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Michelle Depoali re-members looking out upon her bridal boutique before its official opening in September 2008 with a slight twinge of doubt, a pinch of hesitation and inescapable jitters.
    “Will anybody buy any of these gowns?” Depoali wondered as she peered at the inventory filling the 1,500-square-foot storefront in Reno, Nev.
    Though Depoali was optimistic – she brought an unofficial advanced degree in bridal retail, a thoughtful business plan and sound financials into the opening of Swoon Bridal – entrepreneurship has its way of breeding apprehension, and especially so as the nation descended into an economic recession.
    It did not take long, however, for Depoali’s unease to evaporate. Her first customer bought an Amy Kuschel gown and readily accepted Depoali’s guidance on the most important apparel selection of her life.
    “To see that bride’s joy, that’s the moment I realized I could do this and that Swoon would be viable,” Depoali says on a recent May morning under the Reno sun. “I was doing what I wanted to be doing on my own terms and in my own town, and it was an incredible feeling.”
    Thirteen years later, Swoon Bridal has become more than simply a viable retail business. Depoali’s entrepreneurial concoction is now a thriving boutique with a legion of raving fans, a clear sense of self and a dynamic, customer-centric culture that continues generating marketplace buzz.

The path to Swoon Bridal
    The seeds that resulted in the sprouting of Swoon Bridal were planted long ago. As a child, Depoali was intensely drawn to vintage clothing, especially wedding dresses. She bought bridal magazines, enthusiastically surveying the pages to explore the latest looks and trends. As a graduate student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Nevada, she penned her degree-concluding thesis not on a literary giant or persuasive writing technique, but rather wedding dresses.
    When she moved to California’s Bay Area in 2004 with her husband, Mark Dunagan, Depoali applied for a position at Marina Morrison in San Francisco, one of the region’s premier bridal boutiques. Though Depoali’s resume contained no previous bridal or sales experience, Marina Morrison owner Karen Metz hired Depoali nonetheless.
    “She was interested that I had done my thesis on wedding dresses and I think she saw I had a genuine passion for this,” Depoali says of Metz.
    While Dunagan was pursuing his law degree at the University of California, Berkeley, Depoali spent three years getting her own advanced degree in bridal retail from Metz, who emerged a trusted mentor. As Depoali learned the ins and outs of selling high-end wedding dresses to a refined clientele on the sales floor, Metz also exposed her pupil to different sides of the bridal retail business. Depoali met designers, attended market and gained practical instruction in merchandising, retail systems and customer service. For Depoali, it was an invaluable education from a battle-tested teacher.
    “Karen taught me there was no length too long to go for a customer,” Depoali says. “She was a fixer and always believed there was a solution.”
    In 2007, a mix of events returned Depoali to Reno, her hometown: Dunagan had completed his law degree from Cal, Metz had sold Marina Morrison and Depoali’s own mother had fallen ill and would pass away about one month after her daughter’s homecoming.
    As Depoali navigated the grief of losing her mother, she began sketching plans for her own bridal boutique in Reno, Nevada’s third-largest city. The area lacked, in Depoali’s estimation, a more “cosmopolitan” bridal shop, something “a little more niche and a little more distinctive.”
    Pouring her time and energy into planning, Depoali scouted locations and investigated designers, leaned on Metz for guidance and found hope and optimism as a passion project years in the making morphed from concept into reality. Depoali opened Swoon Bridal on September 18, 2008, one year and one day to the passing of her mother.
    “I could’ve opened on September 17, but I took that day for myself,” Depoali says. “You hit grief and keep walking forward. Swoon was my way forward.”

