Wedding-dress Maker Fashions a Business Niche

Celia Grace

Marcelia Muehlke

Marcelia Muehlke displays one of the many fair-trade weddings dresses her company now offers.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles that will appear over the next several months to shine a spotlight on the growing amount of entrepreneurial energy being tapped in the region.

Emily Cohen admits she didn’t know a whole lot about wedding dresses and the process of finding one when she informally launched her search at the start of this year, roughly four months after she and Ted Eiseman announced their engagement.

In fact, she told BusinessWest she was surprised to learn it would likely take several months to choose a dress and fulfill an order, a reality that provided a new sense of urgency to the matter as January turned to February.

And it was to be compounded by feelings of frustration as she visited various shops and mulled the myriad, almost universally unappealing, options presented to her.

“I went to three or four local wedding stores, and it was just not a good fit for me,” said Cohen, an acupuncturist by trade. “Everything was factory-made, polyester, made in China, with a lot of it catering to a real Disney-princess-slash-Barbie-doll look. I’m more oriented to natural fibers, and because of what I do, I’m into holistic things. I was having trouble finding something that was flattering and well-made and suited my tastes.”

These were just some of the sentiments she was expressing to a friend when that individual put her on the path to an eventual solution.

“She said, ‘I babysit for someone who has a fair-trade wedding-dress company — her dresses are beautiful; go take a look online,’” said Cohen, adding that she followed up on that tip, met Marcelia Muehlke, founder of Celia Grace Wedding Dresses, and was eventually fitted for a silk dress known as the ‘Jane.’

That’s short for Jane Goodall, the British primatologist, anthropologist, leading expert on chimpanzees, and one of several pioneering women for whom Muehlke has named her various creations.

There’s also the ‘Teresa’ (Mother Teresa); ‘Eileen’ (Eileen Collins, one of the first female astronauts); ‘Eleanor’ (crusading first lady Eleanor Roosevelt); ‘Maya’ (poet and author Maya Angelou); ‘Amelia’ (aviator Amelia Earhart), and many others.

Putting women like Cohen on a first-name basis with all those first names is one of the many challenges Muehlke has confronted while launching and developing one of the more unique of the many new entrepreneurial ventures unfolding across the region.

Indeed, she said most women have never considered the concept of a free-trade dress (one produced in a country and manner that respects human rights and environmental sustainability), know that such a dress exists, or know that Muehlke’s the reason one exists.

The process of changing all that and moving the business well beyond the ‘friend-of-a friend’ stage in terms of how awareness is generated — although that still happens, obviously — has been a learning experience, and one that is ongoing for Muehlke and partner and dress designer Alix Kivlin.

Summing up her first three years in business, Muehlke says the venture has gone from concept to what she called a “nationally acclaimed brand,” with the ‘Jane,’ ‘Teresa,’ and others now sold in shops in or just outside several major cities, with Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. being the latest additions.

“We’ve built a stable, ethical, international supply chain, which is ready to grow with us,” she explained. “We’ve earned coverage in eight of the top 10 online wedding magazines, we’ve developed 20 bestselling styles, and we have two thriving sales channels, in stores and direct, that gives us full coverage of North American and Europe. That’s pretty good, especially in such a slow-moving industry.”

Looking forward, she plans to continue what has been a very controlled pattern of growth (more on the importance of such a pace later) and thoughtfully move the company in several potential-laden directions.

The evolving strategy includes adding shops in more markets — both in this country and eventually abroad — as well as expansion into other product lines (everything from mother-of-the-bride dresses to First Communion outfits, all worthy of the label ‘free trade’), and exploration of new revenue streams, such as the emerging trend of wedding-dress rentals, rather than purchases.

Emily Cohen — seen here with her husband, Ted Eiseman

Emily Cohen — seen here with her husband, Ted Eiseman, after their wedding this summer — was sold on every aspect of the ‘Jane’ dress.
Photo by Darlene DeVita Photography

For this, the second installment in its series on emerging entrepreneurial ventures across the region, BusinessWest looks at an enterprise blending concepts that are old, new, borrowed, and, well, you get the idea.

