They call her Lucy the Magician, and brides come from far and away seeking her expertise.
    They don’t always realize they’re dealing with the owner, of course. That’s information Lucy – otherwise known as Lucia Ciotti, owner and head seamstress of L&H Bridal in Philadelphia – may or may not choose to reveal. But regardless of whether customers recognize her, the 67-year-old Ciotti can be found hard at work in her salon at least five, sometimes as many as seven, days a week. For even though she has a booming business and knowledgeable staff, Ciotti oversees all fittings herself and has become somewhat legendary for her alterations and sewing abilities. They’re one of her greatest strengths and the primary reason – along with the extra care and attention shown to mothers – her 43-year-old bridal salon continues to thrive.
    “When (customers) get married, my name is behind the dress,” Ciotti says. “I want it to fit like if I was wearing it or my daughter was wearing it, perfect front and back. Even if I have to work another five hours on that dress it has to go away 110% otherwise it’s not leaving my store.”  

Coming to America
    It was never supposed to be a permanent thing.
    Ciotti grew up in a small coastal town in central Italy, Giulianova. When she was 16, a U.S.-based relative came to visit and told her father, “I’m taking your daughter back with me!” Ciotti agreed, figuring she’d vacation for a year then return home.
    Of course, more than five decades and a deeply rooted Pennsylvania-based business later, that isn’t exactly how things turned out.
    “People ask why I never went back and I reply, ‘I’m still on vacation!’” she says.
    It’s a fitting metaphor for a woman who is so passionate about her bridal salon that she refers to it as her first child. In reality, a few other factors influenced Ciotti’s decision to stay in this country. One of the biggest: her first boss.
    Upon arrival in the U.S., Ciotti enrolled in school to learn the language. After a while, she needed a part-time job and a friend recommended a local bridal shop. The owner, Mary, was Italian and everyone spoke Italian in-store, which helped Ciotti, still struggling to master English.
    “Mary was a wonderful, wonderful lady,” she says. “Even today I talk about her a lot because she taught me everything I know about how to do fittings and the proper techniques for bridal alterations. (That knowledge) is one of my best attributes.”
    Ciotti, who’d had some prior pattern-making experience, worked at the bridal salon for about three years. She found the art of sewing and knowing how a particular style should accentuate a body to be like a puzzle, and that was exhilarating. During this time, she met her husband, Frank, on a blind date (“I tell him I’m still blind today!” she laughs) and the rest was history. They married when Ciotti was 22, solidifying her stay in the states.
    Back at the bridal store, Mary eventually retired and there was talk about making Ciotti a manager. When she brought this idea up to Frank he suggested an alternative: why not look for her own store?
    Within six months they’d found the location, an existing business. Even though it was tiny – maybe 500 square feet – it was a beginning and that was good enough. They bought that store with their wedding money, almost a year after getting married.
    While Frank worked as an accountant, Ciotti set about transforming the store into her own. The previous owners were older and hadn’t believed in bringing in new merchandise, so immediately she got rid of everything. She went shopping in New York and filled the store with various bridal, mothers, bridesmaids, flower girls, veils and accessories selections. Overall, she offered less merchandise though it was more visible and available in younger looks.
    From that first day, Ciotti handled all fittings herself, although a seamstress did the sewing while she tended to the front house.
    “Even though I didn’t speak much English I didn’t need it,” she says. “The language of sewing and fitting is understood.”
    While in the initial stages of building her business, children came along: daughter Danielle, now 42, and son Anthony, now 40. This added a complex yet wonderful dynamic to an already not-so-easy ride.
    “In the beginning, it was touch-and-go work and no money – very, very hard,” she says.
    Occasionally, in fact, she wanted to quit. During those moments, family support was crucial.
    “My husband is a big part of this business,” she says. “He always said, ‘you’re not giving up…you can do it!’ And my kids did, too. That’s all I need to hear is them say, ‘mom you can do it!’ and I got the strength up.”

