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Local wedding market expands

By Caitlin Cook, Staff writer
CHIP ELLIS | Sunday Gazette-Mail photos
Belle Manjong opened The Boutique earlier this month.
CHIP ELLIS | Sunday Gazette Mail Wedding dresses line the windows of The Boutique by B.Belle Events, in the Woodrums Building in downtown Charleston. The Boutique's owner and other area wedding planners hope the local touch brings in customers this wedding season.
Misti Sims sits in the new Little Black Dress Events studio in Kanawha City. Sims started her business in her hometown of Parkersburg before opening a studio in Charleston.
CHIP ELLIS | Sunday Gazette-Mail
CHIP ELLIS | Sunday Gazette-Mail

Belle Manjong wants brides to feel special at her downtown boutique. Misti Sims wants to make sure brides leave her studio confident in their rental selections.

The two entrepreneurs opened up their own businesses in Charleston that cater to the billion dollar wedding industry, providing local brides with more options closer home.

“The brides we worked with were frankly just tired of feeling that they had to travel to another state to purchase a gown,” Manjong said. “The state capital, one of the most populist areas of the state, didn’t have a privately owned bridal shop. That was just stunning to me and I think many brides.”

Manjong wanted The Boutique by B.Belle Events to feel luxurious, airy and delicate — like something a bride would find in a big city. Manjong and her mother-in-law, Linda Sutton, leased space in the historic Woodrum Building on the corner of Virginia and Laidley and stated from the ground up.

The space is welcoming with plenty of natural light. Manjong wouldn’t talk specifics but said they made a “significant investment” in the space.

On Thursday, the West Virginia Capital Access Program announced it approved a $50,000 working capital loan to the boutique. Natural Capital Investment Fund, a nonprofit business loan fund that provides debt and financing to small businesses in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia, is the lending institution.

The boutique will carry dresses from the Pronovias fashion collection including Pronovias, La Sposa, San Patrick and White One, as well as dresses from the JLM Couture line and Lovelle by Lazaro along with others.

“We worked very hard to ensure most of the dresses are made in America or Spain to capture the tradition of expert tailoring and craftsmanship,” Manjong said. She said she’s particularly excited about White One, a line designed for full-figured brides.

“We really wanted to set ourselves apart from other boutiques,” she said. “I’ve seen up close and personal a full figured bride going in to try on wedding gowns and her just being aghast about whether or not that gown is going to fit.”

The boutique also offers full-service event planning. About seven years ago, Manjong decided to leave her career as a lawyer and start her event planning business, B.Belle Events.

She hasn’t looked back since.

“I want to know about you. I want to know how you want to feel in your dress. I want to know what you planned at your wedding,” Manjong said. “I want to know what you want your guests to see when they look at you that day, and I want to build and tell that story with you.”

Brides are more savvy than ever and know what they want, Manjong said, with numerous wedding magazines and Pintrest — a visual discover tool that allows people to search for themes and ideas.

Manjong said it’s providing that personal service that separates larger and smaller stores.

“I don’t consider places like David’s Bridal competition,” Manjong said. “There is something for everybody in the market, but for those who want quality, personal service — a reputable place to go where they will feel special and not just pick up dresses from the rack and take it home — there’s a place for them. I think people are hungry for that.”

Since her shop opened earlier this month, Manjong saidshe’s already sold several wedding dresses, and even attracted some potential out-of-town business. A young woman in town for work took a wrong turn downtown and found herself outside the boutique.

“She went around the block and had to come in. Now she’s bringing her mom from Pittsburgh in,” Manjong said. “There is no reason why people shouldn’t be coming into this state. For so long I have been taking brides and business out of state, and we need to bring that business here.”

American weddings are a $50 billion industry employing about 800,000, according to the market-research firm IBIS-World.

Nikki Bowman, publisher of WV Wedding magazine, is hopeful for Manjong’s and Sims’ respective business ventures. “These two business owners saw the gaps and are filling them,” Bowman said. “I think they will both do very well.”

A 2013 WV Wedding magazine reader survey found 50 percent of brides in West Virginia travel at least 50 miles to purchase a dress, while 30 percent travel 100 miles, and 10 percent travel more than 100 miles to purchase a dress.

The survey found 60 percent of West Virginia brides spend $1,000 to $3,000 on their wedding dress.

After years in the event planning business in North Carolina, Sims wanted to come home to West Virginia. The Parkersburg native started Little Black Dress Events in 2010.

“The way I look at it is I moved away and learned how to do this amazing job well and I just brought it back to West Virginia,” Sims said.

The event planning and rental business did a lot of work in Parkersburg and near-by Marietta, Ohio.

“I knew I wanted to build it but I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to go,” Sims said. “I just kept telling my husband it’s weird there isn’t a rental place down in Charleston anymore and someone should move in. With as many events as there are in Charleston there should be two or three event planners.”

The studio along MacCorkle Avenue offers a private consultation room for event planning, a room where the bride can come in and select from different tables, chairs, liens, colors and create a table she wants.

“They can play around with the different textures and sizes. They can set it up exactly how it’s going to be at the venue,” Sims said. “That bride and her mom are going to leave here and know 100 percent that’s exactly what they want. It’s not like they have to try and imagine in their heads what it would look like.”

Sims said the wedding business has “taken off” and business is good.

All of the rental items she will keep in the Kanawha City studio she has used since being back in West Virginia.

“This engagement period is such a small amount of time why not enjoy all these cool things that you get to do as a bride,” Sims said. “Girls are starting to say, ‘hey, just because I live in West Virginia doesn’t mean I can’t have a wedding like you would have in Charlotte or wherever.”

Sims will offering varying levels of event planning. One package includes constant contact with Sims and the planning team.

“I’d like to grow in products offered but not in geography,” Sims said looking forward to the May 15 launch party.

Bowman said outdoor, rural weddings are on the rise, which is good for West Virgina.

“Part of the wedding experience is the customer service you get,” Bowman said. “That’s why it’s important to have those local boutiques.”

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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