Women of the Wedding Industry Wednesday with Grace Elizabeth
In late winter of last year, I was rolling into the small town of Suttons Bay in Northern Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula one morning to open up the bike shop where I had been working as a tour guide and manager, and I noticed the woman who owned the boutique shop next door was moving out.
That little narrow shop painted bubblegum pink right on M22 sat empty for the next couple of months and the wheels in my head started turning.
What if we could expand the bike and kayak tour side of the business which was booming and create a more inviting and expansive space for it's operation and guests?
What if we could move the bike shop side of the business over there and keep this side of the shop tour based?
What if we could expand the clothing and lifestyle brand of the shop and add a coffee shop?
I was full of ideas per usual, but those weren't my decisions, and it wasn't my money. I didn't own the business, and for all intensive purposes, things were going just fine as they were in the little blue bike shop.
Which led me to start thinking;
What if I finally had a space to revisit the startup that I had founded in Grand Rapids back in 2013/4 called Borrows & Lends, a community gear exchange for outdoor enthusiasts on a budget? The concept seemed simple: create a membership organization for people to rent their unused or underused outdoor gear and equipment to people who needed it. Bam.
I started to dream.
Which I knew was a little impractical, because only 6 months earlier I had started a business called The Revel Rose, and it was going good. Really good for a rookie season with zero wedding planning or event planning experience under my belt.
But I couldn't sleep at night.
I couldn't help but think that maybe this was the opportunity I had been waiting for.
My beloved startup, Borrows & Lends had failed miserably. It was a popular idea, and got a lot of likes on Facebook, and my friends thought it was awesome, and I made it into the local paper, and for a year I poured my heart and soul into it while working a full-time job, but it flopped.
I couldn't let it go, and so when I started working as an outdoor recreation planner for the National Park Service based at Sleeping Bear Dunes a few years later, I started working on a model to retrofit the concept for a public land management agency. Luckily, the model had succeeded at other national parks and I figured it'd be just a program grant away from becoming a reality for my second contract term. I was in the middle of writing that grant when we found out my position wasn't going to be funded in 2017. Hence the career change. Hence The Revel Rose. Hence the bike shop.
It didn't matter though. I would walk by the empty shop every day and peek in the windows, and then go home and design the space of my new brick and mortar gear exchange shop. I'd sketch the set up, figure out the inventory, spend hours on developing the rental program, design our branding, and work on the business plan. I went to SCORE business mentoring sessions and became obsessed that this space was destined to be mine.
In March, we went on our honeymoon and when we got back in April I was so ready to hit the ground running with one business, and continue to work on building capacity for my storefront. I knew this was the right step for me, and I was able to talk to my current boss openly about my desire to make this work, and still work for him, and still be The Revel Rose.
I know, I'm dumb.
I pulled into downtown Suttons Bay again one day, and noticed that the storefront sign had changed again.
And there was a tiny girl with blonde hair and ripped jeans and a giant ass truck hauling flooring materials into the shop. MY SHOP. MY FUCKING SHOP. Which A) I didn't own, B) Wasn't renting, C) Didn't even have funding for, and D) See A-C.
I wanted to choke this Gwen Stefani bitch.
But curiosity got the better of me so instead I spied on her all day, and all the next day, and the day after that.
And while she was busy building and stripping and staining and painting and hauling and laying and nailing and deep cleaning, I was seething.
Finally, after I don't know how long, I said hi. I introduced myself. And I met Grace. Grace Elizabeth who was opening Grace Elizabeth Bridal right next door.
How could I not like her? She was funny and witty and seriously the cutest little dollop of a human I have ever seen. And I got hooked really quick. I told her I started a wedding planning business, and we just spent a few days being really excited about how everything was coming along and talking about the wedding market and what the potential was for Leelanau County.
In those days I learned how she also had an anthropology degree (holler!), had worked at a museum, and had some serious life changes which provided the momentum for her to follow her dream of opening a bridal shop. She told me how she had worked with a local team in town to secure financing, how scared she was, but how excited she was to get on with seeing her dream come to life.
Her shop came along, and you could see the visible excitement shining out of her as she got ready to launch. She admitted it wouldn't be prefect, and it would suck for awhile, but she was confident that she HAD to try this. She wouldn't be able to forgive herself if she didn't.
I decided a few weeks later to leave the bike shop, and to focus 100% on The Revel Rose for the upcoming year. I still felt a little sick to my stomach that my dream had been leased to another girl, but I was proud of Grace's grit and tenacity, and was glad to have made a new friend out of it. I was also forced to realize that the time wasn't right for the gear exchange, and if I didn't focus, I'd lose the opportunity to run my already existing business that I loved, The Revel Rose.
And I left because after that experience, I became sure of one thing: my passion is business. I never would have said that five years ago. I would have thought that sounded gross and weird and not Millennial enough. I thought my passion had to be the environment. Or social justice. Or children. Or dismantling the United States Military Industrial Complex. Or sustainable agriculture.