Explosive Growth,
Steady Philosophy
    Today, L&H Bridal is a grandiose version of its initial self: bigger, with multiple locations, an excellent reputation and family members on staff. Yet for all the growth and changes, it’s still driven by the same philosophy:
    Every single bride matters. Make her feel special and look perfect no matter what.
    It’s a concept that’s defined them from day one in that tiny 500-square-foot store, where they ended up spending five years. After that came a 1,200-square-foot space for the next 12 until, in 1992, the itch to expand struck again.
    “I had a little problem: I love gowns and when I went to market I bought too much because when I see wedding gowns I see candy,” Ciotti says. “That was the time to say, ‘OK let’s move.’”
    This time, however, she wanted to buy, not rent. She was lucky to find that third spot – a 4,132-square-foot former restaurant that, in the 1800s, served as a carriage stop. She loved the location – right between two large highways/thoroughfares, with a second floor she could devote exclusively to bridal – and told her husband, “I don’t care what you have to do – we need it!” Five months of back-and-forth negotiation later, it was theirs.
    They rejected the opportunity to designate it an historical building because they wanted the freedom to alter as desired. Right away, that meant adding an extension. In years to come, more would follow.
    One of the biggest: they moved bridesmaids and prom into the 1,500-square-foot building next door. This gave brides the privacy they deserve while helping spread out their rapidly growing merchandise.
    “When you have so much you cannot display it right and I want it so when you walk in you don’t have to search; you can see how a dress looks,” she says. “I was able to follow my dream; I love the displays the way they are now!”
    Today, bridesmaids, prom, tuxedo and an office are located in that adjacent building, while the main building contains the heart and soul of L&H Bridal. The first floor includes the reception room, a large mothers’ suite, and double doors leading to what Ciotti describes as her store’s best feature: private fitting rooms designated for alterations. A staircase leads up to the private bridal showcase, all decked in ivory and white.
    “I especially love this area,” she says. “Even today it’s so refreshing to hear, ’Wow! It’s beautiful up here!’ That’s all I need to make me feel good.”
    As for décor? It’s changed three times because Ciotti tires quickly of the same look. Currently it’s both modern and gorgeous but always uncluttered and clean.
    “Customers assume what they see is the same way we’ll treat the clothing they buy,” she says. “They know us by how we keep our store.”
     Or, in this case, stores.
    In March 2016, Ciotti opened a higher-end boutique, L&H Couture, about 20 miles away in Doylestown, Pa. The 1,000-square-foot space carries couture bridal, MOB and evening gowns, doing incredibly well with the latter. And in February 2018, she debuted L&H Bridal RACK, a 1,580-square-foot boutique offering in-stock designer originals at amazing prices, about 70 miles away in Sinking Spring, Pa.
    “A long time ago an owner from one of the manufacturers I was buying from said I should do what I feel is right for my business and not worry about anyone else,’” Ciotti says. “I’ve been living by that advice ever since.”

Sew Special
    One of L&H Bridal’s standout features is its in-house sewing department, which Ciotti loves. She oversees all fittings and does all brides and mothers, working Monday-Thursday in the main building and in Doylestown every Friday; often she accommodates out-of-towners on weekends. A small handful of seamstresses do the sewing but Ciotti is with them morning to night if they have questions.
    “I guess you could say I’m a very jealous person when it comes to my dresses,” she says. “I’d never give one to a seamstress (to take home) because I feel I’m responsible for it. If a customer trusts me with their clothing I need to keep it here because I want it done in certain ways.”
    Now, here’s something that may surprise you: When on the sales floor or doing a fitting, Ciotti doesn’t reveal she’s the owner.
    “I feel I get a truer response if (customers) think I’m a sales consultant or seamstress,” she says. “It’s not that they get intimidated but I want to be more their friend and not the owner.”
    At the main store many of them know. At the couture store, most do not, although once in a while, Ciotti tells people (“Oh that’s so cool!” is a common reply). A proud manager sometimes introduces her as, ”Oh, this is Lucy the Magician!” After a successful fitting she’ll add, “I told you she is magical!”
    “What’s happened is I have spoiled my customers,” Ciotti says. “Even when they pick up dresses they need Lucy to give her blessing. It could be that a girl told my consultant she feels a bit uncomfortable (in the gown). I’ll come down and say, “Oh my goodness! It’s perfect!” She replies, ‘Isn’t it?’ They just want me to be here.”
    Another distinguishing feature is that L&H customizes existing gowns, something Ciotti says influences many customers to buy even if they’ve seen the exact dress elsewhere.
    “That’s a big, big thing to the bride, knowing she can change the dress a little bit,” she says. “It becomes her unique look because nobody will have the same thing.”
    Finally, they do a large business in outside alterations; about 20 percent comes from people who didn’t buy their gown from L&H.
    “I find that to be very complimentary to me,” Ciotti says. “I love the challenge of sewing and fixing a mistake. They bring in a dress and I say, ‘Listen. Come back tomorrow; I know what I have to do.’ And they get so excited, it’s like music to my ears.”
    And the benefits go beyond money.
    “On the wedding day, those people will remember I helped them, and that’s my advertising,” she says. “I’m a big believer in word of mouth. When people come back a second and third time – that’s my best advertising.”

