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A family with fashion sense

The exterior of Carolyn Zinni Bridal Salon at 1725 E. Passyunk Avenue. The Zinni family has had a fashion presence in South Philly since 1946. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

For 75 years, the Zinni family has simply wanted young women to look and feel their best on the biggest occasions of their lives.

It was a lesson first exemplified by Jennie and Louis Zinni upon opening their first clothing store on the corner of 12th and Mercy streets in 1946. The more expensive dress wasn’t always the right dress. It was wisdom handed down from one generation to the next.

“My mother would always say, ‘No, honey, that doesn’t work for you, take it off. Let’s get you something else’,” said Maria Bennett, one of three daughters in the Zinni family. “And they’d look until they found the right one. I find myself doing the same thing. The misconception of being a retailer is that all you care about is making a sale. Not where I come from. My parents were different. They had a calmness and a beauty about them.”

Upon completing his service for the U.S. Army in the Philippines during World War II, Lou Zinni received a loan from the Salvation Army to open Zinni’s on S. 12th Street, which was originally a men’s clothing store. Within a year, the store was burglarized and the racks were wiped clean. It was reborn as a women’s dress shop at that point. Jennie ran the store and dealt with customers while Lou did alterations and kept the books. He’d sometimes take his daughters with him in the car to retrieve payment for invoices.

“We developed as a family as far as the knowledge of retail,” Bennett said. “My mother was the best teacher. You couldn’t be taught in school what we were taught at home. When it’s family, you see more of the dynamics. She was the breadwinner and an icon. She was way ahead of her time. And my dad was supportive in every way.”

Jean and Lou raised a son and three daughters in a two-bedroom apartment upstairs from the clothing store, sleeping on a sofa bed before heading downstairs to earn an honest day’s work. The shop became a boutique, settling on East Passyunk Avenue in the 1970’s, where there has been a family presence ever since. Although Lou passed away in 2009 and Jennie followed in 2018 at the age of 94, the family tradition lives on in multiple locations, including two stores on East Passyunk Avenue.

Oldest daughter Angela Abruzzese has a store on the Main Line called Latrice of Bryn Mawr, specializing in sportswear and evening wear. She opened a second store in Margate, New Jersey. 

Interior shots of Mia Philadelphia clothing store owned by Maria Bennett at 1746 E. Passyunk Avenue. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Bennett’s store, Mia Philadelphia, is located at 1746 E. Passyunk and now specializes in contemporary casual clothing and accessories. She originally went into business for herself in 1987, more closely following the formalwear footsteps of her parents until recently switching to casual clothes.

Youngest daughter Carolyn Zinni’s bridal salon (Carolyn Zinni at 1725 E. Passyunk) has expanded to include up-to-the-minute social occasion fashion. She moved her store to South Philly after a successful run in Springfield, which started in 2004 and moved to East Passyunk in 2017. It enjoys the only single-pane window on the Avenue, which showcases frequently changing creative window displays.

“We’ve done some really dramatic, controversial and fun windows,” Carolyn said. “They tend to stop traffic and when people walk by they stop to look.”

A bridal gown hangs inside Carolyn Zinni Bridal Salon at 1725 E. Passyunk Avenue. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

It made the particular location the perfect spot to carry on the family name.

“This spot became available and I thought maybe I’ll dress the girls for their best dance of all — their wedding day,” Carolyn Zinni said. “I came in here and started doing weddings and I love it.”

They have taken different paths that have often intertwined. But all three sisters have put their stamp on fashion in the Philadelphia area. Maria and Carolyn mesh the most as business neighbors across the street.

“It’s great having her across the street,” Carolyn Zinni said. “We send each other customers. My sister had the reputation of doing prom so when customers see she’s not doing that anymore, she sends them over here.” 

Over the years, the family has grown. Zinni began helping underprivileged high school girls find the prom dress of their dreams for free in an annual giveaway at her Springfield store. It followed her to South Philly.

“I had felt blessed by the success of the business that I needed to give back in that way,” Carolyn Zinni said. “You can tell when someone is really in need. We’d see people in beach chairs and blankets at 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning to be first in line because it was so important to them to not have to put out that dollar amount.”

In 2019, at least 60 prom dresses were given to students from South Philadelphia and Neumann-Goretti high schools. Many more were donated to other causes.

It remains a charity near and dear to the Zinni family despite Carolyn having never gone to her own prom. In fact, she’s proud to admit she never graduated from high school. She instead followed her passion of attending beauty school and landed a job at upscale department store Adolf Biecker before going into business for herself when she took out a loan from her parents and paid it back in less than three years.

“I was the class clown and had no interest in academics,” said Carolyn Zinni of her days at St. Maria Goretti High School. “I was a much more creative person and just totally disconnected from what the teachers and nuns were teaching. It was just not my bag. But my dad supported that in an era when you’d be considered a dropout but he saw I was doing well in beauty school.”

Bennett had specialized in prom dresses up until recently switching to more casual attire. The two sisters wanted to keep things friendly and not compete against each other during prom gown shopping season, which begins every January.

“Maria moved on from social occasions and proms, passing the baton to me because we didn’t want to compete when I moved here,” Carolyn said. “She would have killed me.”

Instead, they get along wonderfully on separate sides of the Avenue, both working mostly appointment-only hours. 

Although scaled back on the time card, both Carolyn and Maria still put a full effort into pleasing their customers. It’s just the way they were taught to treat others all these years.

“We were a small little family that slept on sofa beds and succeeded,” Bennett said. “We had an upbringing that taught us how to live and make money and how to be kind and have a passion for making women feel good.”

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