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Sue Cerulli did not foresee the success she would have with Bri’Zan Couture, the life she would cultivate and the memories she would make.
    What the Chicago native did anticipate, however, was an impending real estate crisis that made entering the retail arena incredibly appealing.
    Working for a large mortgage company back in 2007, Cerulli sensed a real estate downturn bubbling. Having been involved in the financial industry for more than a dozen years, she had seen markets ebb and flow and witnessed firsthand the havoc a falling market could inflict. Increasingly convinced that the housing market would soon tumble, Cerulli evaluated where she was both personally and professionally and where she wanted to go – and concluded it was time to make a dream come true.
    “I was still young enough to go out and fulfill my passion,” she reasoned.
   So, Cerulli did just that. She left the mortgage game behind and began exploring different locations in Chicago’s western suburbs for an independent fashion boutique. By the close of 2007, she had signed a lease for a 2,400-square-foot space in downtown Naperville, an ever-growing suburb located about an hour’s drive west of downtown Chicago.
    Cerulli then started lining up vendors and corralling inventory – evening wear “with a little of this and that” sprinkled about, she says – en route to the March 2008 opening of a chic boutique for fashionable women. Between inventory, business tools like the point-of-sale system and readying the swanky physical space, Cerulli committed nearly $1 million to Bri’Zan Couture’s birth. (The boutique’s moniker is an inspired mashup of her daughter’s name, Briana Zanayed.)
    “My goal was to have the biggest and best store downtown Naperville had ever seen,” she says.

A slow entry into bridal
    As the new kid on the block, Bri’Zan Couture captured a steady stream of customers: women looking for mother of the bride dresses and evening gowns as well as high school girls searching for their perfect prom dress.
    “It was everything I had hoped for and more,” Cerulli says of her opening year in business, which featured robust results despite a painful economic recession. Though the Great Recession would slow some of that early momentum, Bri’Zan Couture caught its second wind in 2010 and began regularly fielding inquiries regarding bridal gowns. Though intrigued, Cerulli largely resisted the idea.
    “That was a scary thought to me,” Cerulli says of adding any bridal to her brick-and-mortar boutique. “I had invested so much into the store and was afraid of investing so much more into something new to me.”
    With inquiries about bridal mounting, however, Cerulli relented. She took a small step into the niche by purchasing gowns from Enzoani, a designer already doing well in her store with evening wear. As interest in bridal swelled alongside her own comfort in the category, Cerulli furthered her investment by adding couture gowns from Stephen Yearick and YSA Makino into her inventory mix.
    “The brides I was working with wanted that couture look,” Cerulli says. “The more fashion-forward, the better.”
    Not only were the gowns selling, but Cerulli herself was falling in love with the bridal market.
    “A passion for bridal just came out of me when I started to sell bridal,” Cerulli says. “I was fascinated by the intricacy of bridal design and realized I had this deep personal interest in the bridal category that I hadn’t anticipated.”
    In 2010, seeing bridal as both a savvy long-term business play and a move that would energize her personally, Cerulli jumped fully into the niche. She built up her bridal inventory and scaled back her investment in evening wear. As a result, the business soared, so much so that Cerulli had to tear down her inventory closet to accommodate two additional fitting rooms. Relying on little paid advertising, word-of-mouth buzz drove customers into Bri’Zan Couture from across the Chicago area and then the Midwest region.
    “The move to bridal changed everything,” she says.