Like Mother, Like Daughter
    While L&H Bridal is, of course, all about the brides, there’s another niche Ciotti holds dear to her heart.
    “To me, the mothers are almost as important,” she says. “I always put myself in their place when they need a dress. I love to make them look and feel as special as the bride.”
    Of course, the challenge – and Ciotti sees it frequently – is when a mother is plagued by body image or size problems. She may come in frustrated after months of fruitless searching, at which point Ciotti delivers some much-needed TLC.  
    “That’s where I put my time –  the woman who needs more attention,” she says. “You need to be more patient with full-figured customers because they have a hard time seeing when you don’t have every style in their size. The same is true with brides.”
    For the past 10 years, Ciotti has focused on bringing in a lot of full-size items. In fact, L&H recently introduced a “Curvy Corner” for more voluptuous brides, which carries about two dozen gowns in different styles ranging from size 18-32. This helps ensure every bride can receive the full experience when finding her perfect gown.
    Additionally, while at market, Ciotti emphasizes mothers’ needs. This approach has resulted in mothers’ business tripling over the past three years.
    “A mother may not want to spend $1k on a dress, but if it fits her properly she’ll spend it because she looks beautiful,” she says. “And that’s the idea: making these moms feel beautiful. The other day a size-24 lady was dancing on the floor in front of me because of how beautiful she looked!”
    This same care and attention extends to brides, 99.9% of whom are by appointment. From the minute a bride walks into the store, she’s treated like the only bride they have. A personal consultant sits with her one on one, asking questions and really listening. The bride is allowed to try on dresses she likes but stylists are also trained to show others they feel her body could handle.
    And – this is a biggie – they are never pushy.
    “That’s not who I am,” Ciotti says. “When a girl is having a hard time choosing between dresses, there’s no use trying to force her to buy; it doesn’t work that way.”
    Rather, Ciotti will suggest the bride go home and think about it, coming back later if she wants to buy. And customers, frequently overwhelmed by so many style choices, appreciate this approach. In fact, they often return to buy but even when they purchase elsewhere, many publicly praise the phenomenal service they received at L&H anyway.
    “Those are actually some of our favorite reviews because the word of mouth thing works,” she says. “It shows that we aren’t pushy and other people are going to see that and want to come even more. That kind of exposure helps more than anything else, even regular sales.”
    In fact, 57 percent of L&H Bridal’s business is word of mouth, a number that’s holding strong. They love seeing mothers who are former L&H brides coming in with their daughters, now the current bride.  
    “We become a family so that by the time they leave they say, ‘Oh my God I’m going to miss you! I’m going to miss this place!’” Ciotti says. “It’s that kind of relationship, and they love it here.”

A Family Affair
    Speaking of family, it’s a huge part of L&H Bridal’s culture. Ciotti’s children are now involved in the business, a dream come true for her.  
    Daughter Danielle, who has worked full time at the store since she was 16, is General Manager. Son Anthony, who came on board 4 years ago, is Business Manager. Son-in-law Francesco is Facilities Manager, and Cousin Donna is an Administrative Assistant. Ciotti’s husband is also a big part of the business, albeit from the background.
    In-store, Ciotti has a great team of staffers in place to help, which gives her more time to pursue her passion of sewing and making brides look beautiful. A prodigy in training, Danielle has even started doing fittings when Ciotti is unavailable.
    “I really trust her because when it comes to fittings she is almost like a mini-me,” Ciotti says.
    As for Anthony, Ciotti recalls how in high school he’d say, “Mom I’ve never heard anyone so excited about going back to work on Monday morning!” Now that he’s part of the business, that’s changed to, “Hey mom, I finally understand what you were saying!”
    It’s a harmonious, passionate family team with exciting future plans. Currently they’re looking for another location to bring both stores back together as one mega store. Ultimately, Ciotti would love to have a bridal mall encompassing everything pertaining to the bride and her Big Day. Personally, she’d like to take time off and live in Italy for three months (“But I’d come back!” she laughs).
    Regardless of whether these plans materialize, Ciotti still has to pinch herself when thinking about where she’s at today.
    “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, plus I have to thank the United States for giving me this chance to flourish with the business,” she says. “I tell my kids all the time: L&H is my first child, not them. I cannot abandon my first child.”
    Perhaps that is why, when Ciotti has a rare bad day, she’ll drive down to her salon, open the door, walk in, and everything just falls into place.
    “Being there is very therapeutical,” she says. “It’s mindboggling the way you become part of your store. It’s not only something I love, it’s who I am.”