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Photo Credits: Shelby Laine Photography, IG @shelbylaine

The indomitable British statesman Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
   Certainly, giving back – to the people she encounters, to her brides, to her employees – is a huge part of who April Huang is. The 46-year-old entrepreneur, who founded Dress Gallery in Wichita, Kan. in 2008, believes firmly in devoting her time and energy into enriching others in a variety of ways.
   April shares her expertise with brides, thoroughly educating them on product quality and specifics; an extensive training program and company values with stylists, to help them better connect and excel; and even her business secrets with her manager, Jillian Forsberg, whom she took under her wing and mentored with the intention of passing along ownership of Dress Gallery someday. This giving mindset has shaped April’s entire approach to business, allowing her to create an award-winning boutique that has become a staple of the Wichita community as well as a profound legacy that will continue long past herself.
   “That’s really my philosophy: be a giver,” April says. “Give the love, give the knowledge, give whatever you can and don’t be afraid because you will reap what you sow.”

Unexpected Beginnings
   The idea for Dress Gallery took root in 2007, when April, who then owned two gift shops at the mall, met a woman who designed mother of the bride dresses.
   At the time, the mall was restructuring and April’s gift shops were being forced out. Simultaneously, this woman wanted to exit her MOB business. So, April decided to close her stores and take it over.
   In 2008, April attended her first markets as a wholesaler/designer.
   “I quickly realized that wasn’t something I’m very good at,” she says.
   However, while talking to retailers, another idea formed: why not open a brick-and-mortar store?
   So, in fall 2008, April leased a space in Wichita and bought inventory from a bridal store that was closing in Pasadena, Calif. It was with that inventory, along with her mothers’ dresses and some prom gowns she’d purchased at market, that April opened Dress Gallery on December 1, 2008, when she was just 30 years old.
   “Really, I stumbled across bridal,” she says. “It wasn’t something I was passionate about or knew much about but I love retail. I know how to connect with people and, just with that, I knew without a shadow of a doubt I can make a sale. It just happened to be bridal products.”

   In 2007, Jillian, who would play a central role in Dress Gallery’s story, was a student at McPherson College in the small town of McPherson, Kansas. She needed a part-time gig to get by and liked retail, so she brought her resume to a bridal store, Kari Lynn’s, and was hired part-time.
   Jillian worked there throughout her college career. After graduation, she enrolled in graduate school at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan. to pursue museum studies. In need of another part-time job, she applied at bridal stores in Wichita.
   April hired her part-time on September 13, 2010.
  And although Jillian loved working at Dress Gallery, she remained committed to the museum studies track. After graduating with her master’s in public history, Jillian landed her dream job as director of a small museum.
   “I found myself working there and realizing that museums are wonderful but everything is dead and nothing changes,” Jillian says. “As a young person, I found that my passion lay in a place where every day was different and exciting and things were changing rapidly.”
   So, she got a job at a busier museum while still working for April on weekends. Although she was excelling at Dress Gallery, Jillian didn’t see it as a long-term career.
   “And I don’t know why this is,” she says. “Maybe because I was so determined to prove myself in the museum world that it didn’t seem feasible to me.”
   But after a few years of watching her museum paychecks slide lower, Jillian asked her husband: “If there’s a spot for me at Dress Gallery do you think that’d be OK for our family?”
At that point, they didn’t have children, and April hired Jillian on full time in May 2014. Later that year, she was made sales manager and has been at Dress Gallery ever since.

