Photo Credits (except anniversary photo):

Though now into its sixth decade, Orange County, Calif.’s oldest bridal salon remains young at heart. 

Under the direction of  Tom and Connie Linnert, an energetic couple married some 41 years, Ferndales Bridal continues humming along with a vibrant, creative spirit that includes lively window displays, regular fashion shows and a can-do attitude that leads brides to say “I do” to a dress they love - often with some skillful modifications courtesy of Ferndales’ talented in-house alterations team.

“For us, this is way more than a business,” Tom says. “It’s a way of life.”


An unexpected opportunity

A southern California staple since 1958, Ferndales was first opened by a different husband-and-wife team in Santa Ana, Calif. The couple operated the bridal store on the same property as the Ferndale Wedding Chapel, a savvy and synergistic business arrangement. In a 1982 issue of Orange Coast magazine, Ferndales was billed as the “largest shop in the country” by then-owner Zack Wright, who boasted a second Ferndales unit in Englewood, Colo.

In the 1980s, Barbara Kuenne purchased Ferndales and eventually moved the store to Orange. For two decades, Kuenne ran the bridal shop alongside her daughters, building upon a legacy that had seen Ferndales grow into one of southern California’s most prominent bridal shops.

As a high school student, Ruthie Linnert, the youngest of the Linnert’s three daughters, became a Ferndales sales consultant. Conscientious and service-oriented, Ruthie quickly established herself as a trusted member of Kuenne’s team, so much so that she often guided the store when Kuenne was called away.

During one such weekend, a scattered bride entered the store in need of last-minute alterations. Eager to assist, Ruthie phoned the one person she knew could solve the bride’s problem in quick time: her mother.

A native of Jalisco, Mexico, Connie Linnert grew up the daughter of Coco Jimenez Pedroza, a master seamstress and celebrated designer of high fashion in her native Mexico. And fortunately for Ruthie’s frazzled customer, Connie had inherited some of her mother’s skills and completed numerous wedding dresses and formal gowns through the years for both family members and close friends.

“I began sewing when I was about eight years old,” Connie says.

After Connie swooped in and saved the day, the bride later reported her positive experience to Kuenne, thanking Ferndales for such a responsive experience amid stressful times. For Kuenne, who had been contemplating her own exit from Ferndales, the Linnerts’ inherent skills and service mentality sparked an idea.

“[Kuenne] was ready to move on as were her daughters, and she came to us thinking we’d be great ones to pick up the business,” Connie says. 

For Connie, who was then the director of a local learning center but had long clutched dreams of having her own little bridal store – “Something more exclusive, more one of a kind,” she notes. – Kuenne’s overture was an enticing offer, an invitation to enter a treasured industry and honor her mother’s legacy.

“It wasn’t necessarily the same as I had envisioned, but it was still bridal,” Connie says of Ferndales.

Tom, an Orange, Calif., native and former professional baseball player – he and Connie met while Tom was playing in Mexico – embraced the unexpected opportunity as well.

“It’s something we felt we could do, especially given Connie’s experience,” says Tom, who, like Connie, had spent years in youth ministry and was leading volunteer development at a local youth-focused non-profit at the time of Kuenne’s offer. 

“We saw this as its own ministry of sorts, an opportunity to kickstart a marriage in a positive way,” he says.


Executing a vision

Soon after purchasing the store in 2005, the Linnerts traveled to the Las Vegas bridal market with Kuenne. As much as that experience could have overwhelmed, it instead inspired and motivated the Linnerts to craft their own vision for Ferndales, though their plans did not include changing the store’s name.

“While at market in Las Vegas, we immediately discovered the equity that the Ferndales name had,” Tom recalls. “It was probably the most well-known bridal name in southern California.”

While the name would stay and the Linnerts remained eager to spotlight Ferndales’ legacy in compelling ways, they also knew the business needed a jolt. The store, the Linnerts say, had become tired and static. While the landlord had kept the rent low so long as tenants didn’t fuss, that disconnect spurred mounting issues with air conditioning, electrical and plumbing inside Ferndales’ unit.

“We wanted to lean into the store’s history, but also give it a twist and a positive injection of energy because that’s what it needed,” Connie says 

To enliven the store, the Linnerts installed a renewed focus on customer service and let it be known that Ferndales was squarely focused on catering to its brides’ precise needs.

“I felt the only thing that could set us apart was service, so the message to staff was, ‘It doesn’t matter what the customers want, let’s give it to them,’” says Connie, who has always been active in the showroom, interacting with brides and working to find solutions.

As the nation’s economy began to tumble in the late 2000s, however, Ferndales, like many bridal shops across the country, felt the sting. In 2008 alone, Ferndales endured 17 cancelled weddings. The Linnerts took out a loan and enlisted the help of a business-savvy associate to help them identify a healthier, more sustainable path.