Sew Far, Sew Good

As she talked with BusinessWest about her venture and what comes next, Muehlke was involved with the many aspects of preparation for New York International Bridal Week. In fact, she had just finished up some calls with bridal-shop owners to set up appointments.

The three-day, biannual spectacle, to be staged Oct. 10-12 at Pier 94, is, in many respects, this industry’s Super Bowl, with hundreds of exhibitors, many of them wedding-dress makers, looking to catch the attention of thousands of retailers and wholesalers from across this country and around the world.

Muehlke, who will patrol booth #262 (there are nearly 1,000 of them), said that, during the last show, she and Kivlin were able to essentially cinch a deal with another prominent bridal shop (this one just outside Boston) and make countless new introductions — connections that will hopefully pay dividends down the road.

The goal for this year’s show is simple — more of the same, she said, adding that, while relationship building is a key to success in any business sector, that’s especially true in the wedding industry, a roughly $50 billion business.

That’s because, while styles can change profoundly with one royal wedding (Kate Middleton’s dress brought back sleeves and lace, for example), overall, this industry moves slowly compared to most components of the fashion business, and those who sell the dresses devote money and valuable showroom space to new makers only after careful consideration and confidence that the product will sell.

“Bridal shops buy the dresses — usually one of the most popular styles in a size 12 — and then they place orders off those dresses year-round,” she said while explaining how most of her dresses are sold. “So it’s a fairly deep initial cost for them, especially when it’s a fairly new line like ours. And it’s a risk, because they need to know that we’re going to deliver every single dress on time and in perfect condition.

“It takes a while to build that trust,” she went on. “They want to get to know us personally and as a business, and that can take a while. Some shops will say, ‘I love this idea’ and pick you up, but, generally speaking, it takes some time to earn that trust; it took one of our shops more than two years to go from first contact to buying the collection.”

New York International Bridal Week is a time for advancing that process, she said, adding that she enjoys the show for many reasons, including the fast pace, tremendous energy, high stakes, and those opportunities to make an impression.

But there’s something else.

“I think my favorite part is being surrounded by so many smart, savvy, interesting businesswomen,” she explained. “The bridal industry, as you’d expect, is dominated by women and women business owners, so it’s just really neat to get together with all these women of different ages and from different states and countries, all coming together to make their businesses successful.”

While she’s still rather new to the industry, Muehlke certainly seems worthy of those adjectives she used to describe her peers, although she readily admits she’s still learning by doing.

Muehlke said that, like many business ventures, this one was born of necessity — she desired a free-trade dress for her own wedding, and when she couldn’t find one, she decided to not only make one, but also fill the void for others. Indeed, after completing her MBA at UMass Amherst, she traveled to Asia and set up a supply chain that would create high-quality garments that she and others could wear with pride.

She began working with women in a sewing group in Cambodia, contracted with a designer in New York, and got her venture off the ground and on the runway.

She’s won a number of awards and accolades for her early success — everything from a Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Success Spirit Award in 2011 to membership in BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty Class of 2015 (she’s only 31).

More importantly, she’s made considerable progress with not only selling dresses, but selling a concept.

She defines ‘free trade’ as a global, social movement that leverages trade, instead of monetary aid, to help people in the world’s poorest countries. In her case, she partners with shops in Cambodia and India that pay a living wage, do not use child labor, and ensure safe, healthy, and empowering work conditions.

“We trust those people to use that money to better themselves, better their families, and better their communities in ways they see fit,” she explained, adding that the shops employ mostly women. “And research has shown that, when you put money in the hands of women, they are more likely than men to invest in the health and education of their children. So it has a much more positive ripple effect when you’re investing in — and empowering — women.”

Growth Patterns

Cohen said she didn’t really know she wanted a fair-trade dress until she was introduced to the idea. And her only regret is that she didn’t know about such a dress sooner.

