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Art For Change: The Hospitality Creator

Next up in our series with Forman Arts Initiative, Shannon Maldonado left behind a fashion career working with the likes of Ralph Lauren and American Eagle to come home to launch her own South Philly brand, YOWIE

Art For Change: The Hospitality Creator

Next up in our series with Forman Arts Initiative, Shannon Maldonado left behind a fashion career working with the likes of Ralph Lauren and American Eagle to come home to launch her own South Philly brand, YOWIE

Shannon Maldonado calls herself a “person who just loves creating things,” which is the CliffsNotes version of “shop owner, fashion designer, hospitality designer, influencer, curator, consultant” — and, for the last six years, the founder/ creative director of YOWIE, a lifestyle shop and design studio dubbed the “coolest shop in Philadelphia” by Bon Appetit in 2019.

Maldonado’s keen eye for joyful yet practical products — tissue box holders with multi-colored smiley faces on them, bodily lumpy mugs — decides which items will stock her brick-and-mortar YOWIE store in Queen Village, which she runs herself with the help of a two-person team; and it is what she brings to designing boutique hotels like Graduate Hospital’s The Deacon. She is shaping her South Philly location with the end goal of making people feel special.

South Street was a place where I never felt like an “other.” It has always been this cool eclectic catchall for all types of people and feels full of surprises, even though I have walked the street thousands of times.

The YOWIE brand includes design workshops; creative/art direction; hospitality design consulting. And in 2022, Maldonado will open a multi-use HQ, featuring a hotel, café and studios (more on that below). As she told Julia Gall in Marie Claire recently, “I want [YOWIE] to be woven into the culture of Philadelphia. I want people to be really proud that the brand grew here and we’re not expanding outside of Philadelphia … our feet are cemented in Philly.”

In partnership with the Forman Arts Initiative, The Citizen reached out to Maldonado to find out more about how Philly has inspired her work—and what’s to come this year. This interview has been edited and condensed.

You returned to South Philadelphia to start YOWIE. What did it feel like to “come home?”

It was humbling because, in many ways, I was starting over. I had to build up my friend group, and my small business colleagues, and people I could lean on for advice. Now that I have been back for almost six years it feels super comfortable and I want to be an asset to my neighborhood and city as much as possible.

Queen Village is the home of your brick and mortar store and will soon be home to the new YOWIE H.Q. What does Queen Village mean to YOWIE?

I grew up nearby in Pennsport so I have been walking to Queen Village since I was very young, whether shopping for fabrics on Fabric Row or hanging with friends on South Street after school. It has this very charming mix of old and new spaces and things that I find very romantic and it sometimes feels like its own small town within Philadelphia.

Your Instagram (@hellowyowie) played a big part in the brand’s growth. Social media often makes the hard stuff invisible; what were the early days like?

To be honest I have always been transparent about the hard parts of YOWIE and I think that’s why so many people resonate with it. I love what I do but I also tell people it’s very hard to run a creative business. The early days of YOWIE were very similar to the current ones — we just have more eyes on us now. From day one I have answered our emails, shipped every package, concepted every season and photoshoot and that is still true most days. Now I’m proud to say we just have a larger audience to support the artists and brands that we carry, which helps us invest in more products and artists over time.

Something that makes YOWIE unique is its hospitality focus. How did you become interested in hospitality and designing curated hotel rooms?

I used to travel a lot in my previous life as a fashion designer for American Eagle and I have always loved staying in hotels because it’s something I didn’t get to do much of growing up. There’s so much that interests me about hospitality — from the first time you open your room to the small notes that are sometimes left for you as a guest. So much of YOWIE’s growth can be attributed to the very human touch I give to our projects and shop vibe. I am constantly hand writing lists of places to shop and eat when customers visit our shop so it feels like a natural progression.

A peek at the inside of The Deacon. Photo courtesy of Shannon Maldonado

What can you share about the upcoming YOWIE multi-use H.Q./ hotel/ retail space/ cafe?

What I can share at the moment is that it’s on South Street and will feature a bigger shop, cafe space, small rental studio and 10 hotel rooms. The rest I’m keeping under wraps, but it’s going to be amazing!

You recently said on Instagram, “Everyone has a South Street story to share.” What’s yours?

South Street was a place where I never felt like an “other.” It has always been this cool eclectic catchall for all types of people and feels full of surprises, even though I have walked the street thousands of times. I got my first rebellious haircut at Chop Shop, and my family used to compete in the Easter promenade for years when I was young. We won a few times, too and even made it into The Inquirer one year!

What advice would you give to other creative entrepreneurs with big ideas, but who struggle to know where to begin or how to stay motivated?

Create a loose plan but be open to where it evolves. Give yourself small digestible goals; there are only 24 hours in a day! And find a small group of people that you trust that you can rely on for advice, a helping hand or words of encouragement on the hard days. I do not believe in a one size fits all model for entrepreneurship and how I created/built YOWIE is not for everyone, but those would be some universal truths that I have found.

No one complains about, or goes as hard for Philly, than Philadelphians. Magic wand-style, what’s one thing you would change about the city—architecturally, culturally, socially, etc. And what’s one thing you hope never does?

I’d add more green spaces, make developers match the raw materials of nearby buildings when creating new parcels, and increase affordable housing in all neighborhoods. One thing I hope never goes away is cheese fries and our love of public art.

Favorite Philly restaurant?

It changes often but I’d say LMNO. I love the decor and menu so much and the hybrid approach to a restaurant. The future of spaces is modularity and I think they nailed it. The drinks are yummy, too!

This story is part of a partnership between The Philadelphia Citizen and Forman Arts Initiative to highlight creatives  in every neighborhood in Philadelphia. It will run on both The Citizen and FAI’s websites.

Morgan Nitz (she/they) is a queer interdisciplinary artist in Philly and the operations & development editor of Philly Artblog. They earned their BFA in Sculpture and the Edith Weil Hecht Memorial Award in Sculpture from Tyler School of Art in 2018. They have exhibited at The Institute of Contemporary Art, Vox Populi, Pilot Projects, and Philly Improv Theatre; and they completed a residency at Jasper Studios in 2018. They were a co-curator and -founder of the pop-up gallery The Legume Room in 2018, and the co-inaugural curator of Tyler School of Art’s Alumni gallery, Straw in 2019-2020. | @son_of_m.a.n


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Photo of the artist, courtesy of Shannon Maldonado

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