Ten years ago, Shani Newton dared to open Dolly’s Boutique & Consignment, a specialty women’swear store, on Germantown Avenue.
It wasn’t long before Dolly’s boasted quite the fashionable clientele, including City Councilwomen Cherelle Parker and Maria Quinones Sanchez, TV personalities Sherri Shepherd and Niecy Nash, The Young and the Restless actress Tracey Bregman and Real Housewives of Atlanta star Claudia Jordan. Next week, Newton will style singer Macy Gray. And who knows? Maybe Gray will choose a piece from Dolly’s for her Oct. 29 performance at City Winery.
“We specialize in show-stopping pieces,” said Newton, 44.
She and I are chitty-chatting in Dolly’s second location, on the concourse level of Fashion District Philadelphia, the 800,000-square-foot entertainment and shopping complex that opened in September. “We are where women come when they need something for everyday that can transition to something fancy," she said.
Newton is wearing a black tutu over leggings and a matching chunky sweater, paired with thick-soled Balenciaga sneakers. She confidently, if not unconsciously, tosses her bouncy way-past-her-shoulder-length loose curls. This is her spot, and she’s proud.
She has every right to be. She doesn’t come from a family of entrepreneurs, nor does she have generational wealth. Newton built her business piece by piece. And as one of the inaugural stores in Fashion District’s Uniquely Philly section of the mall, she’s finally getting a break.
Along with Dolly’s Boutique, the self-care apothecary The Sable Collective, Philly-centric sportswear apparel company South Fellini, and Sunday-go-to-meeting millinery American Hats LLC are the four homegrown ventures that Fashion District is incubating and marketing as Uniquely Philly. At the end of the businesses’ two-year leases, mall developers hope their Uniquely Philly tenants will move into permanent storefronts within the District, said Heather Crowell, executive vice president of strategy and communications for the District’s parent company, PREIT.
Dolly’s and the other Uniquely Philly merchants get a deal on rent and access to a projected 15 million people in annual foot traffic, explained Crowell. In return, Fashion District can boast that there is more to it than chains like H&M and Ulta, both of which already have locations in Center City and multiples in the region.
“The days of ubiquitous tenant mixes are over,” Crowell said.
I discovered Dolly’s on Germantown Avenue last year when I was looking for stores to profile for a special fall shopping section. The moment I walked in, I eyed a full skirt with kelly green splashes for about $49, but I was feeling frugal and didn’t buy it. I wished I had, because when I returned a few days later, it was gone. I never made that mistake again.
In the months since, I’ve bought several pieces, including a black jumpsuit and a few blouses. The prices in the store range from about $49 to $259, so they aren’t too hard on the pocketbook. And Newton’s specialty — silky tops that can easily be paired with everything from jeans to leggings — always prove to be just what a girl needs in a fashion pinch.
“Everybody has black slacks, everybody has a black pencil skirt,” says Newton, who doesn’t just give lip service to the democratization of fashion, she lives it. She carries sizes XS to 3X, and if a brand doesn’t include XL in its collection, she won’t buy it. “Fashion should make you feel good, feel beautiful and help you come out of your shell.”
Newton comes from a family of blue-collar workers who were apprehensive when it came to investing money, but raised her comfortably in Mount Airy. (Boy, I can relate.) Her dad was a machinist in the Navy Yard. Her mom worked for Temple University’s computer science department.
Still, Newton was born with the entrepreneurial bug. When she was 8, she begged her dad to buy her a store. When she was 12, she started charging parents $5 a week to walk their children to and from the bus stop. “My parents didn’t know that I had a little business going until some of the kids’ parents came to my house to pay me,” Newton said. She made about $30 a week.
At 15, she got a job at the local Burger King, where she worked under the tutelage of Dorothy Allen, who would become one of her mentors.
After graduating from Temple with a bachelor’s degree in business, Newton found jobs at PECO, Quest Diagnostics, and the American Friends Service Committee. But she always kept a side hustle. In 1998, while working full-time, she opened Gentle Touch Car Salon in Nicetown, one of the first in the region that was female-owned. “I’ve always been able to turn 15 cents into a dollar,” Newton said.
She closed Gentle Touch in the early aughts and began selling accessories and clothing from her two-door Camry under the name Shop Shani. “I was very popular at lunch,” she laughed. She dreamed of opening her own boutique, but didn’t want to give up the stability of her job at American Friends. In 2008, she was laid off.
After spending months looking for a spot and almost settling on a storefront in the Northeast, she got word that another of her mentors, Rose Merritt — owner of Rose’s Attic, long a staple on Germantown Avenue — had died. She took over the space and named the business Dolly’s, after her grandmother. “She had died recently, and one morning it came to me that I should name my business after her,” Newton said. “She helped raise me. I loved her.”
Newton now owns the building.
Earlier this year, PREIT and Enterprise Center asked Newton to bring Uniquely Philly to the District. She was one of four businesses selected from a pool of over 100.
It’s too early to gauge how the mall business is going, Newton says. But while sitting in the store, it’s clear a sense of community is taking shape. A handful of women walk in asking about glittery tops and maxi dresses they’ve been eyeing since the store opened a month ago. A trio of teenagers are back to ask Newton for work. “Come back for the holidays,” she says. Happy hour, featuring daily discounts and a Dolly’s Boutique special drink, commences at 4 p.m.