“It was a tough go there during the recession and, at times, we were hanging on by a thread to make things work,” Connie says. “But we’re truly a family business and we had the support of each other.”

There was also a chorus of savvy, forward-thinking decisions that enabled the Linnerts to stave off serious trouble and position Ferndales for a robust future. 

On the inventory front, the Linnerts cut Ferndales’ stock in half, dropping from 12 designers to six. This considerably reduced the store’s investment, while also allowing the Linnerts to craft deeper, more collaborative partnerships with their existing roster of designers. 

The Linnerts also added BridalLive software, which Tom calls one of the best additions to the business. BridalLive’s ability to handle appointment requests, transactions and communications with brides via text and e-mail enabled Ferndales to streamline operations and heighten staff productivity.  

“The addition of BridalLive allowed us to do the things we felt were important more effectively and efficiently,” says Tom, who oversees much of the store’s back-office work.

When the Linnerts took over Ferndales in 2005, Facebook and its social-media brethren had yet to become ubiquitous components of mainstream life. As such, the Linnerts’ early marketing efforts for Ferndales were largely limited to local print publications and wedding expos. 

As social media accelerated, however, the Linnerts embraced digital marketing as vital to operations and leaned on young blood to keep Ferndales fresh in the online world. Currently, one of the Linnerts’ nieces runs the shop’s Instagram page while an intern from nearby Chapman University supports additional social-media marketing efforts for the store.

“We’re allowing more eyes, ears and voices to participate and that’s been an undeniable boost to us,” Tom says.


A new era for Ferndales

The Linnerts’ signature stabilizing move, however, occurred in late 2016 when the couple moved Ferndales out of its dated home and into a more contemporary, polished spot one block away in Orange. 

In combining two side-by-side storefronts into a single, 2,700-square-foot storefront on Tustin Street, the fifth address in Ferndales’ 61-year history, the Linnerts tricked out the refreshed space to their liking. The resulting store, about half the size of Ferndales’ previous home, is more bright, open and functional.

“A much better home for everything we do at Ferndales,” Tom says.

That includes alterations, one of Ferndales’ premier points of differentiation. About 95 percent of Ferndales’ brides entrust alterations to Connie and her in-house team, which handcrafts customized designs as well as elaborate modifications such as sleeves, straps and other embellishments.

“Our bread-and-butter is alterations,” says Connie, whose artistry also includes custom veils. “This is where our service shines. We understand what brides are looking for and how to provide it, which is a major selling point for us.”

Beyond alterations, Ferndales’ creative spirit also shines in regular runway events at the store. At these after-hours, invitation-only events – Connie aims to host about six each year – Ferndales features gowns from one designer alongside catered food and cocktails in a festive environment. 

“It’s a way for us to deepen our relationships with brides,” Connie says of the fashion shows.

By maintaining a positive attitude, incorporating patience and listening to brides, Ferndales has enjoyed a 21st century renaissance under the Linnerts charge and retained its status as a SoCal favorite. 

“I’m not convinced there’s a physical thing that makes things magically better,” Tom says. “Success and longevity for us is about genuinely connecting with customers on a personal level time and time again. From our perspective, it’s a privilege to help a bride on her wedding day and the great reward is in the relationships you make and the opportunity to serve.”

Bridal, Tom reminds, remains the premier retail sector for connecting with customers on an earnest, emotional level and the industry is tailor-made for creating memorable moments. 

“There are so many times when grandma, mom and daughter come in together and you immediately see the glow on their faces,” he says. “It’s like seeing three generations at Disneyland. They’re all getting to see and experience something magical together.”

And at a store with a 61-year history like Ferndales that magic has occurred countless times. Mothers, aunts and grandmothers standing alongside today’s current brides regularly recount tales of purchasing their own wedding dress at Ferndales. 

In 2017, in fact, the Linnerts transformed one such tale into a physical display. Placing three mannequins in their front window, the Linnerts dressed one in grandma’s wedding gown, another in mom’s bridal dress and the third in the daughter’s recent selection from Ferndales. The display showcased the evolution of bridal fashion as well as Ferndales’ rich and steady relationship with its diverse southern California clientele. 

“That was a special reminder of Ferndales’ long history and our commitment to serving brides,” Connie says of the popular window display. 

As Tom and Connie Linnert both advance into their 60s, they admit the allure of retirement lingers. The bridal retail business, after all, can be a grind, filled with its share of volatility and stress. Just one positive experience, however, re-energizes the couple and any thoughts of retirement drift away.

“We want to continue to serve at a high level,” Tom says. “For us, that means being aware of industry trends, listening to our brides and remaining open and responsive to both rather than getting complacent in our ways.”