May 17, 2016
A quarter-century ago, Cate Malone opened the Boulder Daily Camera and noted a classified ad for an in-house wedding coordinator at the Hotel Boulderado in downtown Boulder, Colo.
For Malone, a self-described “romantic at heart” who had long savored bridal magazines and relished any conversation about weddings, the job opening beckoned. Malone, however, retreated.
“I was a single mom with two children, so I had other priorities,” she explains.
Instead Malone tossed herself deeper into the commercial real estate world, helping law firms and in-house legal departments with multi-million dollar land acquisitions. Her fascination with weddings remained, although it slid into the background. When Malone remarried in December 2006, however, her long-dormant passion resurfaced.
“I loved thinking about all of the details, the creativity and giving the day a personal touch,” Malone says. “It was just so energizing.”
The following year, the real estate market crashed, bringing uncertainty and tumult to the industry that had been Malone’s livelihood for more than two decades. If there was ever a time to pursue her dream of opening a bridal salon, Malone and her husband, Mike, reasoned, this was it.
The couple mined for insights and perspective: connecting with current bridal shops and designers; reading books about entrepreneurship and small business ownership; and forming the framework of a business plan.
More than eight years later, Malone’s Denver-based bridal boutique, Little White Dress Bridal Shop, stands tall as one of Colorado’s premier wedding gown destinations.
“I’m just really grateful,” says an emotional Malone. “There’s a lot of hard work, excitement, accomplishments and challenges that go into being a small business owner and I’m proud that we’ve been able to make a go of it day in and day out.”
Building Toward Success:
Detailing The Early Years
Little White Dress Bridal Shop’s story begins in Castle Rock, Colo., a 50,000-resident town located halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs. In the Colorado town’s kitschy downtown area, Malone opened Little White Dress in January 2008 amid women’s clothing boutiques, antique shops and other independent ventures.
Initially, Malone was a one-woman show, deeply involved with every bride who walked through her doors and eagerly showcasing the gowns of designers new to Colorado, her ambitious point of differentiation from the start. For higher-end Colorado brides generally accustomed to traveling to Chicago or Los Angeles for dresses, Malone’s no-fuss shop featuring stylish, contemporary and adventurous gowns from emerging and hard-to-find designers proved a revelation.
“Providing a welcoming, comfortable, caring and friendly environment for our brides has been the most important basis of my business since day one,” says Malone, whose shop features couture gowns starting at $1,500 and rising as high as $15,000.
In 2009, the upstart retail shop scored an important victory when Los Angeles-based designer Claire Pettibone tabbed Little White Dress to be its exclusive Colorado retailer.
“At the time, this felt like a lifeline,” Malone admits. “We were going one day at a time and Claire’s presence and the following she had gave us some much-needed attention.”
The following year, 5280 Magazine, Denver’s premier lifestyle publication, named Little White Dress its Editor’s Choice as the metropolitan area’s best bridal shop. The magazine credited Malone for transforming her Main Street boutique in quaint Castle Rock into a major bridal destination.
“This gave us positive attention and credibility and brought more customers to our store,” Malone says.
Though the shop’s momentum accelerated, Malone was convinced she had to move to a more central location to help the business seize its full potential.
“We were ready to move to the next level,” she says.
In January 2011, Malone traveled north to Denver, settling Little White Dress into a newly constructed retail space on the ground floor of a modern condominium building in the city’s hip Highlands neighborhood.
At 2,900 square feet, Little White Dress’ location in Highlands was double the size of its Castle Rock space and Malone quickly leveraged its size to drive results. She added new designers and new staff members. Rejecting any semblance of complacency, she doubled down on innovative marketing and social media to drive the store’s notoriety and its engagement with customers and continued scouring the world for the best gowns, accessories and shoes for which she could secure exclusive rights in Colorado.
As a result, the business soared. Malone went from processing a few orders each week to dozens, and the shop began surpassing even her most ambitious sales goals.
One morning about a year after her move to Denver, Malone sat at her shop’s reception desk before the store’s opening. After years of charging ahead with her head down, she took a moment to look around and embrace what she had built.
