Meet footwear maven Elena Brennan

Meet Elena Brennan. This London-born shoe shop owner originally immigrated to the United States for love in 1985 , but her journey took her on an unexpected adventure. Brennan, a trilingual lover of travel, got her start in the multinational advertising world before opening BUS STOP boutique in 2007, at the start of a brutal economic recession. Brennan quickly adjusted her vision to appeal to the hearts and wallets of shoe lovers in Philadelphia, gaining followers all over the country.

Her ability to reinvent her business while staying true to her taste is a unique gift. And thanks to her gorgeous English accent, everything that comes out of her mouth sounds absolutely charming.

On Thursday, she will reveal her first capsule collection, BUS STOP x All Black, an assortment of oxfords inspired by classic Hollywood starlets.

Learn more about Elena in the interview below:

What was your childhood like? Did you grow up in a household where creativity was valued?

I was born in Fulham and grew up in North London with my parents and younger sister.

As a young girl, I took ballet classes, was on the swim team as well as track and field, studied music and art in school, and performed in the school plays.

My parents are Greek Cypriot and they felt very strongly about their roots, so in the evenings I attended Greek school, which at the time I did not appreciate but I'm so glad as now I am fluent in Greek, and very proud of it. My parents did value creativity and exposed my sister and I to as much art as possible through music, art museum visits.

Did you dream of becoming a business owner when you were a child? If not, what were your aspirations at the time?

When I was a girl I wanted to be a ballerina or airhostess. I love to travel, and I thought at the time that was a very glamorous career.

Elena Brennan, owner of BUS STOP.
Elena Brennan, owner of BUS STOP.

Did you go to school? What did you study?

I went to Hornsey School for Girls grammar school and obtained 3 A levels in French, German and Geography, and I attended the University of London where I studied business.

What inspired your move to the United States? Was it a major adjustment for you?

I moved to America for love and it was a huge adjustment. Culturally London and Philadelphia were so different, especially when I moved here in 1985.

I felt that Philly was a sleepy, conservative city. I was homesick for at least a year, so the transition was tough, as I was starting my life all over again at the age of 26.

Now, I love Philly! The city has changed a lot and just keeps getting better and better. In fact, I just became a U.S. citizen at the end of January, a very proud accomplishment for me!

How did the idea to open BUS STOP come about? 

The idea came to me about 10 years before I opened the boutique, out of sheer frustration. I love shoes and every time I went shopping for shoes in Philly I could never find what I wanted, but as soon as I travelled whether it was a trip to London, Australia, Iceland, Canada or New York, I would always find fabulous shoes. Everyone would ask, "Where did you get your shoes?" So I guess the seed was planted. I did my research and when my son turned 18, I was able to turn my dream into a reality.

Why did you wait until your son was 18 to open BUS STOP?  The timing was right. I was divorced and a single mother and wanted to wait until he was older, so I could be able to juggle being a good mother and a entrepreneur at the same time. And it worked out perfectly!

The interior of BUS STOP. 727 S. 4th Street, Philadelphia.
The interior of BUS STOP. 727 S. 4th Street, Philadelphia.

What did you do for a living before opening your shop?

I worked for large international advertising agencies, in London for international ad agency J. Walter Thompson (JWT) and then when I moved to Philly worked for various ad agencies - Spiro & Associates, Earle Palmer Brown, Dorland Global & just before I opened BUS STOP for Vox Medica. I worked in advertising for 27 years before opening the boutique. [It was a ] good career to have as it gave me the marketing, PR, project management, and financial skills to run my business.

What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered when opening your business?  I opened BUS STOP in April, 2007 when unbeknownst to me we were in the midst of a recession. George Bush didn't declare it until later that year but I was already totally invested. When I first opened, I sold hand-made European shoes with a high price tag, I wanted to introduce shoe designers to Philly that were not readily available here in the city, so that my customers would stand out in a crowd. I had to switch gears and bring in shoes at a lower price point without sacrificing my concept to keep the business alive. Well, now the business is about to be 8 years old in April.

Was there anything that you discovered about yourself during this period of your life that surprised you? 

I was more resilient than I thought. Originally, I wanted to open a boutique with one of my closest friends, Gina Luliano who worked at Urban Outfitters headquarters, but the shop we were trying to rent fell through, so in the end I did it solo. It's amazing how much tenacity you have to have to make all these important decisions solo. My father has always been my mentor, and never steered me wrong.

In what ways did your father prepare you for entrepreneurship?

My father is such a big influence in my life, I have always reached out to him for all the big decisions. He gives me clear, concise advice when I'm not sure which path to take. He's always given me encouragement and devoted personal pride, allowing me to grow my business. In a way, I followed in his footsteps, as he gave up his career to follow his dream and start up his own business, so he prepared me for my journey.

What do you love most about your job? 

I love meeting and interacting with all the fabulous women and now men (we sell men's shoes too now) who have become our loyal customers and friends. Apart from our local customers, I have encounters with international and customers from all over the country, and nothing makes me happier than a customer walking out wearing a pair of shoes they just bought. I absolutely love working with each of the designers, we have created strong bonds and I'm always so excited for each buying season to see what goodies they design each season. The buying occurs six months in advance, so I've just finished placing my orders for Autumn/Winter 2015.