Defining a niche
    For her first three years at Swoon, Depoali relied on a simple, bootstrapped formula: combining a collection of distinctive gowns brides could not readily find elsewhere with a personable, hands-on approach directly from a passionate owner.
    “I believe in kindness and believe people have felt that here from day one,” Depoali says.
    As business steadied, Depoali hired her first employee, Alisha Twitchell, in 2011.
    “It was only for one afternoon a week,” Depoali says, “but it was exciting to be able to hire someone.”
   Though Twitchell’s hiring seemed a rather modest step, it was nevertheless a significant moment in Swoon’s evolution. It signaled Swoon’s matriculation from the startup ranks and set the stage for the continued evolution of both Swoon as a business and Depoali as an entrepreneur.
    In fact, when Depoali gave birth to twin girls in 2013, she took a three-month maternity leave, entrusting Twitchell, now the store manager, to guide the shop and lead other recent hires. Depoali says that move strengthened the overall vibe of the store and fostered ownership among staff that elevated everyone’s performance.
    “In bridal, you can feel such a responsibility to customers, but I had to find balance while also giving my team the opportunity to grow professionally just as [Marina Morrison’s Karen Metz] had taught me and let me have at it,” Depoali says.
    Since Swoon’s debut in 2008, Depoali has consistently worked to refine her inventory, which included divesting of bridesmaids, flower girls and mothers to focus exclusively on bridal. That, she confirms, “simplified things” for Swoon.
    With a singular focus on bridal, Depoali has since expanded her gown price points in both directions, providing greater accessibility while simultaneously bringing in more high-end fashions as well. Today, Swoon’s wedding gowns start at $1,500 and run as high as $10,000.
    “Though $2,000-$4,000 is our real sweet spot,” Depoali says. “And every single dress I pick is in the store for a reason.”
    Her collection today includes established designers like Watters as well as chic, boundary-pushing couturiers like New Zealand-based Rue de Seine, which Swoon began carrying in 2016.
    “We coveted and loved Rue de Seine, and when I e-mailed the designer about potentially bringing them into the store, I felt like a teenage girl waiting for a boy to call back,” Depoali says.
    The consistent, intentional focus on product mix has produced a unique, interesting and diverse collection of designers and price points that has enabled Swoon staff to address brides’ individual needs and provide perspective that can help inform decision making.
    “So many brides think they know what they want to wear before entering, but we help them explore and educate them,” Depoali says.

Confronting COVID and the future
    As the novel coronavirus infiltrated the U.S. in early 2020, Depoali remembers sitting at her computer last spring and drafting an Instagram post about her store’s temporary closing. It all seemed surreal and daunting.
    “Honestly, I was just trying not to cry in front of the staff,” Depoali admits.
    True to form, however, Swoon responded to the challenge of an unprecedented public health pandemic that pushed anxiety, angst and uncertainty into the atmosphere.
    With positivity top of mind, Depoali reassured brides that Swoon Bridal would continue to be available for its customers via e-mail, text and other means. To that end, the store began offering virtual appointments, which included placing dresses on mannequins and talking brides through options, as well as making local drop-offs to brides for at-home try-ons. Swoon also started a second Instagram account called Swoon Sample Sale in which it offloaded sample inventory to customers across the U.S.
    “We reinvented everything we did,” Depoali says, adding that her experience opening Swoon Bridal during the Great Recession gave her confidence that the business could withstand the pandemic just as well. “I felt then like the walls were closing in then, but we survived. I was optimistic we could survive this, too.”
    Swoon Bridal, of course, endured, albeit with a twist to its traditional ways. When the store re-opened in May, Depoali largely managed the business from home to reduce store capacity, while two staff members at a time ran the store’s daily operations. In the process, she noticed an interesting turn at her business: price points opening up like never before.
    “People moved in mass to Reno and Lake Tahoe, so there has been an influx of money into the area,” she says. “Beyond that, the concept of the wedding has been changing as well. Since couples aren’t paying for 250 guests to eat, that money is being redistributed elsewhere in the wedding budget, which has led to much more consistency with higher dress budgets in our shop.”
    Depoali is also keenly aware how much has moved online during the pandemic. While a website and social media like Instagram were important pre-COVID, the pandemic made these digital platforms essential as a communications, branding and sales tool.
    On Instagram, where Swoon Bridal boasts nearly 11,000 followers, Depoali has stressed accessibility by showcasing staff and local brides. The Swoon Bridal website, meanwhile, features lively content with a defined brand voice that is fun, lighthearted and a bit quirky. The staff bios, for instance, are not the typical narratives about one’s background or store experience, but rather a “this or that” questionnaire – Coffee or tea? Flats or heels? Plan it or wing it? – that provides an energized look into the personalities of consultants.
    “There’s so much baggage that often comes with bridal, like insecurities, family dynamics or concern they’ll be taken advantage of, and we want our customers to know that we are real people here to help,” Depoali says. “By giving people an authentic taste of who we are, I think that helps people drop their defenses. We’re fun and we want people to feel that.”
    And that is the vibe Depoali plans to carry into the future, one that may include a larger space but almost certainly not a second store. “You can get caught up in doing so many things and trying to be everything to everyone, but this is plenty for me,” Depoali says. “Because Swoon is so personal to me and it’s more like opening my home to people than a business, my focus is on continuing to serve our brides the best we can right here.”


Photo Credits: Kari Henrichsen,