Laurie Robertson likens her bridal store to a life-size dollhouse: The Bridal Suite of Louisville enters its tenth year of business full of sparkle, fantasy, fairy tale and magic, just the way Robertson has always imagined it. Admittedly “old school”, the retailer revels in the one-on-one, up-close-and-personal experience she believes every bridal appointment should be.
    The New Jersey transplant tells her own tale with a measure of awe: here she is, owning a beautiful bridal shop, her ultimate dream job! Now, when your mother studied at Parsons School of Design and your sister at the Fashion Institute of Technology, it may seem like owning a bridal shop is no great leap. Throw in one architect brother and another brother who’s an artist, photographer and teacher, and it seems natural that Robertson would end up being an artist, hands-on decorator and lover of all things fashion.
    But the story of how The Bridal Suite came to be is less expected.  
    Ultimately, Robertson credits the grace of God for her thriving bridal business and her Sicilian grandmother, Paola Costa, for the inspiration that she could succeed as an entrepreneur and creative spirit. She keeps Costa’s mint-condition sewing machine, with which she once stitched men’s coats and sold them in a small general store in the family home, along with a picture of her grandmother, in her living room as a treasured possession and reminder of her entrepreneurial success.

A Passion Is Born, Opportunity Knocks
    In the beginning Robertson left high school her senior year, then found work in the New York fashion district with an introduction from her sister, who was working as a designer. Her skills gained the Jersey girl a position as a design assistant, sketching.
    “I couldn’t believe I was doing what I loved to do and was getting paid for it,” says Robertson, who worked in missy and women’s sportswear then moved to menswear across the street a few years later. (Inspired by her mother-in-law, Robertson would eventually earn her high school diploma as well).
    After years of commuting to her fashion job in New York City, Robertson resigned to care for her ailing father until he passed from cancer. A year later, she met and married her husband, Terence, who didn’t like the time they’d have to spend apart due to her long work commute. Given that, Robertson went to nail school and worked in a few salons as a manicurist until she decided that wasn’t her jive.
    Then she stumbled onto a job opening in a bridal shop.  
    “I thought, ‘This sounds like fun; it’s like fashion on crack!’” she says. “You’ve got the most incredible fashion at your fingertips and it’s bridal.”
    Robertson was hired on the spot. As excited as she was, she had no idea that job would eventually lead to managing the store and falling in love with the industry.
    “I met all of the insiders of old-school bridal, all of the originals, the legends of the industry,” she says. “It was an awesome time to be in the industry. If I wasn’t going to be working in New York, it was an absolute dream job.”
    After eight years, her Southern-bred husband grew disenchanted with living up north, took an early retirement from AT&T Bell Laboratories and took his wife back home to Louisville. Robertson worked at bridal shops in her new hometown before eventually taking a detour into home decorating. She was working at Calico Corners whipping up draperies and upholstery when a lunch out led to her taking a giant leap of faith.
    “My mom came to visit me in Kentucky from New Jersey for the first time,” Robertson says. “I wanted to take her out to lunch and there was this sweet little historic area in town called Middletown that’s five minutes from my house.”
    Main Street was lined with century-old homes, most of which had been converted to businesses.  One of those buildings, the Captain Benjamin Head House, had a restaurant down in the cellar, decorated like a grotto. After lunch, browsing the antique shop on the first floor, Robertson and her mom spotted a sign that there was space for rent on the second floor of the building.  
    “A light bulb went off in my head,” Robertson recalls. “This was the perfect place to open a bridal shop!”

The First Store, A Promising Start
    Robertson went home and told her husband. That same evening they were back looking at the space.
    All of sudden, Robertson was drawing up a business plan and getting insurance. Although she knew nothing about going into business, her previous experience managing a bridal shop proved helpful.
    “I knew how to run a bridal shop; that I knew I could do,” she says. “I love bridal; it’s my passion. I wanted to have a shop where they do it the old-fashioned way: You go into the room with the bride and put the dresses on her. You take the dress off. You make suggestions. You pamper the bride. I felt I could do that and I could do it better.”
    After all, while in New Jersey, Robertson had worked for a bridal shop that had been in business for more than 40 years.
    “It was before the Internet, when bridal shopping was old school,” she says. “That’s how I am and some traditions need to be kept intact. It’s what separates us from any other retail business…this dress is the most important dress you’re ever going to wear, so let’s make it a special experience and pull out all the bells and whistles. I’m really big on that.”
    The house where Robertson would open her first store was quaint – “old, but it was perfect in its imperfection,” she says.
