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Fulfilling a Niche

Curvaceous Couture Photo Credit: Lea Glass Photogaraphy
Curvaceous Couture Photo Credit: Lea Glass Photogaraphy
The Curvaceous Couture staff.
The Curvaceous Couture staff.
Sisters and co-owners of Curvaceous Couture.
Sisters and co-owners of Curvaceous Couture.

Soon after getting engaged in 2006, Yukia Walker set off to find her dream wedding gown, but rather than encountering support and service, even with a generous budget, the size-14 bride with an hourglass figure unearthed disappointment and angst.
    “Stores didn’t have much bigger than a size 10 for me to try on and I felt like one salon even laughed at me when I asked if I could see a size 16,” says Walker, who eventually – and rather unenthusiastically – purchased her wedding dress from department store chain Filene’s Basement.
    An experience Walker hoped would be magical and memorable morphed into something disappointing and dreadful, but, ultimately, motivating.
    In 2008, with Walker’s less-than-ideal experience still reverberating in her mind alongside similar tales she had filed away from other full-figured brides, Walker phoned her younger sister, Yuneisia Harris, and directed her to listen.
    “I have an idea,” Walker told her sister before presenting plans for a plus-sized bridal boutique. “There’s a Grand Canyon-sized gap in the marketplace, nothing compelling or couture for the plus-sized, curvy bride. We can do this.”     
    Harris, who had witnessed Walker’s strife firsthand as she shopped for her wedding gown, agreed. The sisterly duo assembled a business plan and launched Curvaceous Couture in 2009, which the sisters bill as the nation’s first full-service bridal salon to feature an extensive collection of designer bridal gowns in sizes 12-44 plus.
    Nearly a decade later, the Columbia, Md.-based operation stands tall as a pioneer in the plus-sized bridal marketplace and, fueled by hundreds of raving fans and a show on TLC, a well-established business attending to dozens of brides each day from across the U.S. and even abroad.
    “It’s our grand concept,” Harris says, “and we’re grateful every day for what we get to do and the brides we get to help.”

Bringing  Curvaceous Couture into Being
    Months before Walker and Harris even opened their store on Columbia’s Red Branch Road, it was clear they had excited a long-underserved demographic. As designers listed Curvaceous Couture’s contact information on their own websites, brides immediately began calling the sisters and looking to book appointments.
    “The dresses hadn’t even landed yet,” Harris says.
    Nevertheless, the sisters invited brides to travel to their family home in Columbia, where the sisters and their parents, Alan and Diana Harris, had transformed Alan’s basement man cave into a temporary bridal boutique, removing poker tables and Baltimore Ravens paraphernalia to create a more feminine space for Walker and Harris to operate their upstart business.
    “God bless them and how much they cared,” Walker says of her parents. “It was a great start to a wonderful business.”
    Harris jokes of brides walking into the home on a quiet residential street – dad waving from his riding lawn mower and mom hustling about the home – and nervously following one of the sisters into the basement. In quick time, any hesitation of visiting a basement bridal boutique gave way to genuine excitement as Walker and Harris showed an assortment of gowns and earnestly helped one bride after another find her wedding dress.
    “These girls could’ve care less about where we were located; they just wanted to be taken care of,” Harris says.
    Adds Walker, “Not one second guessed letting us swipe her credit card.”
    At the end of 2009, the sisters returned the basement to their father and moved into an unassuming 5,000-square-foot strip mall location in the northeastern corner of Columbia. Business only accelerated as curvy brides flooded the salon day after day to view and try on couture dresses, most eager to receive expert, empathetic support from stylists and seamstresses who understood the full-figured female body.
    “The whole point of the business was addressing a need out there that wasn’t being met,” Harris says. “Our whole purpose was to ensure that no one ever felt the way Yukia felt when she was looking for her wedding dress.”

