40 Under 40 The Class of 2015

Marcelia Muehlke

Owner, Celia Grace Wedding Dresses; Age 31

Marcelia Muehlke

Marcelia Muehlke

By now, many people in the Pioneer Valley know Marcelia Muehlke’s story — or at least how it starts.

She was getting married six years ago, and as preparations got underway in earnest, she began an extensive search for a maker of fair-trade wedding dresses. “For my wedding, I wanted a dress that would reflect my values for human rights and environmental sustainability, and I was concerned about child labor being used on my dress,” she recalled. “So I said, ‘I’ll just find a dress that I can feel good about instead of worrying about.’”

Upon finding no dress label that could meet those standards, she set about creating one. Indeed, not long after completing her MBA at UMass, she traveled to Asia and set up a supply chain that could create high-quality garments that she and her clients could feel good about. She began working with a group of women in a sewing group in Cambodia, contracted with a designer in New York, and got her business — her dream — up and running.

She would call it Celia Grace, a brand derived from her own name and a word she says has many definitions, “including ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty,’ which is what we stand for.”

Three years later, she’s selling dresses across the country and in Europe, and is being touted as one of the region’s more intriguing, and successful, entrepreneurial success stories. Awards and accolades include a Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Success Spirit Award in 2011, a finish in the money at the UMass Pitch Competition in 2012, and a second-place finish at Valley Venture Mentors’ pitch contest during the Western Mass. Business Expo in 2012.

Her success in those competitions reflects the quick and now-global success of the brand, which is, in many ways, the right product at the right time — when a growing number of women are paying as much attention to where and how a dress is made as they do to how they look in it.

“We enjoyed some really exciting growth last year, and this year is off to a great start,” said the mother of a 1-year-old daughter. “This is the high season for wedding dresses, and it’s just an exciting time for us.”

She joked that she’s still waiting for a top celebrity to choose her label and thus give the brand a marketing boost and perhaps even more credibility. But otherwise, her product — and her dream — are exceeding every expectation.

— George O’Brien

Photo by Denise Smith Photography