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When Jenny Cline and Marsha Ballard French met some 45 years ago, they never could have predicted the ways in which their lives would become intertwined and the unexpected path they would travel together.
    Blending battle-tested business acumen with an unapologetically fearless energy, the enterprising duo has grown Texas-based StarDust Celebrations into a diverse three-store operation with a wedding planning division and a Lone Star-sized reputation for pleasing customers over the last two decades.

From healthcare to bridal retail
    One-time nurses – Cline an adult medical surgical nurse and French an emergency room nurse – both women moved from the clinical world into the business side of healthcare. As each found success in executive roles, they would cross paths often at industry events and even become frequent travel companions.
    “Anytime we’d fly together, we’d exchange some pie-in-the-sky ideas about our next career adventures,” Cline says.
    As the 1990s unfolded, both Cline and French grew tired of the corporate life’s grind – consistent travel, meetings and boardroom politics. When French’s daughter, Jayme, married in 1997, French recognized the need for qualified wedding planners in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and pitched the idea to Cline.
    “I think we both saw it as an opportunity to do a fun business together,” French says.
   In 1999, Cline and French left healthcare behind and tossed themselves into the wedding planning world. They gobbled up training, earned certifications, marketed themselves at bridal shows and hustled for business. In their first year of operation, they steered weddings for 40 couples.
    “It about killed us, though, and we feared we’d die exhausted and broke if we kept that pace,” Cline says.
   They soon after purchased a century-old home in Dallas, placing their wedding planning business alongside veils, accessories and jewelry to generate additional revenue. But that alone, the partners reasoned, wasn’t enough; they needed wedding gowns.
    In 2000, Cline and French boarded a flight to New York and traveled to the 7th Avenue headquarters of JLM Couture, the well-known bridal designer, manufacturer and distributor. They knocked on the door, introduced themselves as an upstart bridal shop in Dallas and said they wanted to purchase gowns, innocently yet completely unaware of bridal buying’s basic rules.
    “We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Cline admits.
   Though an uncharacteristic visit, Judie Ulberg, now the director of sales and marketing at Eve of Milady Bridals but then a JLM sales manager, entertained the company’s enterprising, though unexpected visitors. Ulberg recruited a secretary to try on gowns and offered Cline and French a crash course in bridal gown purchasing. While the duo acquired some gowns to stock their Dallas shop that day, they also discovered what they couldn’t have, namely gowns from the Lazaro line that weren’t available to their startup operation.
    “So, naturally, we made it our goal to someday carry Lazaro,” French says.

Full speed ahead
    With its first bridal gowns in hand, StarDust Celebrations moved aggressively to establish itself as a notable retail player in the competitive Dallas-Fort Worth marketplace. Cline and French quickly expanded their inventory, so much so that they relocated StarDust to a 6,000-square-foot storefront in nearby Plano. They added bridesmaids, special occasion gowns and invitations, combining the diverse retail elements with their wedding planning business to create a one-stop bridal shopping experience.
    Despite moving to Plano, Cline and French kept the century-old home in Dallas and transformed that 2,500-square-foot space into a second bridal shop. Whereas StarDust Celebrations in Plano would focus on couture bridal fashions, LuLu’s Bridal would carry more moderate lines.
    “We saw value in keeping the brands separate and having a more diverse portfolio,” French explains.
   Business at both StarDust and LuLu’s accelerated. Cline and French, in fact, crammed nine dressing rooms into LuLu’s tidy footprint to accommodate demand while the partners also took on adjacent retail space in Plano to handle StarDust’s rapid growth. In 2011, Cline and French decided to move StarDust again. This time, they built a new 18,000-square-foot enclave in Plano. Three years later, they relocated LuLu’s to a space in the Dallas Design District.
    “Neither of us were afraid to make big bets,” Cline says. “We both had years of running companies and making big financial decisions, and we leveraged that to build a solid business foundation.”
   Which isn’t to suggest StarDust’s opening decade was all sunshine and roses. Cline and French faced some misfortune, including numerous designers who folded just as StarDust or LuLu’s gained momentum with their lines.
    “Honestly, we felt like the kiss of death for a while,” Cline says.
   Yet, the business also took some early shots that delivered impressive returns, finding success with lines like Jim Hjelm, Alvina Valenta and St. Pucchi, while also becoming one of the first stores in the U.S. to carry Pronovias.
    “We literally saw those gowns out of a trunk,” Cline says of Pronovias.
   Cline and French also endured an “interesting experience” as the subject of the short-lived WE tv series Girl Meets Gown. Though originally touted as a wholesome, joy-filled behind-the-scenes look at StarDust’s role in helping brides find their wedding dress, the production company increasingly pushed for drama. Cline and French rejected the idea and the series, which premiered in April 2010, evaporated after seven episodes.
    “We’re all about solving problems and being regarded as a classy business,” French says. “It was a great experience to do a TV show, but I’d never want to do it again.”