Building a Sustainable Business One Lesson at a Time
    Though there was immediate demand for Curvaceous Couture’s offerings, Walker and Harris admit traveling a steep learning curve to stabilize the business and ensure its long-term health.
    With no previous bridal retail experience – Harris left her job in pharmaceutical sales and Walker her position as a government contractor to launch Curvaceous Couture – the sisters had to learn the ins and outs of the bridal business from servicing customers and dealing with vendors to managing inventory and staff.
    For a time, the store attempted to be all things to all people, carrying bridal gowns in addition to mothers, bridesmaids, flower girls and special occasion. Today, the store is overwhelmingly focused on bridal though it does maintain a carefully curated collection of mothers wear and special occasion dresses, which double as prom wear for plus-sized teenagers seeking a more couture look as well.
    “We saw we needed to stay in our lane and do what we do well,” Walker says.
    With bridal inventory, in particular, there has been trial and error and much reflection. After starting with only five bridal lines, Curvaceous Couture now has 11 bridal lines from nine designers, only one of which survives from that original set.
    “We’ve figured out what’s worked and increased the volume of designers we feel work for our plus-sized clientele,” Harris says of the store’s bridal inventory.
    The sisters have also settled into specific roles, a clear division of labor that’s proven both efficient and harmonious. Harris largely handles back-of-the-house tasks such as marketing and financials, while Walker, the elder sister by three years, serves as the store’s spirited front-of-the-house leader.
    “Yukia’s the brainchild of this operation,” Harris admits. “She’s the one with the passion and love for what she was neglected as a bride and the one so committed to changing that for others.
    “Many would be scared to work with a sibling,” Harris continues, “but there’s a mutual respect between us and a consistent commitment to the bigger picture of helping people that we both embrace.”
    That universal mission and those familial bonds shine in the boutique’s customer service, which Walker refers to as “the Chick-fil-A mentality,” a nod to the customer-pleasing restaurant chain that routinely tops customer satisfaction lists.
    “We have that same servant mindset in that we want our brides to feel welcomed and taken care of, that it really is our pleasure,” Walker says. “When brides walk into our store, I truly believe they feel that love and respect too often lacking elsewhere [for plus-sized brides].”
    The ability of the Curvaceous Couture team to execute on that mission time and again, meanwhile, has sparked an army of word-of-mouth-ambassadors touting Curvaceous Couture and driving the store’s nearly decade-long run of growth and success.

Curvy as Commonplace, Nationwide Exposure
    In 2015, accelerant was tossed onto an already red-hot business when TLC contacted Walker and Harris about starring in a “Say Yes to the Dress” – like show focused on full-figured women.
    “TLC is the bridal show network, so that’s not the type of thing you turn down,” Harris says.
    In late 2015, “Curvy Brides” began its 14-episode run on the popular cable network. Though elements of the show proved difficult for Harris and Walker, including maintaining privacy and sharing their 5,000-square-foot shop with cameras and a full production crew, the series provided significant marketing and branding exposure that intensified traffic and sales at Curvaceous Couture. The show’s one-season run ended in 2016.
    “We were a mom-and-pop store that had a huge national commercial every week and that was powerful,” says Harris, adding that “Curvy Brides” continues running internationally. “And inevitably, that means we’re getting calls or notes from people overseas, too.”
    Another great byproduct of the show: a growing recognition that many of today’s plus-sized brides are not being serviced as well as they could be or should be. With today’s “average” bride a size 15, Harris says both designers and stores are recognizing the need.
    When the sisters first went to market, Walker recalls designers listening to Curvaceous Couture’s pitch and responding with sideways glances.
    “Most looked at us like ‘Good luck with that,’” Walker says. “Many felt it was just too niche.”
    Slowly, however, more designers are accommodating the plus-sized, curvy brides.
    “There’s still many lagging behind and it remains a battle, but it’s turning, though definitely not as fast as we’d like,” Walker says.
    Ambitious independent retailers, however, have been much more responsive to seize the opportunity. Plus-sized bridal boutiques now pepper the country, stretching from California to the East Coast.
    “There are some entrepreneurial folks out there, some of whom might have had a similar experience to Yukia, and they see this makes sense and that the need is there,” Harris says.
    For the sisters, the growth is both encouraging and inspiring, meaning that more plus-sized brides are receiving the attentive service and pleasant experience they desire and deserve.
    “I don’t think people expected us to still be around nine years later, but here we are and others are following suit,” Walker says. “That’s a wonderful thing.”
    Though Harris and Walker have thus far rejected opportunities to open additional locations or franchise, they continue thawing to such ideas, well aware that, despite the gains, a strong segment of the marketplace remains hungry for the service, experience and products found at Curvaceous Couture.
    “We’re not like every other boutique out there and that’s helped make us stand out as something special and different,” Harris says

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Previous Retail Standouts

For over 25 years, VOWS magazine has had the privilege of profiling some of the finest bridal salons in North America. What follows is a sampling of those salons gracing our pages, listed in alpha order:

Anderson’s Bride, Anchorage, Ak. www.andersonsbride.com

Angelique’s Bridal Salon, Blaine, Minn. www.angeliquesbridalsalon.com

Anjolique Bridal & Formal, Huntersville, N.C. anjolique-bridal.com

Arlene’s Bridal Salon, Bloomfield, N.J. www.arlenesbridals.com

Azteca Bridal, Phoenix, Ariz. www.azbride.com

Beautiful Weddings, Missoula, Mon. www.beautifulweddingsbridal.com

Becker’s Bridal, Fowler, Mich www.beckersbridal.com

Bella Sera Bridal & Occasion, Danvers, MA www.bellaserabride.com

Betsy Robinson's Bridal, Pikesville, MD  www.betsyrobinson.com

Brickhouse Bridal, The Woodlands, Texas www.brickhousebridal.com

Bridal and Formal Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio www.bridalandformalinc.com

Bridal Garden, Marlton, N.J. www.bridal-garden.com

Bridal Reflections, Massapequa, N.Y. www.bridalreflections.com

Bridal Superstore by Posie Patch, Indianapolis, Ind. www.posiepatchbridalsuperstores.com

Bridal Trousseau, Branford, Conn. www.bridal-trousseau.net

Bridal Warehouse, Elizabethtown, Ky www.usabridal.com

Bridals by Lori, Atlanta, GA www.bridalsbylori.com

Carlisle’s of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa. www.bridalwear.com

Catan Fashions, Strongsville, Ohio www.catanfashions.com

Champagne & Lace, Abbotsford, B.C. champagneandlace.com

Charlotte’s Weddings & More, Portland, Ore. www.charlottesweddings.com

Chic Parisien, Coral Gables, Fla. www.cpbride.com

d’Anelli Bridal, Lakewood, Colo. www.coloradobridal.com

Deborah’s Bridal, Upland, Calif. www.deborahsbridal.com

Doreen Leaf Designs, Hartville, Ohio www.doreenleafdesigns.com

Elegant Occasions, Wausau, WI www.elegantoccasions.net

Elizabeth’s Bridal Manor, Northville, Mich. www.elizabethsbridal.com

Emmy’s Bridal, Minster, Ohio emmysbridal.com

Fiancée Bridal, Minot, N.D. fianceebridal.com

I Do Bridal, Seattle, Wash. idobridal.com

Imaginations Bridal, Brookhaven, Miss. www.imaginationsbridal.com

J&B Bridal, Chambersburg, Pa. www.jbbridals.com

Jay West, Haddonfield, N.J. www.jaywestbridal.com

Jessica’s Bridal & Formal, Bay, Ark. www.jessicasbridal.net

JJ Kelly Bridal, Oklahoma City, OK www.jjkellybridal.com

Kleinfeld, New York, N.Y. www.kleinfeldbridal.com

Little White Dress, Denver, CO www.lwdbridal.com

Low’s Bridal & Formal, Brinkley, Ark. lowsbridal.com

Mariella Creations, Rocky Hill, Ct. www.mariellacreations.com

Mark Ingram Atelier, New York, N.Y. markingramatelier.com

MB Bride & Special Occasion, Greensburg, Pa. www.mbbride.com

Mestad’s Bridal & Formalwear, Rochester, Minn. www.mestads.com

Mon Amie Bridal Salon, Costa Mesa, Calif. www.monamie.com

Poffie Girls Bridals & Formals, Gastonia, N.C. www.poffiegirls.com

Prevue Bridal & Formal, San Diego, Calif. prevueformalandbridal.com

Rebecca’s Wedding Boutique, Louisville, Ky. www.rebeccasweddings.com

Special Memories, Leadington, Mo. www.specialmemories.com

Terry Costa, North Dallas, Texas www.terrycosta.com

The Bridal Centre, Calgary, AB, Canada www.bridalcentre.com

The Bridal Collection, Centennial, Colo.www.thebridalcollection.com 

The Bridal Path, Jackson, Miss. www.bridalpathinc.com

The Plumed Serpent, Westport, Conn. plumedserpentbridal.com

The Gilded Gown, Knoxville, Tenn. www.thegildedgown.com

The Wedding Tree, La Crosse, Wis. www.theweddingtree.com

TJ Formal Profiled: Joplin, Mo. www.tjformal.com

Uptown Bridal & Boutique Chandler, Ariz. uptownbrides.com

Vera’s House of Bridals   Madison, Wis. www.verasbridals.com

Wedding Belles Stevensville, Mich. www.weddingbellesbridalsalon.com

Wedding Shoppe Inc. St. Paul, Minn. www.weddingshoppeinc.com

Wedding Wonderland Knoxville, Tenn. www.wedding-wonderland.com

Weddings by Debbie Katy, Texas www.weddingsbydebbie.com

Wishing Well Bridal East Providence, R.I. www.wishingwellbridal.com

 

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