peeking from the sleeves. She's fashioning tuxedo pants with metal buttons, yellowish micro- corduroy and sequins across a low waist for a military casual look that borrows from her past.
Rather than stick with single-tone solids, Shehu's looking at mix-matching patterns square patterned pockets on stripes, or polka dots on stripes, or silk-screening onto patterns.
Her dedication to quality and long-lasting-ness breathe deeply the history and heritage of her communist past. "I want to do what we've always been told not to do," she says simply.
Bshehu, 104 S. 13th, moves to 113 S. 13th within the week, 215-546-0868.