Creating a diverse business
    Over recent years, Cline and French have continued to evolve their business with an opportunistic edge, consistently seeking ways to expand their reach, improve their service and build a healthier, more sustainable operation.
    In 2016, Cline and French opened an outlet and rental shop called A Bridal Closet at The Shops at Willow Bend in Plano. They later renamed the store Molly’s Bridal Closet and moved it to a spot in the Dallas Design District across the street from LuLu’s. Molly’s carries discontinued gowns, overstocks, abandoned gowns and other overflow inventory from both StarDust and LuLu’s.
    Having three clearly distinct, individual retail brands allows Cline and French to cater to virtually any bride’s wedding gown needs. The flagship StarDust store in Plano features couture bridal fashions starting at $1,500 and running north of $10,000. LuLu’s, by contrast, hits the middle market with the average bridal sale hovering around $1,800. Molly’s, by nature of the diverse inventory it gathers from both StarDust and LuLu’s, caters to deal-hunting shoppers, whether they are chasing a budget-friendly dress under $200 or a drastically marked-down couture gown.
    The diverse array of inventory across three shops creates a referral engine within the StarDust enterprise, something stylists at each store quickly mention to customers. If a bride fails to find her gown at StarDust, for instance, she can peruse more inventory at LuLu’s or hunt for an off-the-rack deal at Molly’s.
    Each store also claims its own vibe. Whereas StarDust is a sophisticated and traditional boutique punctuated by a grand staircase and prairie-style architecture, LuLu’s embraces a modern, industrial feel with polished cement floors and high ceilings. Molly’s carries a French provincial look – a “very girly place to be,” Cline says.
    While three distinct brands offer three distinct experiences – “Most people don’t even know the three are related,” Cline says of StarDust, LuLu’s and Molly’s – Cline and French maintain uniformity in retail operations, which are largely centralized at StarDust. All three stores utilize the same cloud-based inventory system, while there is also strong consistency in everything from in-store procedures to paperwork. Staff from the three stores, meanwhile, interact regularly, including an annual in-service featuring expert speakers and hands-on training.
    Both Cline and French call their staff, which reached 75 members pre-pandemic, critical to the overall success of their business. The co-owners have taken team members to different venues and incorporated them into wedding planning work, which enables staff to get a taste of different environments and aesthetics as well as vendors. Staff have also accompanied Cline and French to market as well.
    “This all helps boost the confidence of our stylists and helps them become more informed and helpful allies to our brides,” French says.

Into the present
    Given their complementary work as wedding planners, Cline and French are uniquely positioned in the Dallas-Fort Worth wedding market. They are regularly working alongside vendors – photographers, florists, videographers and the like – and crossing paths with other planners, all of which feeds business to their three bridal shops.
    “Planners send brides to us because they know us,” French says. “They have a comforting confidence in our shops and trust our ability to deliver.”
    Coming from the healthcare field, Cline and French also leverage decades of customer service experience to drive their retail efforts.
    “For years, we focused on individual patients and looking at them as well-rounded humans, and the same applies today,” French says. “We’re constantly evaluating the experience of our brides, trying to see ourselves through the eyes of that 25-year-old woman and what would be a fun, memorable experience for her.”
    Together for 22 years, both Cline and French appreciate the ability to lean on a trusted business partner, especially amid difficult times. Right now, French says the StarDust enterprise is “retrenching and getting back at it” following the disruption of COVID-19. As traffic at its three stores slowed as the virus spread, Cline and French were forced to furlough staff. Like many other bridal shops, they also faced challenges with deliveries and juggled shifting wedding dates and jittery customers.
    “And COVID created a large amount of re-do work on the wedding planning side, too, because so many events had to be rescheduled,” French says. “The pandemic hit us harder than the average bear.”
    Yet, resilient and determined, Cline, French and their team march ahead.
   While Cline largely handles day-to-day operations, French oversees marketing, outreach and StarDust’s wedding planning division. French’s husband, Bob, meanwhile, handles various back-office tasks as well as facilities needs. “It’s great to have more than one person carry the burden,” French says, adding that both she and Cline remain “passionately involved” in selecting store inventory.
    The partners neither run from hard work nor cower from making ambitious bets, whether that means hosting first-rate fashion shows, placing wedding gowns in a Ferrari showroom for some snappy cross-promotion or moving their bridesmaids’ category entirely online.
    “We are very market focused and learned a long time ago that if you don’t love the baby, you have to be able to change,” French says.
    Adds Cline: “We pride ourselves on analyzing the business and making the tough decisions that are necessary.”
    Indeed, it’s that tenacious, solutions-oriented mindset that has carried StarDust Celebrations and its sister businesses to such heights. From not knowing what they didn’t know to becoming a diversified and successful bridal enterprise, Cline and French represent the power of entrepreneurial grit and pragmatic leadership.
    “And you know what,” Cline says, “we eventually got Lazaro in here and have been carrying it for years.”

Photo Credits: Joseph Mark Photography,