“We were finally able to pay the bills, meet payroll and do what we needed to do on the marketing front without completely having to worry every single month,” Malone recalls. “It was a reminder that what we were doing was working.”
By 2014, the business was thriving to the point that Malone and her dozen staff members, all jammed into a tiny back office, struggled to work efficiently and effectively. Something had to change, especially if Malone was going to offer growth opportunities for her staff and position the business for sustained success.
“The layout just wasn’t conducive to the volume we were doing and the large groups we were seeing,” Malone says. “We needed more room for staff, inventory and our brides.”
It was time for another move, and Malone, with a record of risk taking in her wake, prepared to take her most ambitious gamble yet.
Little White Dress 3.0:
Finding The Perfect Location
For nearly two years, Malone, her husband and her daughter/Little White Dress general manager Kelly Leggett investigated properties in and around Denver. They wanted a larger space high in comfort, but also character and history. By the time they walked into the former Epworth Church and Epworth Community Center in the city’s gentrifying River North neighborhood they had explored about 50 potential spaces.
Constructed in 1915 by the Denver Methodist Extension Society, the Epworth building exemplified the opulence of Renaissance Revival architecture. With its pedimented pavilions, a center octagonal dome capping the church, two-story arched windows and symmetrical composition, the space was rich in eye-catching character, but also filth and disrepair.
Once bustling with activity from the community, Goodwill Industries and the Epworth Methodist Church, the space had been abandoned since 1988.
“And it looked like it,” Leggett jokes now.
Holes dotted the roof; graffiti marked the walls; and squatters had come and gone, leaving scattered debris in their wake. Malone and Leggett acknowledged the flaws, but also the potential.
“When you walk into the main room with these incredible original windows and light pouring into a wide open space with the blonde-colored brick, it just takes your breath away,” Malone says.
The building’s owner, a noted local preservationist named Larry Nelson, explained his short-term and long-term plans to renovate the building in a beautifully modern way that honored its century-old charm and old-world craftsmanship. Malone and Leggett bought into the vision.
“He cared about keeping this a one-of-a-kind building and was committed to resorting this building to its original grandeur,” Malone says of Nelson.
Last January, Little White Dress moved into its new Epworth home, claiming nearly 9,000 square feet across three levels and putting its own stamp on the enlivened space with grand chandeliers, modern furniture and oversized mirrors.
The main level hosts the bridal shop’s showroom and four semi-private suites, while an upstairs space features areas for staff and storage, an accessories balcony overlooking the main salon and one private suite.
Meanwhile, the downstairs space, or “garden level” as Malone calls it, will soon sport a “substore” of sorts branded as “The Boutique.” The concept, slated to open later this summer, will include a hand-picked selection of gowns in the $900-$2,000 price point as well as those little extras brides often need, such as bridal shower dresses and shapewear.
“We found ourselves turning away brides each week because they were under the $1,500 price point, and that’s something we wanted to fix,” Leggett says. “This allows a wider range of brides to have the Little White Dress experience.”
The store-within-a-store venture is yet another example of Malone’s willingness to embrace bold, calculated risks. She could be satisfied with her present, content with how far her business has come, but chooses instead to evolve and improve even if it means tough choices and hard work.
“It was always our intention to do this and do it well,” Malone says. “It’s not a hobby, but a serious endeavor for our family that has demanded significant investment and effort if it’s going to be a generational business.”
Little White Dress, Denver, CO - Photo Credite:
Tamara Gruner, www.tamaragruner.com
Emily Sacco, www.emilysacco.com
Shannon Hurd, Managing Editor, oversees the editorial content and direction of VOWS and its platforms. She writes on Social Media and the intersection of bridal business and life. Shannon's recent blog posts are below.
How to hook a repeat customer in three easy steps.
Peter Grimes, Publisher and founder of VOWS Magazine. His comments are presented in each issue's Publisher's Note, and often address industry issues and pertinent news of the day. He can be reached at 949 388 4848 or via email
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