If I look back in the history of who I am, I have always had a shine for this stuff. From the early days of making our lemonade stand the most visited one on the street because I insisted on nicer quality cups and adding strawberry lemonade as an option, to gaining so many babysitting clients in our neighborhood I had to make Kendall's Kids Camp to serve all of the families in the summer, to even Borrows & Lends, a failed startup right out of college. Business has always been where my talents meet my passion, where I feel most like myself, and where if I look back on years and years of notebooks and sketches, I know my heart has always been.
It's dumb to ignore who and what you are. It's never dumb to take the risks to figure that out.
When I look at Grace now, I see a woman of incredible courage. A woman who knew what she was capable of, knew her worth along the way, and was willing to do something uncomfortable to get there. I see someone who praises the team that helped her achieve her dream, and someone who saw her place on the candy colored facades of downtown Suttons Bay, and took it.
Don't ever underestimate the hustle of a woman in pink my friends.
Owner of Grace Elizabeth Bridal
The first time I saw you I was working at Suttons Bay Bikes and I saw this blonde pixie cut chick hauling flooring into her studio. You are decidedly independent and a self taught master of many trades. What was it like to build out your shop from scratch and what other projects have you tackled with your handiness?
Oh goodness. I will say I am very proud of myself. I am a single mom with very little time for projects. Once I signed my lease, I literally hit the ground running...to Lumber Liquidators, Lowe's, Home Depot, Northern Lumber, Ace, Meijer, TJMaxx and on. No I literally would discover I needed a tool for a project and would run into the store to buy it. I have found that I LOVE tools. I LOVE getting dirty. I LOVE the smell of fresh cut lumber and LOVE YouTube. I had no idea what I was capable of until I was alone and had no choice but to figure it out. So, if you need to do some heavy lifting, electrical work, plumbing, carpentry, drywall, painting, or just need help with an odd project, call me!
The empty shell of 316 B N St Joseph Street in Suttons Bay.
Nearly completed before the shop opening.
I absolutely love that we bonded over the fact that we both graduated with anthropology degrees. Can you please explain what anthropology is and why/how it's been useful in your trajectory as you became an entrepreneur?
I love this too! So I view anthropology in the museum world (because you could definitely say I'm obsessed with museums), as cross-disciplinary in the areas of art history, natural sciences, history, and cultural research.
I received my MA in Museum Studies knowing that my ultimate career goal was to work as a registrar or curator in museums. I am passionate about the conservation and preservation of collections in museums, whether it is art, plants, historical objects or documents. I enjoy being responsible for the research and care of collections of all types. My studies and experience through many different types of museums (art/science/historical/garden/zoo) trained me to focus on building exhibitions that were educational and inspiring to audiences of all ages. I found that my years of working in the museum industry were so valuable in my decision to become an entrepreneur. Research of a piece of art, historical document, or culture, is just as important as researching a field or industry.
I started my bridal business with very little knowledge and spent months making sure I was well prepared to open my business to the public and not look like hadn't spent every minute learning everything I could about the wedding industry. Don't get me wrong, I'm still learning of course.
How did you know it was time to open a bridal shop?
My old job and my divorce. There's a lot of personal details that I don't feel I should share, unless we meet and have beers. But yes, it was time.
You picked such a specific area to locate your shop. Leelanau County is a robust destination wedding market in the Midwest and yet there wasn't a bridal shop in the county. How has this worked out so far as a business owner with a destination wedding clientele, and how has the community of Suttons Bay supported you?
Right!? No bridal/tuxedo rental locations in all of Leelanau County?? It seemed like a no-brainer, especially since the building was already pink! Suttons Bay and many other Leelanau County residents as well as vacationers and northern Michigan residents have been so welcoming. There are so many people that said, "I was looking in your windows for so long waiting for you to open!" Again, word-of-mouth has been so amazing. I honestly never realized how small northern Michigan is until I opened and I it has been quite helpful this first year. I just hope it continues to be positive. Also, I have been advertising with the Record Eagle and every month my report has found that the most "clicks' on my website come from #1 Chicago, #2 Detroit, #3 Grand Rapids, and #4 Traverse City. That says a lot being such a large destination wedding area. Clients have also traveled from Indiana, Ohio California, Florida...for my dress selection. Makes me so happy and feel like I did the right stuff. oh oh oh o oh the right stuff.
You've been so open and wonderful about sharing the business tools and resources you used to open a brick and mortar shop. Can you talk about your mentoring, how you went about finding the necessary tools to open, and what hurdles and successes you had along the way?
I wouldn't have opened my doors if it weren't for my consultant Samantha at Networks Northwest. We spent months working on my business plan so I could get a loan. The research I did, the cost of goods and projected profit and loss statements...ugh...but it was all worth it and she never gave up on me. Much love, Sam! I was also part of a few private Facebook groups and blogs that are dedicated to helping retailers open bridal shops. There were so many things I never would have thought of, (like whether or not to be appointment only) but those virtual communities were key. One hurdle is being overzealous with my inventory at the beginning. Each designer requires stores purchase 8-10 sample dresses every season (2/year). So, I over-ordered and now have a bit too many samples in stock. The online communities have been helpful with the silliness of a newbies mistake and offered ideas to help reduce my inventory. So it will all be okay.