    Leasing a former master bedroom and second bedroom on the second floor, the couple self-financed the enterprise using some of her husband’s retirement funds. She and Terence did all the work to convert the space for bridal: They put a pale blue carved Aubusson rug down on the original eight-inch plank wood floors; painted the walls in the front room a warm shade of pink; and sewed the window draperies in pink, adding an ivory bar stripe trimmed in green. The second room was painted robin’s egg blue and featured pink toile curtains. They also added soft light chandeliers “so it was like a living dollhouse,” she says.
    Fireplaces in both rooms were used for display. Framed vintage wedding photos from Robertson’s personal collection decorated the walls.
    “Whenever I went out antiquing I’d buy wedding pictures, because I just felt they needed a home,” she says. “I knew that if I ever had my own bridal shop, that’s what I wanted on the walls.”
    The fledgling shop expanded every few months, adding the hallway, another bedroom for bridesmaids, and a clearance space. When there was no more room to expand, the owners decided they needed to look for another retail venue. Also factoring into their decision: their first store wasn’t air-conditioned and brides often had to walk down to the first floor to model dresses for mothers or grandmothers who couldn’t negotiate the stairs.
    “It was a mess, but it was a beautiful mess, and it served me so well getting my business on its feet,” she says.
    Robertson’s new location had actually been on her dream list years before - but she also knew she could “never, ever, ever afford it.”
    “But with divine providence – and the awesome commercial real estate broker we hired – we negotiated a stellar lease and a great build-out allowance,” she says.
    Relying on her artistic side, Robertson began designing the layout. The Bridal Suite is now beginning its sixth year in its second location, a strip center “that had a lot of charm to it; it looked like a little village,” she says. “The buildings have large, paned bay windows that are beautiful for my bridal displays and there are large pillars out front.”
    The store has many levels, including a step-up area with wood floors where maids and mothers are displayed. The right side, where they did a build-out, is all wedding gowns. Robertson also has an office now, “which is nice,” she says. “In the old store, we used to eat lunch sitting on the floor in the dressing rooms if it wasn’t busy.”
    Robertson carried over the same color schemes and design elements from the original space, using soft, warm, soothing shades. The ceilings are vaulted in some areas and have wooden beadwork; several antique crystal chandeliers and individual crystal strands were installed throughout the store for a soft, sparkling effect. Behind each staging area is wallpaper in an English country garden pattern. Lace curtains cover the large windows.
    Essentially, the new store still looks like a dollhouse.
    “I believe bridal should be something of a fantasy,” she says. “You’re going to try on these most incredible, fantastical gowns, so don’t you want to be surrounded by everything that makes you feel that you should be in that gown?”

Interacting With Shoppers; Embracing Family Concept
    The first contact the store has with most brides is via its website.
    “I think the first impressions that customers make of you come from your website,” Robertson says.  “While mine isn’t the most high tech or the fanciest, I think it’s pretty and it speaks every message I need to convey to my brides.”
    There, the bride has the option to upload a few of her favorite Pinterest pictures when she makes her appointment request and tells the store about her wedding. The Bridal Suite steers away from budget questions because Robertson says she has found that most brides will spend about 20 percent over what they say they want to. She does, however, post her price range on almost every page of her website so brides are educated before coming into the store.
    Also extremely important: making customers feel like family.
    “I don’t know if it’s the Polish and Italian in me, but I love embracing the family aspect,” Robertson says. “When you come into my store, I’m not bigger and better than you; I am your equal; I am your family.”
    When brides arrive for their appointments, family is invited to sit at one of the four staffing areas. As noted on the website and over the phone, the bride’s entourage is limited to four people.
    “We tell them that it’s to keep the focus on the bride and what she wants,” Robertson says.
    Only the bride and consultant are allowed in the dressing room and to look through racks. If family and friends want to make suggestions as to what the bride should try on, however, “we try to respect that,” Robertson says.
    Brides fill out a 15-question “pink card” to refine the gown search. FAQs and other messages on the website alert brides as what to expect during the appointment, what to wear, and that photography isn’t allowed until after purchase to protect exclusivity of the gowns.
    When stocking her store, Robertson likes to work with companies that have been around for a long time.
    “I know them, know their work, know the designers and how they work with their factories,” she says. “Those are things I need to feel warm and fuzzy about. If something goes wrong I need to know that I have recourse with the company.”
    On what lines to carry and how many, Robertson believes in moderation in all things: don’t carry too few and don’t go crazy in any one direction. She learned that lesson when she was left with hundreds of samples after a company cut ties. Fortunately, she was able to sell them all within a year.
