In 2000, Bridget Brown's Bella Bridesmaid answered the loud call for stylish, re-wearable bridesmaid attire in San Francisco and with her concept in increasing demand, Brown expanded to five franchised locations across the U.S.
Finally brides had realistically chic option for their girls; the only problem was, there weren't any in the Midwest. This was particularly frustrating for bride-to-be Erin Casey and her mother Kathleen from the northwest side of Chicago.
Recognizing the need for a Bella Bridesmaid -- a boutique featuring top designer bridesmaid dresses, flower girl dresses, accessories and a selection of informal bridal gowns -- the mother / daughter team promptly opened a location in Chicago in September and then in Milwaukee's Third Ward, at 309 N. Water St., in April.
"When we were planning my wedding a lot of the bridal salons we went to in Chicago carried only one or two lines for bridesmaids," says Erin. "We were just longing for a place that had a lot of selection from a price pint perspective, a fabric perspective and even body type perspective -- and it would be ideal if it were a one-stop shopping experience."
That is essentially what Bella Bridesmaid achieves. The classy boutique carries the big names like Vera Wang, Melissa Sweet, Priscilla of Boston, Vineyard Collection and Jenny Yoo, but also touts smaller designers that are exclusive to Bella, such as LuluKate, Simple Silhouettes, Coren Moore, Twobirds. The dresses, priced between $168 and $410, are organized by designer and then by material to make the browsing experience as easy as possible.
"I think it's popular to tell your girls to just go find a long black dress because the brides want them in something they are comfortable in and can wear again," says Erin. "Well, it's not always that easy to go out and find that long black dress. Here we can accommodate the brides that still see all their girls in a long pink dress, as well as the easy bride who wants to book an hour-long appointment and let her girls pick out something that reflects their own style."
Kathleen says she never had that option in her day, when the shopping experience was categorized by booming bridal stores like Margie's Bridal where bridesmaid dresses were something of an after thought.
"The concept behind Bella is to make the experience for the bridesmaid pleasurable and to make them feel great in the design," she says. "A lot of our designers will offer the option to have all the bridesmaids in the same color and material, but different designs that flatter each figure. "
Kathleen and Erin work personally with each bride to understand her vision for the big day. While they don't offer official wedding planning services, they seem to be experts by design and are always willing to dish advice, even for the guys.
This, says Erin, is one of the best parts of the job.
"When they're stressed out, we step in with a wealth of information and all this product and say, "When you tell me XYZ, I know a specific line that can meet that."
Bella Bridesmaid also carries lines for junior brides and flower girls as well as a selection of informal bridal gowns, priced between $200 and $800.
"We don't do our own alterations in house, so we don't do anything very ornate or uber traditional," says Erin. The term 'informal' lends itself to price points and the simplicity of the gowns, which are more straightforward and classic styles."
Bella Bridesmaid is open daily but takes customers by appointment.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”