As a little girl, I loved to draw wedding gowns. BIG wedding gowns, with long trains and big skirts. I never had the kind of “wedding dreams” that involved my own wedding, though. I only wanted to design the gowns for other people. So when I had the opportunity to open a bridal shop in the mid-90s I had big ideas on how I was going to “break the stiff, white gown” barrier with my designs and help my clients break into a world of color with my one-of-a-kind designs and signature unique airbrushed fabrics. I had pioneered the use of airbrushed surface design on costumes for skating and dancing for over 10 years, but I felt that the wedding world was ready to add a little color to the basic bridal ensemble.
My 1400 square-foot studio, named “The Star Garden,” was the perfect setup for my re-invented business. It was a pretty little house just the other side of the highway from the local mall, at the intersection of a heavily-trafficked road. It had previously been an insurance agency, and all of the old homes along that stretch of town had been zoned for commercial businesses similar to mine. The property even had a nice yard in front with a little porch and a huge picture window…perfect for lighted displays. And the driveway took customers around the back of the building where there was ample parking, and a pretty backyard with huge old trees to shade a small patio just outside the room that became my office. The three bedrooms became a fabric room, a trimming room, and a room to display samples. The largest room had been a double-car garage that had been converted into a large workroom, and was perfect for our sewing room. There was also a small kitchen/break room just off of a utility area that we used as a mail/shipping room. It was perfect, and I was thrilled!
To save money, I designed and painted…..yes, I said I PAINTED… our own outdoor signs. The lot had a 5′ x 7′ double-sided sign out front, so I purchased 2 sheets of plexiglass and make a stencil of a very complicated logo. I had to lay on the floor to apply the stencil and paint the thing – twice (once for each side) – then we had to figure out how to get these huge pieces of floppy plastic up about 12′ and install into the lighted sign frame. Dear Hubby came through with a winch-type lifter, and all I can say now is that it’s too bad we didn’t have video of the installation! But we had a sign, and it looked good to us!
In order to drive bridal traffic to the store, I partnered with a wedding photographer, a wedding planner, and a DJ service. Our grand opening featured music, food from a local caterer (who also brought wedding cake samples), and our photographer documented the event for the local newspaper. We sent out about 300 invitations to friends, family, as well as my couture clients. Our opening weekend was an open house event, so people came and went and it was heartening to see so many of our old customers stop in to wish us good luck. I still have some of the plants that these wonderful folks brought us to commemorate our new venture.
Once the excitement of the big opening was past, I got back to work on costume orders that had continued to come in (thank goodness!) for figure skaters, dancers, and some pageant contestants. I needed to advertise my new bridal line, but was so busy designing for the same clientele I’d had before opening the shop that I neglected to target my new audience. Eventually I set up booths at a few bridal shows, and placed some advertising in the local newspaper, but it wasn’t enough to entice brides to my side of the highway (where David’s Bridal had just opened a shop). The brides that did engage my design services mainly wanted a cheaper version of something they saw in a bridal magazine. They weren’t much interested in a real couture experience, but rather believed (as many people mistakenly do) that having something made to order would cost LESS than the mass-produced item. Wonder why they’d think that???
So after about a year of working 60 hours a week just to pay for the overhead, we decided it was smarter to move the operation back to my home studio and actually MAKE money. But it was a grand experience, and one that taught me many lessons. One is that the IDEA of something can often blur the reality of what one REALLY wants. I thought I wanted to design hauntingly beautiful gowns for gorgeous brides, but the reality of the business was that 1) the “retail” bride wants a traditional gown and has many other places to get one for much less than what I can make it for, and 2) brides aren’t always the most pleasant customers to work with. Once I understood my own strengths and focused on the markets that I felt comfortable in, I was able to showcase my unique skills and work with clients that trusted my expertise. This gave me more design freedom, and the ability to work with people that appreciated the services and products that I offered. Not only that, but I was enjoying my work again!