    “I still say today that it was an absolute miracle and nothing short of that,” she says.
    It took a good year or two to re-stock, she says, and now Robertson doesn’t invest too heavily in one designer because, she says, the important thing is to protect her business. As a guideline Robertson thoughtfully shops at market for dresses that are classic, elegant and well made, with a little fad in the mix.
    “I want to offer brides dresses they can’t see or buy everywhere else,” she says.

Recruiting, Training Secrets: High Standards For Both
    Robertson is a paper person. She believes in getting things in writing from vendors and customers.
    “I’d like to take your word for it, but I’d rather take your word for it in writing,” she says.
    Yes, orders and other business transactions are stored on computer, but she likes to get everything on paper first. Robertson has three clipboards: one for orders placed, one for paper confirmation of orders and a third labeled “priority” for anything that needs immediate attention.
    Maintaining the integrity of the independent bridal shop is serious business for Robertson. This motivated the formation of a private Facebook group where industry professionals from the manufacturing, retail and publishing ends could talk day to day about issues that impact everyone.
    “The bridal industry has vastly changed in the last 10 years, and these changes affect all of us,” she says. “If we don’t find a way to communicate and understand each other, the status quo will remain, and there will be one big disconnect. . . Facebook is free, everyone is on it, and to some degree it’s a lot more informative than a regular focus group.”
    To date, Robertson reports numerous successes as a direct result of the Independent Bridal Shop Owners group ( Bridal shop owners, manufacturers and editors have had the opportunity to openly discuss hot topics such as dress minimums, online selling policies, MSRPs, vanity sizing, Chinese knockoff sites, and much more.
    “We can all grow from the wealth of knowledge we all bring to the table,” she says.
    As for recruiting staff, Robertson advertises at all the local colleges and in parish and diocese newsletters. Though she jokes, “if I had a crystal ball I’d get it right every time,” she does find that artistic personalities usually work best in the bridal environment due to their creative thought processes. She also likes retirees because of their life experience and ability to shop at a brick-and-mortar store and “know how to get service.”
    Being a staunch Christian isn’t a requirement for hiring, but many of Robertson’s staff are.
    “I think you do need good moral values,” she says.
    Consultant training includes going back to the basics.
    “My brand is my dollhouse and everything that goes with it,” she says. “We deliver a high level of customer service. I’m a high-maintenance shopper myself, and I go out of my way to shop at places where I know I’m going to be taken care of by someone on the staff.”
    She continues, “I try to tell my staff when we have meetings, ‘Try to put yourself in the bride’s shoes and think of how much help you would want. Remember the high standards they are holding us to. They expect us to be the experts.’”
    Robertson is a big fan of Steve Lang’s Mon Cheri Academy. She went to one of his first ones in the ‘90s in New York City and still has her VCR tape, which she had transferred to CD. She has all new hires watch that video and also recently took her whole staff to MCA. She also likes Wendy Rivera’s webinar, “Do You Speak Bride?”
    “I feel that my millennial girls respond to her webinars because she speaks to them in a way we old-schoolers don’t,” she says.
    Being part of the Louisville community is important to the Robertsons, as is giving back whenever they can. Close to Robertson’s heart is involvement in the annual Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis Foundation’s annual Walk for the Cure. The retailers are in their ninth year of providing gowns and tiaras to the Kentucky Derby Princesses for their appearances, including the famed Pegasus Parade that precedes the storied thoroughbred horse race. They are in their fourth year with the “Shine Prom” staged each year for developmentally disabled adults, for which they locate and donate prom dresses in harder-to-find sizes.
    Before Thanksgiving each year for the last nine years, the store promotes and is a drop-off point for the local Toys for Tots drive, encouraging brides to bring a toy and receive a 10-percent discount off their gown purchase. Last year they experienced a heart-warming moment when a father and his two sons came in after seeing a message on social media that they needed more toys for boys. They brought 20 identical, huge gifts for under the tree.
    “The store gets flooded with toys because people are so generous,” she says. “The consultants keep asking where we are going to put it all and we’ve had to ask for extra pickups.”
    Everything comes back to being a real part of the community, Robertson says, no matter where you live. And, though she’s happily adapted to living in the land of bluegrass and horseracing, she’ll always stay connected to New Jersey and the Big Apple.
    “You can take the girl out of Jersey, but you can’t take the Jersey out of the girl,” she says.
    If that means putting your heart and soul into your work, who’d want to?