“I didn’t know such a thing existed,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she was attracted not only by the quality, but also the fact that the dress was made from silk, which made her dress both comfortable and meaningful.

“Once I picked out the dress, tried it on, and ordered it, Marcie sent me pictures of the women making the dress in Cambodia,” she explained. “They’re in this beautiful, light-filled space … it looked like they were having a good working experience. It makes me feel good to spend my money that way.”

The ‘Jane,’ a.k.a model 1504, features a “wonderful fit-and-flair shape that helps the body in all the right places, so it and provides a comfortable and flattering fit,” said Muehlke, adding that it is made from something called ‘heirloom eco-silk,’ which is hand-woven on wooden looms that use no electricity, thus carrying on a centuries-old tradition.

“Jane has clean and elegant lines, thanks to a timeless sweetheart bodice accented with vintage-inspired floral lace and a gently flared slim A-line skirt that can’t wait to be danced in,” reads the description on the company’s website. “The finishing touch? Delicate straps and a low, dipping back with covered buttons beautifully showcase a feminine back.”

The model, which sells for about $2,600, which is toward the higher end for a wedding dress, has caught and passed the ‘Teresa’ as the most popular of the dresses now offered, although others are enjoying success as well.

Overall, Muehlke’s business plan, one that continues to undergo alterations (yes, that’s an industry term), calls for continued but very controlled growth.

Indeed, moving too quickly and expanding too broadly is an unwise course not only in the wedding industry, but the free-trade genre, if you will, as well, she said.

“In the bridal world, if you miss a deadline and you miss a wedding, that’s terrible both for the shop and for your brand, and something we can’t let happen,” she explained. “And in the fair-trade world, if we do a 10-fold increase in our orders, we need to make sure that our supply chain can handle that without doing crazy things and making their workers work terrible overtime hours and cancel their vacations or pay them improperly for that.

A view of the back of the ‘Teresa,’ named after Mother Teresa

A view of the back of the ‘Teresa,’ named after Mother Teresa, one of the most popular options in the Celia Grace collection.

“So we are slowly and gradually building our supply chain in two ways,” she went on, adding that the company is building capacity with its existing partners — two in India and one in Cambodia — by working with them to add seamstresses and capacity and create more time on their schedule for Celia Grace production. At the same time, it is adding producers, including one in Nepal, another candidate in Cambodia, and other groups under consideration.

“We’re onboarding them slowly, getting to know them, and putting them through their paces,” she noted, “so, as we grow, we’re able to bring them online.”

Growth could come in several ways, she said, adding that, while there is still plenty of room for new designs (and first names) in wedding dresses, there are other avenues as well. These include other types of fair-trade clothing, such as mother-of-the-bride dresses and options for other occasions.

Meanwhile, the company looks to broaden its reach internationally and add shops in other countries.

“Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are quite a bit ahead of us in terms of eco- and ethical weddings,” she explained. “So that’s the next big frontier for us — getting shops to carry us in those countries.”

Meanwhile, another important challenge is simply to raise awareness of the concept of the free-trade wedding dress, something that would greatly facilitate efforts to reach and surpass some of those expansion goals.

“There are so many brides out there who would love the concept if they even knew it was an option,” Muehlke explained. “We have to figure out how to find those brides who have a big heart, but don’t know that their wedding dress can be so much more meaningful.”

Fabric of the Community

Emily Cohen was found in time, and she sees some poetic justice in that eventuality.

Indeed, she told BusinessWest that she was hoping to have her grandmother, a dressmaker, fashion something for her wedding, but she passed away just a few months shy of her 100th birthday, well before the big event.

A Celia Grace wedding dress was easily the next best thing, Cohen went on, adding that the values it represents echo those that dominated her grandmother’s life.

“She was in my heart and in my mind as I was searching for a dress, because she really cared about those things, and I felt that she would have been proud to have me wear that dress,” Cohen said.

Her story helps explain how this entrepreneurial venture has managed to weave its way to its success, and why women are finding its products are such good fits — in so many ways.

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com

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