The Early Days
   Dress Gallery opened its doors on December 1, 2008 and, if April’s being honest, those first few months weren’t exactly what she’d envisioned.
   “I thought the traffic would just flow in and I’d have lots of sales, but really nobody knew who we were,” she says. “It was very difficult to get our name out.”
   So, April did some research and discovered a big bridal show coming up. She attended, passing out fliers and trying to convince people to visit Dress Gallery.
   “That was actually pretty pivotal for me because, at the time, the internet wasn’t a huge thing,” she says. “Attending a fair was still very important to those brides to be, and I was able to capture some of them.”
   In its earliest days, Dress Gallery boasted 2,500 square feet, with a long, narrow layout.
   April worked full time, assisted by one part-timer, because that’s all she could afford.
  Dress Gallery took walk-ins and everything, including sales agreements, was done by hand. Inventory included whatever April, borrowing from her gift shop background, felt people would buy, including fashion bags, jewelry, boots and gift items, positioned at the front of the shop. In its middle were prom and bridesmaids’ gowns while bridal was in the back.
   Quickly, two problems presented themselves:
  “People thought we were a secondhand store because the dresses I bought from the previous owner didn’t look current,” she says. “Also, having two very different demographics – prom and bridal – together in the same area was chaotic.”
   In 2010, right after Jillian was hired, a solution appeared. Next door an art studio was being vacated, and April convinced her landlord to lease her the additional space.
   This doubled Dress Gallery’s size, giving it 5,000 square feet and two storefronts. They knocked a hole between the spaces and rearranged their layout. The original store held bridal; the expansion, tuxedos up front and bridesmaids/prom in the middle. Gift items were eliminated to focus on their primary clientele.
   “Separating (bridal and prom) really helped us elevate the experience for everyone,” April says. “They each had their own areas and didn’t feel like they’re interfering with one another.”
   As business started to pick up, growing largely through word of mouth, Dress Gallery transitioned to mostly taking appointments and April hired more help.
   The boutique’s aesthetic, however, cried out for attention. Initially comprised of “the cheapest material we could put in to have a store,” Dress Gallery featured brown carpet, pink walls, brown columns with pink polka dots and random fashion décor, including an outdated logo boasting a 19th-century woman.
   “People were telling us our aesthetic didn’t reflect our service, and as we grew we realized we wanted to provide a space where people feel like they can truly have an experience, not just our service but the entire package,” April says. “It was very important for me to realize that the customer you serve has so much power to be your advocate.”

The Big Renovation
   In 2015 Dress Gallery was gutted and upgraded to an aesthetic that fit its customer-service level.
   “It was a very interesting process for me because I was pregnant at the time, and I remember thinking: we’re growing a whole new store while I’m growing a human, and it was just a very in-alignment thing with my life at that time,” Jillian says.
   By the time she returned from maternity leave, Dress Gallery had transformed.
   Everything was spacious and neutral, with a beautiful fleur de lis white-and-gray pattern throughout. Pops of pink and mauve added a girly feel, while bits of gold and silver provided an upscale touch. The boutique featured pink velvet couches, chandeliers, a greenery photo wall and marble countertops.
   “It looked classy and high end but not so much so that a person would be nervous if they didn’t have a large budget,” Jillian says.
   Another major change: private bridal suites for each customer, giving every bride her own large space.
  “It feels like you’re the only bride in the store but you’re not,” Jillian says. “And that served us well because it was different from what everyone else was doing.”
   Dress Gallery also went completely closed stock.
   There are feature racks showcasing select gowns, but most are in a closed-stock room where staff pulls dresses one by one for each bride.
   “It’s funny because it harkens back to my museum days; I call it a curated experience,” Jillian says. “Each customer has a ‘like’ and ‘do not like’ list, and we listen and curate very carefully the gowns we select for her based on budget, timeframe, customization options, sizing, etc.”
   That started in full force in 2016, and “what we’ve found is that our closing rate increased exponentially and our clientele experience got better as well,” Jillian says.
   In fact, business grew so much that, in 2017, Dress Gallery expanded again. A 1,500-square-foot space next door became the menswear department, and upstairs apartments were rented for storage, which “is crucially important to our business model,” Jillian says.
   From 2017-23, things ran the same way. As owner, April handled the back-end things – payroll, managing schedules, paying bills – and acted as the direct line of communication to employees, the landlord and vendors. As manager, Jillian, who very much appreciates the freedom April entrusted her with, went to market, placed orders and acted as the direct line of communication to designers and brides.
   “April has given me so many reigns, responsibilities and opportunities to prove myself that it feels like I’ve always owned part of this store because I have,” Jillian says. “It may not’ve been a percentage of the store but my heart and soul have been there for 13 years. If other owners can do that with their managers, they’ll find someone who doesn’t want to leave.”

Building the Dream Team
   Speaking of not wanting to leave, Dress Gallery puts massive effort into finding and cultivating stylists with a focus on longevity.
   “That’s such an important part of providing good customer service because if you hire right, the rest will be much easier,” April says. “It all relies on your stylists to get that connection and provide service to your customers.”
   For April, hiring isn’t a quick process. She initially identifies candidates via traditional methods and word of mouth. In fact, she values referrals so much that, even if someone already has a full-time job, she’ll pursue that person actively, making a case for her store.
   Then, April evaluates their experience. If she thinks they’d do well at Dress Gallery, she conducts multiple interviews - over the phone, with herself and a manager, and with staff - to ensure compatibility and fit with culture/vision. The candidate will also come into the store on a busy half-Saturday to see if they’re able to keep up with the pace.
   After all of that, there are personality and love language tests.
  “I think that’s very important because, based on the results, I can understand who they are,” she says. “Not always perfectly but at least it tells me: this type of personality I know how I might be able to motivate them in the future.”
   Finally, April will make an offer. Of those who advance to training – an intensive three-month process that includes shadowing different selling styles and detailed lessons on designers, fit and materials – about 80% end up staying long term.
   “I’m really proud of our training because I hear time and time again our consultants are way more knowledgeable than most stylists customers encounter,” April says. “What you give is what people give back to you. I’ve invested in my employees and now I’m reaping all those rewards from them working so hard with their brides.”