One of your longtime employees is local artist Aubrie Costello. What are some things you’ve learned from working closely her?  What do you think she has learned working closely with you? 

Aubrie is such a talented artist and I'm so lucky to have her in my life. We work so well together, we are a good creative team. As a friendly gesture, I call her Batman and she calls me Robin! Working closely with Aubrie has made me see things more creatively and I believe I help her see things from a business perspective.

#nyfw #domstreater #domstreaternyfw #silkgraffitibyaubriecostello #ROYALS #busstopontheroad #travelingsoles #kindredsoles   A photo posted by BUS STOP (@busstopboutique) on Feb 13, 2015 at 5:51pm PST

Elena stands with Aubrie Costello in front of one of Aubrie's fiber installations. See more of her work here Her creative talents are visible at the shop with her creative windows, installations, merchandising, blog posts and social media posts. We are good creative team and have loads of fun when we are on the road, on our travels and adventures when we are on our shoe shopping escapades for the shop. She recently collaborated with ESSKA, a shoe designer from London, and that connection happened through BUS STOP. I love to support her art, and that of local artists. Conrad Booker who has designed our last 2 windows and is about to install our spring window was just inducted as a Designer In Residence for The Philadelphia Fashion Incubator (first male designer to enter the program) and I love the fact that I was instrumental in introducing Conrad to Elissa Bloom, the Executive Director of PFI. From where do you draw daily inspiration?  I am inspired by my travels and street art...I love graffiti, neon signs, anything that has a graphic component, and the people I meet. I love people watching and meeting someone that touches me creatively, leaving a lasting impression. And believe it or not Instagram, I follow a lot of really interesting designers and creative peeps near and far that inspire me. What was the impetus behind launching your own shoe line? It's something I've always wanted to do but it's a huge investment and a yearlong process. I strategically decided to partner with one of my favorite designers All Black, with a tried and true last of one of my favorite shoes, the oxford. I personally have quite a collection of oxfords, and I'm about to add 12 more styles to my shoe closet from my BUS STOP x All Black Limited Edition Capsule Collection! I still can't quite believe that the BIG day is coming up.

BUS STOP x All Black
BUS STOP x All Black

How would you describe your line?  It's a collection of 12 oxfords designed by me and named after iconic Hollywood starlets that I admired as a little girl. There's a beautiful irony in christening a shoe that emotes a minimalistic menswear aesthetic with the names of sultry, sensual Hollywood starlets. The collection balances strength and femininity and each icon's notable persona, is quietly spoken through each shoe design, begging the question, "Which Girl Are You?" How do you want women to feel when they slip into one of your designs?  I want women to feel the luxuriousness of the leathers and textures, the comfort and the sexiness or boldness of each woman. The shoes can be worn from day to night and you may want to own more than one pair, to satisfy each of your personas! Aside from the obvious functional benefits of footwear, what role do you see shoes playing in a woman’s life?  Shoes play a big role. First of all, you can tell a lot about woman or a man by the shoes they wear. It takes a bold personality to wear art on your feet that will draw attention. A lot of our customers are literally stopped on the street to be asked Where Did You Buy Those Shoes? And, let's not forget the fit and the comfort...if your feet are happy so are you. We have converted many a customer who felt they were too conservative to rock our shoes, now they thank us for changing the way they accessorize and pushing the envelope with their choices when it comes to bold colors, textures, heel heights or styles. Which elements do you need in your life in order to function? In other words, what are some things you can’t you do without? I'm very organized & tackle my projects very much in the same way I did in my days as an advertising Project Manager, with a timeline, budget & pulling in the right team members to get the job done. The BUS STOP x All Black Limited Capsule Shoe Collection Launch is a good example! I start each day, by consulting my calendar & posting on Instagram, so I guess the one thing I can't live without is my iPhone! And a good team to work with me to get the job done. Where are some of your favorite travel destinations? What do you love about travel? Iceland, Australia, Tuscany, The Provence, and of course the island of Cyprus, where my parents are from, and London. Once a London girl always a London girl!

A photo posted by BUS STOP (@busstopboutique) on Jun 16, 2014 at 1:56pm PDT

Elena often travels to Cyprus, where her parents are from. 

I love to travel as I get a lot of my inspiration from my travels, whether it’s discovering a new shoe designer, or a window installation & on a personal note, it keeps me alive! I love meeting people from different countries & soaking in their way of life, it's an escape from every day life & rejuvenation!

What inspired you to learn so many languages?

I've always loved languages and it ties in with my love of travel, it's so nice to be able to communicate with someone in their own language.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned after eight years of business?

Stay true to your mission, keep it fresh, continue listening to your customers, be a trendsetter, overcome your hurdles with a smile!

Best advice you’ve ever received? 

Train those that who work with you to think like you...advice from my father.

Worst advice you’ve ever received?

Don't do it! Don't let anyone stop you from achieving your dream!

Do you have a motto that you turn to in times of frustration? 

Sleep on it.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be the next Elena Brennan?

Follow your passion, do your research, strike when the time is right. Stay true to yourself.

Stop by BUS STOP boutique Thursday, March 12th to view Elena's capsule collection.

727 S. 4th St Philadelphia PA, 19147