Pulse: Chatter: Portrait of a Ladies’ Clothier: Sophy Curson

The graceful aging of Philadelphia fashion legend

At Sophy Curson, the Rittenhouse Square boutique completing its 80th year next month, you must ask for things.Starting at the front door, where you ring the brass bell, and wait for someone to come open it.

Inside the one-room, all-taupe shop, there’s little combing through racks the way you might at Joan Shepp or Barneys Co-op, or in the Kingdom of Prussia. Instead, most of Sophy Curson’s fashionable wares reside behind wood-paneled walls, in long closets. You see the merchandise only once you explain to a salesperson what you’d like, and after you’ve entered the large dressing rooms (built large to accommodate petticoat wearers 60 years ago) and waited for someone to bring items—maybe a parrot-hued Tom and Linda Platt gown. Try it on. Ask for more.

Sophy Curson’s decorous retail approach dates back to 1929, when its eponymous founder, a diminutive woman of five feet who worked in her family’s Point Breeze department store, placed an order for six children’s sailor suits — redesigned, sans buttons but with a bust. She dubbed the result “the junior size,” thereby, according to fashion lore, inventing Petites. Despite the Depression, business took off, and Curson opened her own shop. After several years, it landed at 19th and Sansom, joining Nan Duskin and Bonwit Teller and, later, Philip Mendelsohn, Knit Wit and Toby Lerner. Today, Curson’s niece and great-nephew, Susan and David A. Schwartz, run the business. Of its competitors, only Knit Wit remains.

The fashion world has changed, too. -Women don’t dress for lunch dates anymore, and each day, the Schwartzes face a landscape of yoga pants, flip-flops, and other scourges of ladylike couture. Some designers have come and gone (Lacroix, Trigère), but many have endured (Blumarine, Krizia). And although a few clients are the progeny of the women who once had house charges, many are North Jerseyans looking for clothes they can’t find in Manhattan.

The Schwartzes don’t spend much time dwelling on why the business has lasted the better part of a century. They credit twice–yearly buying trips to Paris and Milan, and limited exposure in the local market. They’ve deliberately adopted modern-day must-haves — two denim lines, private-label t-shirts — and say they’ve grown used to clients asking for runway pieces during the Paris shows, and shopping for the Academy Ball the day before the event. They do their best to calm hurried customers. They do as they’ve done for years.

One recent morning, four shoppers fill the store. One is a young woman in a graffiti-print dress, toting a status bag, who points to a Desigual dress in the window and says, “I saw this in Dubai.” Another is a suited matron picking up an in-house alteration. The last is a mother buying her daughter her first cocktail dress. The young lady tries on a plain black frock. She frowns. David hands her a black sequined number. She twirls before the mirror, smiling brightly. “It’s kind of like shopping on Amazon,” says David. “‘If you like this, you’ll like this.’”