Elevating the Appointment
   Another unique feature at Dress Gallery are Elevated Appointments, which began in 2022 as a way of allowing brides who wanted to bring more than six guests the opportunity to do so. They occur in a specially designated luxury suite that seats up to 12.
   “And that space is stunningly beautiful,” Jillian says. “It’s the largest bridal suite in the city. Even if you’re the only bride in another smaller store in Wichita I don’t believe you’d have more space than you would in our elevated suite.”
   Four tier options exist, costing $100, $200, $250 or $300. Each includes increasingly luxurious refreshments and perks.
   “They’re treated so well that, really, any other appointment they may go to falls flat,” Jillian says. “And that’s a good thing for us. We want people to experience something they’re not going to find elsewhere.”
   About 15% of brides book elevated appointments, which have a 90% closing rate.
   “And even if we don’t close that bride we’ve at least had her pay for that appointment so we don’t feel like we’re out anything,” Jillian says.
   Another unique thing Dress Gallery does is illustrate its vision with staff. Every month in the breakroom, one of five company values is displayed and employees are encouraged to demonstrate it.
   For example, one of those values is love. So, each stylist might be given $10 Starbucks gift cards to send to their favorite brides to share their love.
   “It’s very important to connect with your team on a different level so they understand that what they do brings value,” April says. “If they just go with the flow every day it’s not going to motivate them. But if they can actually see the value of what they do making an impact and empowering customers, that helps them truly connect with why they love (their job).”

A Sister Store
   In 2020, with Dress Gallery going well, April wondered: what would things look like if someday we didn’t have prom in the store?
   Things were so busy, after all, that she didn’t have room to expand into other categories of interest, like mothers. And she knew other stores had separate prom locations. Then, a conversation with a vendor at market in 2021 solidified the what if.
   “I feel it was a serendipitous thing,” April says. “A lot of times I just truly believe with my gut when an opportunity presents.”
   So, at the end of 2021, April sought out a location. Her landlord didn’t have a good fit available nearby, so she found a plaza on the east side of town whose exterior was being renovated.
   “That was very intriguing and incentivized me to be in that location,” April says.
   The 6,100-square-foot store, about 10 miles from the main boutique, required 18 months of renovations. Occasions by Dress Gallery, which carries bridesmaids, prom, homecoming and mother of the bride, opened its doors on September 5, 2023.
   Along with its opening comes another major change, which has, on some level, been in the works for years:
  April will own and operate Occasions by Dress Gallery, and she transferred ownership of Dress Gallery to Jillian on January 8.
   “Without a shadow of a doubt, Jillian was always someone I knew I’d pass my business to, I just didn’t know when,” April says. “That’s where my passion is: I want to build something and pass it on to someone who can take it to the next level. I think it’s so important that your business has longevity beyond yourself.”
   She’s talked about it with Jillian since the early stages of their relationship, often running decisions by her and asking what she’d do in certain situations if she were owner.
   “For me, the whole thing is really a mentorship,” April says. “I mold and mentor this person and share all my business secrets to one day set her up for success.”
   The timing felt right this year because, not only was April opening Occasions by Dress Gallery, but Jillian’s daughter, Phoebe, is almost 10. Serious conversations began in May 2023; it took a few months to get financing together and the rest came easy.
   “I feel at peace, like I’m ready to move on to my next chapter,” says April, who plans to take the same approach with Occasions by Dress Gallery.
   For her part, Jillian, who can’t envision her future without Dress Gallery, is excited but nervous.
   “I find such comfort, and I think that’s the history person in me, walking into the same place every day and knowing that I’ve put so much energy, time and work into this place,” she says. “But there’s also a huge blanket on top of me that comes with April. I think the scariest part is what do I do when she’s no longer there?”
   But the reality is that both women will remain in the industry and their two boutiques, while separately owned, are deeply intertwined. Not only do they have similar names and plan to do cross-promotions and referrals, but April and Jillian have a deep respect for each other that will continue long past the ownership transition.“
  Just because we’re across town from each other doesn’t mean we stop relying on each other, and that’s a big reassurance,” Jillian says. “There’ll always be an open line of communication and partnership with us, because quite frankly, without each other the other would not exist. And that’s really a powerful thing.”