If you’re new to Philadelphia, the first time you walk into the South Fellini t-shirt shop on Passyunk Avenue, you might be confused by what’s on offer.
What is ‘jawn’ and why is it written on a hoodie, stylized as the logo of the local gas station?
Why do Phillies fans climb greased poles on Broad Street, anyway – and why is there a T-shirt here endorsing the practice?
But the thing about the guys at South Fellini is that they always wanted to pass the joke on to you.
Johnny Zito, 40, and Tony Trov, 39, founders of wildly successful lifestyle brand Philly, aren’t there to keep an eye on. They may be lifers from South Philly. But they want you to be too. Think of them as the nice old faces of the neighborhood.
“We tell people the scoop,” Trov said with a laugh during a recent interview at the store, which officially reopened Oct. 22 after a two-year pandemic hiatus. “We tell people the secrets.”
They want you to ask questions, dig into all the things that make Philadelphia weird, wonderful, and exciting — and get as obsessed as they are.
Of course, for locals like Zito and Trov, who grew up a few blocks from the avenue, in the changing South Philadelphia of the 1980s and 1990s, the jokes on the t-shirts signal a special kind of understanding, that goes beyond writing “cheesesteak” on a hoodie and calling it a day.
South Fellini’s t-shirts will reference the Toynbee Tiles – the mysterious messages embedded in the streets of the Philadelphia area. Or the ubiquitous mid-century doors with keyhole, star, and diamond-patterned windows on the neighborhood’s townhouses.
It is the specificity of their designs that sets South Fellini apart.
And since opening in 2016, South Fellini’s designs have exploded far beyond Passyunk Avenue. From Bryce Harper to Adam Sandler to countless anonymous South Philadelphia locals in the sushi section of the Reed Street Acme, it sometimes feels like just about everyone here has a South Fellini shirt in the closet. Or a “Jabroni” hat on the head.
If smart t-shirts were a way to get newcomers in on the joke, the shop podcast, Philadelphia Legends, launched during the doldrums of the pandemic, is a way to explain all of these esoteric references in full.
Though they run a business based on nostalgia and laughter, Zito and Trov, both Temple School of Film graduates, filmmakers and writers, aren’t trying to mythologize a Philadelphia past that doesn’t exist. , but to examine it, warts and all.
It’s what came naturally to them, starting in the mid-2000s, selling designs to South Street t-shirt shops and selling enamel pins to Facebook friends at the Singing Fountain on Passyunk Avenue.
Philly was then poised to suddenly become interesting to the rest of the country, with the Phillies and Eagles winning championships, a pope in town and a new glow attracting transplants.
And now Zito and Trov, whose childhood friendship began as two artistic strangers in a South Philly with few of them, had Philly-shaped chips on their shoulders. In film school, their classmates called them “South Fellini” as a playful insult, and industry bigwigs looked past the Philadelphia scene, even though the comics and films of duo’s horror hits achieved niche success.
T-shirts and pins were a side gig. But they soon realized how much their designs resonated with the people who purchased them. They couldn’t shake their South Philly roots – and they didn’t want to. So they kissed them.
“We wanted to show people how cool we thought Philly was – and why we were staying,” Zito said.
They went from weird takes on the Phillies and Eagles and Rocky to ever more specific cultural delights, like shirts advertising a fictional Fishtown Yacht Club or urging visitors to “South Philly Pines” (notoriously overgrown FDR Park).
“There’s an inherent irony – we knew old Philadelphia needed a lot of improvements,” Zito said. They remember when FDR Park was a place where South Philly kids shot illegal fireworks, and Passyunk Avenue was still populated by tough guys wearing members-only jackets, when the stores closed, that the garbage collectors were hitting and all the teams were losing. .
“When people say I miss old Philadelphia, they’re remembering something that wasn’t really there…The idea of celebrating that was a lot of fun.”
Soon the t-shirt printers couldn’t keep up. And in 2019, Trov’s phone rang at happy hour: Newly signed Phillies Bryce Harper wanted a South Fellini shirt to wear to his first season opener in his new city.
It was a city in flux, and they were doing their best to change with it, including in 2019 when they pulled East Passyunk logo T-shirts – which featured a drawing of an Aboriginal man wearing a Western headdress.
In 2020, there was a new boutique in the Fashion District, 14 employees, a warehouse, and an expanded line of t-shirts, pins, hats, hoodies, onesies, and various other bric-a-brac.
The pandemic has stopped everything. The gallery shop closed, never to reopen. Down to one employee, and no more folding t-shirts all day, they took the opportunity to think more deeply about why their silly t-shirts were connecting.
And now that the South Philly boutique is coming back to life, and with new designs for the Phillies World Series race, they’re just as irreverent as ever. After much soul-searching, they dubbed their aesthetic “Hoagiewave,” a Phillyan take on the 80s-inspired vaporwave music genre.
And they started the podcast with producer Bryan Bierman, a writer and comedian from Philadelphia with a special skill for stunt doubles and a Philly accent for the ages.
“They were pointing out Philly things that I’ve watched all my life that I’ve never thought of as a Philly thing,” he said.
Each episode begins with a pounding electronic drum beat — Trov is a musician who fronted a Beatles cover band in high school called “I Buried Paul” — and a gag on the questions newcomers still ask them.
“Do long hots prevent scurvy?”
“Has anyone ever parked three times before?”
“Why is the Philadelphia accent such a natural aphrodisiac?”
As funny as the episodes are – there’s a 10 hour arc on the Rocky movies and an episode all about Jim Gardner’s mustache — they’re a lot more thoughtful than you’d think from a t-shirt store podcast. They’ve covered everything from the history of Moyamensing Prison to Allen Iverson’s trainers to the myriad funeral parlors of South Broad Street. There’s an episode about Byberry State Hospital and the racial history of South Street. And like their T-shirts, everything is infused with a deep respect and curiosity for their city.
“We’re two guys from South Philly who wanted to be successful in our jobs, and the city was kind enough to make that happen,” Zito said. “And every day we can make the city a little cooler and brag to the rest of the world, we’re the ones paying off our debt.”