Natalie Bauer and Melissa Russell are sisters and owners of Bella Bianca Bridal Couture. Having left their successful corporate jobs to dive into the world of fashion and bridal, Natalie and Melissa are true style and business experts. Their parents (immigrants from Spain and Greece) were also entrepreneurs and inspired them to live their dream. With two locations, one in Oakbrook and one on Oak Street, these two women have really made a name for themselves in the Chicago Bridal market. We met with them at their Oak Street location for a tour of their store and got some great advice on taking the plunge and following our own path!
Please tell us about Bella Bianca Bridal Couture
Melissa: We are sisters who decided to open our first store in Oakbrook Terrace. We knew we always wanted to go into business together and we decided to work within the bridal industry. We are a full service bridal store with two locations. Our first location is in Oakbrook and we have now expanded with a Chicago Oak Street location. We really focus on mid to high-end items. Our Oakbrook price point is $2,000-$10,000 and our Chicago location price point is about $3,500-$15,000. We also sell bridesmaid dresses as well as wedding accessories. We are trying to be the one stop shop for all of your wedding attire needs. We also focus heavily on customer service. We were brides once too and we really pride ourselves on the service our customers receive.
What made you want to open Bella Bianca as a bridal salon?
Natalie: We always wanted to go into business together. We come from a family of business owners. It was just figuring out what we were going to do together. We reflected back to when we were getting married. You are super sensitive to the process. We come from a background that provides great customer service and we were disappointed in the service we were getting. When Melissa was getting married it was a little bit later but the service really hadn’t changed. At this point we had some ideas on how to bring the service elements into the industry and we decided to give it a shot!
Did you intend on having two locations? How did Bella Bianca expand?
Melissa: We are from the suburb of Naperville originally, and as suburban brides we found ourselves coming to the city for our wedding dress shopping process. There were very limited options for the mid to high-end range designers. We thought we could bring the high-end designers to the suburbs because there are plenty of brides who want the high-end dresses without having to go to the city. However, after opening we had wedding planners and bridal designers reaching out to us saying that our services were very needed in Chicago. Especially since brides in the city don’t want to drive to the suburbs back and forth for their wedding needs. That made us consider opening the second Chicago location.
What were your work backgrounds previous to opening the store? How have those skill sets helped in opening your own store and launching your business?
Natalie: We were both in marketing communications. I was working for a financial firm in the city in their marketing department and Melissa was working for GM Productions as an event planner. We had a lot of communications and client service skills that has helped us carry over into customer service.
Melissa: We didn’t come from a fashion or retail background, we came from more marketing and event based and we felt like we could connect with brides on their event. We became more of a resource for our brides by recommending different vendors. We can let them know why a wedding planner is so important. We can talk about more than just the dress with our clients.
What were some of the challenges you faced when opening the salon?
Natalie: Getting our designer list and obtaining designers as well. Reaching out to designers initially was difficult because they just don’t want to put their name on anything. At the same time, Chicago is a very competitive bridal market and designers tend to not want their line within a couple of stores next to each other.
Melissa: We opened with a great handful of designers and within a year of opening we were able to get more designs as well as designers based on the level of service we were were providing as well as our professionalism. We knew the caliber of designers we wanted to have in the store, but as Natalie mentioned, these designers only want their designs at one or two locations within their market. That was the biggest challenge. We were doing something right because after a short period of time designers who said our store was too new or gave us limited inventory came back to give us more pieces or wanted their line in the store. We love the designs we carry now. They are not only great in price, but aesthetic and design for all different clients.
You mentioned that you come from a family of small business owners. What do your parents think of the stores?
Natalie: They are very supportive. They are both retired now but our dad owned a restaurant our entire life. He is very client services driven. We not only worked in the restaurant but as a business owner we saw how important it is to be there. You can hire a great staff, but you still physically have to be there to see whats going on.
Our mom owned a manufacturing company that sold small parts to the automotive and the medical industries. Two totally different businesses. Our dad was local and present with his clients every day. Our mom worked on a worldwide scale. It is nice to have both sides– running a business on a large and small scale.
We saw both the risks and rewards with owning a small business. Obviously you have your fabulous times and you have times that you are hesitant or nervous about the decisions that you have to make. It’s very nice to have their support as well as their encouragement when it comes to the business.
They have been involved with the opening of both stores. Our dad was our contractor and built everything in the stores . It really is a team effort.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Natalie and Melissa Ohhh if only we had a typical day (laughs).
Natalie: We use to both be at the Oakbrook location but now we split our time between both locations throughout the week.