Defining its niche
    Two years later, in 2012, Cerulli began hunting for a bigger space, especially as she looked to further expand bridal and bring additional lines into the store. Eager to stay in Naperville, she found a 5,000-square-foot space located approximately one mile north of her existing shop.
    With a calculated strategy, Cerulli made bridal the star of the new Bri’Zan Couture space. She devoted half of the large storefront to showcasing bridal and made intimate two-hour appointment slots the standard. Whereas Bri’Zan Couture’s former space was dominated by colorful evening wear, a sea of white gowns greeted visitors to the new storefront. While Cerulli continued to stock prom, mothers and bridesmaids, she did so by adopting the store-within-a-store model, creating distinctive, separate areas under her roof for those non-bridal categories.
    “Once we got into the new store, I had no doubt we would continue to grow,” Cerulli says. “I knew we had the right product mix and a special way of handling customers that was entirely grounded in passion and service.”
    With business healthy and growing, Cerulli could not help but flash a satisfied smile. Still, she felt Bri’Zan Couture could differentiate itself in the marketplace even more.
    “We were certainly doing well, but I just knew there was more we could do,” she says.
    Leveraging internal talents, Cerulli launched her own Bri’Zan Couture bridal line in 2017. In pushing the store more deeply into custom work, Cerulli established her boutique as something unique in the marketplace.
    Today, the store creates fully custom, one-of-a-kind gowns, while it also handcrafts jackets and capes from scratch as well. In addition, the store designs custom modifications to existing gowns, regularly altering sleeves, necklines and trains and incorporating different materials onto dresses. Cerulli says most gowns purchased at Bri’Zan Couture are customized to some level with stylists actively involved in the process and trained to sell with customization in mind.
    “We went from being a store that sold designer gowns to a store that uses its talents, skill and vision to accommodate brides who have specific ideas for the dress they want,” Cerulli says.

Continuing to evolve
    Bri’Zan Couture’s custom chops and its swelling reputation for high-level service has further boosted the shop’s profile. While Bri’Zan continues to attract customers from across the Midwest, it is not uncommon for Cerulli and her team of stylists to work with brides from across the U.S.
    “It surprises me sometimes that people will come to our store in Naperville from Texas or California, but it happens,” she says.
    And Cerulli, true to her blue-collar Chicago upbringing, never lets off the accelerator. She consistently hunts opportunities to distinguish Bri’Zan Couture in the marketplace, to better connect with customers and to enliven the shop’s product mix.
    On social media, for instance, Cerulli favors authenticity, ditching stock images in favor of real brides and members of her sales team modeling inventory. She has traveled to Italy, Lebanon and New York City to study dressmaking, monitor trends and source fabrics. She has also worked to evolve Bri’Zan Couture’s inventory with a diversifying array of new and unique pieces, including being one of the nation’s select bridal shops to carry the Disney Fairy Tale Weddings line by Allure Bridals.
    Cerulli’s workmanlike attitude ensured Bri’Zan Couture kept churning when the shop was forced to close for four months in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
    “The height of bridal and prom season,” Cerulli laments.
    And yet, Cerulli forged ahead. She was in the store daily communicating with brides via phone, e-mail and text and conducted virtual appointments to continue servicing brides.
    “There was still work to be done and brides getting married, and I didn’t want to disappoint,” she says.
    Though Bri’Zan Couture has grown and evolved considerably over the last 13 years, Cerulli remains a hands-on owner, ever present on the floor and constantly engaging with customers.
    “I know our customers see and feel my passion, and that’s incredibly important to me,” she says.
    That passion coupled with a philanthropic spirit shined this past March when Cerulli recognized Bri’Zan Couture’s 13th anniversary by giving away 13 wedding gowns to essential workers and an additional 13 wedding dresses to frontline workers.
    “With the year we’ve had with COVID, I felt we needed to do something bigger,” Cerulli says.
    After posting a small video online and hoping to get 26 applicants, Bri’Zan Couture was flooded with candidates after local media outlets picked up the story. Cerulli ran a lottery for the 26 dresses and then helped police officers, paramedics, grocery store workers, delivery personnel and other essential employees fulfill their dress-shopping dreams throughout March.
    “I met some of the most amazing people, and it was really my pleasure and my honor,” she says. “It was such an amazing month for me being able to make people happy.”
    Peering into the future, Cerulli is focused on shepherding her shop’s continued growth, including exploring a potential second location.
    “I’m just excited by how much more we can do as a store,” Cerulli says. “From custom work and special individual pieces to the continued growth of our staff, there’s so much more I believe we can discover and do to make this a true couture shop that’s unlike anything else around.”

Photo Credit: Alicia’s Photography,