10 Questions with Melissa Russell and Natalie Bauer of Bella Bianca Bridal Couture
1) Congratulations on your 10th anniversary! What was it like opening your first store in Chicago back in 2008?
Opening our first store in 2008 was truly a whirlwind of emotions. We were very clear about our vision for Bella Bianca and how we would differentiate ourselves in the Chicago market—that was the easy part! One of our biggest challenges was that we were not only new to the industry but we were breaking into a very oversaturated market in terms of attracting both clients and designers. We really focused on building our reputation with area brides and it very quickly enabled us to attract designer partners that we are still proud to work with today.
2) How many stores do you have now?
Our growth to four stores happened very organically! We never intended to open more than one, so it was a big leap when we expanded to the downtown Chicago market with a second Bella Bianca location. The Chicago location enabled us to not only cater our services to a broader scope of brides, but it helped us differentiate price points in a way that was more effective. In Oakbrook our gowns retail between $2,500 - $7,000 whereas in Chicago we range from $4,000 to $15,000+. Once we had two locations, we were swimming in samples so it was a natural progression to open our own sample boutique called Aisle Chic which has proven to be a tremendous asset. Most recently, we made the decision to move all of our bridesmaids inventory out of Bella Bianca and into a Bella Bridesmaid location that we operate. We have always loved the bridesmaids business but realized that it takes a completely different approach (and even salon experience) than bridal. It has been fabulous to dedicate more showroom space to bridal at Bella Bianca and then open a new space that was designed specifically for bridal parties to have the best experience possible.
3) What was your biggest challenge when you first opened the salon?
One of the biggest challenges then continues to be a challenge today, and that is following the ever-changing landscape of our clients and how they shop. From year to year shopping patterns change, so maintaining the ability to navigate the good with the bad and change accordingly is a constant effort. In this industry, it is easy to fall into the path of wanting to have more and more and more collections so that you can service every bride no matter what they are looking for. We stay true to the notion that we would rather partner with quality collections that round out what we offer to our brides rather than invest in too many collections just for the sake of having them, which is ultimately detrimental to a successful business model.
4) How did you both become partners?
We have actually been partners since birth because we are sisters! We grew up in a small-business family as both of our parents owned their own companies, so the drive and interest to operate our own business was sparked early on. Our desire to enter the bridal industry really came from our ideas about how the shopping and customer service experience could be improved in our area. From there, the ideas grew, and we decided to go for it!
5) What did you do before the store?
Both majoring in public relations, we took that degree in two different paths. Natalie was a Marketing Manager for a large financial services firm and Melissa was producing concerts and entertainment events for JAM Productions. At the basis of both of our careers and experiences in our family businesses, customer service was always at the forefront which was a perfect parallel for this industry.
6) What is it like raising families while running a business?
In the 10 years since we opened, we have both had 3 kids each…often being pregnant at the same time which was interesting to say the least! Like any working parent, it is a constant struggle to feel as though you are present enough at work and at home so the inner guilt is real. We are incredibly fortunate to have the most amazing staff at all of our salons in addition to very supportive and understanding families at home!
7) What is the concept of your salon?
Our vision for each of the salons is that they be luxe settings while remaining incredibly inviting and unpretentious. Truthfully, that vision guides so much of what we do, how we communicate with brides, how the salons visually look and right down to the personalities of our staff. We want every bride and her guests to feel extremely comfortable and yet be able to feel the quality of our gowns and the expertise of our staff in a friendly atmosphere.
8) How does a designer qualify to sell in your store?
As the industry continues to grow and designers from across the world are more accessible to salons (and visible to brides) it has become a constant job to be aware of and seek out collections that will resonate with our clients. We look for collections that compliment what we believe our brides are shopping for, that are not available in our market, and who have a strong reputation for quality and reliability. Reputation goes a long way and just as we seek that in our partners, we strive to be a salon that both brides and designers feel valued at.
9) How do you get brides to come to your salon?
Most of our brides come to us from referrals from friends, family, and wedding planners. Closely behind referrals is social media of course! Instagram has been so vital for us and often we find brides come for their appointments armed with screenshots of our actual posts, which is far better than a Pinterest board full of gowns that we can’t decipher! As we all know, the next generation is showing us that social media is at the forefront of their shopping habits, so we are following their lead!
10) Any special plans for your 10th anniversary celebration?
We have been so blessed with a team that, over the last 10 years, has cared about Bella Bianca as though it is their own business. We are planning to do an intimate party with all of the amazing individuals that have been a part of the Bella Bianca family. They are in large part why we have been as successful as we have, and we look forward to toasting to the last decade and many more yet to come!!