I love how girlie, feminine, and ladylike your shop is. You're style is also spunky, artsy, and alternative. How do you mold those two together under one shop, and how does this eclectic style translate into a better experience for your brides?
Yeah, I'm a bit of everything. I spent most of my life trying to figure out who I really was. I would find over time that I enjoyed something little and then held on to it. Honestly, after my divorce I didn't feel held back anymore. I bleached my hair to the point I had to cut it all off and realized I loved it. I pierced my own nose, got powerful tattoos, took care of myself and took extra care of my beautiful boys. I became an independent and strong woman and never looked back.
Then I decided to open my shop. My vision took me to another place and thought about what every client would want to see and experience. I love pink (see hair) and the building I rented was already painted that color, so duh, had to rent it! Then I found that pink girlie side and went romantic, soft and welcoming in the space. Each appointment allows the whole shop to be for one bride and her entourage so every space had to be comfortable and not overwhelming. I have an area for kids to color and read books, a coffee station, relaxing seating, and of course endless amounts of Mawby Sex. I'm not worried about my tattoos, short hair, or piercings being a distraction during the appointment: it's me. Once they arrive, I am fully devoted to the bride and making sure she has the best experience possible.
I think it's so cool how you are interested in and support specific designers who are just starting out, one of them being Desiree Hartsock, whose story you told me about. What inspires you about working with your designers?
No joke, choosing which designers to carry was THE hardest part. I did my research and found some designers that are new, use the best fabrics and embellishments, don't charge plus size/rush fees and design gowns you wouldn't typically see in the area. I have discovered different things with each designer and their reps. I feel like some reps/designers are my best friends and they would do anything to help me succeed. Others have been pretty non-existent (which means I won't carry them in the future). Two designers actually gifted dresses to brides and 6 out of 7 reps/designers will answer my frantic text or call immediately and find a solution. They are all very different, but I will say lucked out with my choices and have learned so much in the past year because they truly want to help me succeed in the industry.
Our good friend Sam in a Desiree Hartsock dress at Grace Elizabeth Bridal before our first styled shoot ever
Okay so you're in Spain this month for work!! WTF! Tell us all about it please.
Aaagh, I know!!!! It seems like it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So I'm taking it. I carry Pronovias gowns from Spain (obv.). They were a last minute addition to my inventory but I have not regretted it once. Their gowns are freaking stunning and so reasonably priced. So, every year they have a gala and fashion show in Barcelona and invite bridal shop retailers to come. They pay for accommodations and meals and all we pay for are flights...did you know you can get a flight from Chicago to Barcelona for $300? F-yeah! Now it's not all leisurely, touristy and sunny. I have to purchase gowns while I'm there, but Spain!? Come on.
This is coming in to your second season in business! Congrats girl! Tell me about your clients and what have been the biggest takeaways you've learned from them in year one.
YAY! I have discovered so many things. For example, word-of-mouth has been my top advertisement. And EVERY single client has become a friend. I see their boobs (insert shrug emoji). No, but in all seriousness, I enjoy every of second getting to know the bride and her family/friends. The most valuable part for me is when the bride and I are alone in the fitting room after each dress try-on and she tells me her honest opinion. There's a lot of trust there and I have found they appreciate my honest opinion. I try to stay quiet when she's in front of the mirror but she secretly knows I have her back. After a few dresses, I can see it in her face and am able to narrow down what she's truly wanting. It's seriously amazing.
What are you most looking forward to in the year ahead, personally and professionally? What fuels you outside of this industry?
Professionally I am looking forward to seeing the new trends in bridal gowns, possibly adding mother-of-the-bride/groom dresses, and prom/homecoming dresses to my inventory, and being recognized more throughout the area and major cities. Personally, I am looking forward to spending more time with my boys. Because I work alone and am appointment only, I am able to have a flexible schedule and attend school functions or spend a whole day at the beach. Outside of this industry I focus on being active. Up and coming and patiently anticipated: fresh air, greenery, bike rides, park and beach play, opening the windows, reading books all day, seeing my kids and our pup tackle each other in the grass, and slowly watching the freckles appear on their faces. Pure joy and happiness with my family is my fuel outside of the industry, and then when go to work, I feel at peace.
Tell me about your perfect ideal dress design, and what famous person living or dead do you want to see wear it?
I have seen so many styles of wedding gowns, it's really hard to choose. So I'll start with the famous person over the dress. I would love Michelle Obama to renew her vows wearing a dress by Pronovias (Hyperion maybe). She's a classy, elegant, poised, witty and free-spirited human. If I were to get married again, I would lean towards Pronovias (LWD 04). Look it up :)
Grace Elizabeth Bridal is open by appointment only and located at 316 B N St Joseph StSuttons Bay, Michigan. You can make appointments by calling her at (231) 492-5057.