Melissa: Since Oakbrook is the larger location we both try to be there at least one day a week for meetings and decisions we both have to make. Then the rest of the week we have one of us at each location. Both salons have trunk shows every weekend. It is a constant flow of inventory and orders and making sure that both stores have them.
Natalie: We still try to be engaging with our customers. There was a time where we were the only stylists
Melissa: We were the only staff!
Natalie: We try to engage with our clients more, but there is so much back-end work. Communicating with designers, fulfilling orders, hosting events. Our roles have changed since we first opened our stores
What are challenges working together and being sisters?
Melissa: It’s actually easier than we thought it would be. We argue more about things in our regular life than our work life! When it comes to our business we typically don’t argue. If any decision comes up we typically discuss it together and agree. It’s very rare we have to compromise on anything because we both have the same vision for the business. We have different strong suits, but they balance each other out and again, helps with our vision of the salon. We rarely disagree on the big picture.
How do you balance owning a business and your personal life?
Melissa: (Laughs) Well, I wish we had the answer. It’s a learning process. Especially as women business owners. We both have small kids. Between the both of us we have five kids under the age of seven. It is really hard.
Natalie: We have really great husbands. We work weekends and they help out at home. We also have a great staff. When we first opened it was the both of us seven days a week. We were opening the salon and closing the salon and now we have great managers who can do that for us.
Melissa: As the salon grows in years we are trying to figure out how to spend more time with our families and have time for ourselves. We recently made the decision to close the salon on Sundays. We know other salons are open but to us it is important to be with our families and give us that one day break.
Natalie: Obviously owning a business there is more pressure on you, but you also have a lot of flexibility. We are very lucky to have a trusting staff and we know they are doing a great job when we aren’t in the stores.
Natalie: Well we’ve always looked at it from our clients’ point of view. How would we feel going through this process at our store? When we pick out merchandise to store layout we try to think of everything through our clients’ eyes. Sometimes that isn’t the best decision on the business side, but it has served us well in the long run.
Melissa: Well I have so much advice! I think first, make sure you’re getting into it for the right reason. When people think of starting a business in the wedding industry they think it’s because it’s fun and glamorous. We get to look at pretty dresses and go to New York Fashion Week and it is all really fun, BUT it’s still a business and you have to have that business mindset. Once you realize how hard it is, it changes your mind how you will run it. It is a lot of fun, but it is really hard and you have to be willing to put in a lot of work.
What’s your biggest hurdle with the Chicago market?
Melissa: Chicago is very rare because we have a “bridal row” within the market. We are among walking distance with other top bridal salons who carry the same caliber of designers within their stores. That’s very rare in most of the country. Excluding New York and L.A., Chicago is very dense with bridal options. As a business owner it’s a little nerve wrecking because there isn’t one store everyone can get their dress from. Our clients can walk to half a dozen other stores. We constantly have to make sure we are at the top of our game not only with our designer list, but shopping experience. We try to give the best service.
Natalie: Also brides in New York or L.A. know what they want and it’s all pretty much the same style in those markets. Chicago is a melting pot when it comes to how brides shop. We pretty much have to carry a little bit of everything, which can be scary.
Melissa and Natalie: NO!
Natalie: we are both so hands-on that this is it.
Melissa: The days we aren’t here we feel guilty. We feel like we should be here all the time, we just know it’s not feasible. Even if we were to hire the best staff in another state we would not feel comfortable. We would never take on something we couldn’t manage or physically be there.
How do you promote your business and gain new clientele?
Melissa: We are very lucky that most of our referrals our through word of mouth. We are listed on some wedding sites such as The Knot and Wedding Wire. When designers pay for advertising in magazines they usually list our shop as a place where brides can find their dresses. Brides are very savvy and when the find a designer they like they look where the line is carried.
Ok, last question, what is your favorite thing about Chicago?
Melissa: What a hard question! I’m obsessed with Chicago! I feel like I’m Chicago’s cheerleader! Ummm…
Natalie: Probably restaurants
Melissa: I was just about to say food!
Natalie: I think we have great restaurants and accessible shopping as well as the lakefront!
Melissa: And it’s not overwhelming! It’s like the smallest big city! We both grew up in the suburbs and moved back after we had kids. We lived in the city for a while and I must have driven on Lakeshore Drive over a trillion times, but whenever I see the skyline I am amazed by how beautiful it is! It never stops being beautiful. We are very lucky even though the weather isn’t that great all the time, it’s still worth it because Chicago has so much to offer.
Bella Bridal Couture has two locations. Oakbrook: 17W527 Roosevelt Road, Oakbrook Terrace, Il 60181 and Chicago: 12 W. Maple St. Chicago, Il 2nd floor. Be sure to visit their website http://www.bellabianca.com and follow them on IG: @BellaBiancaBridalCouture