By Caitlin Maloney
Photography By Alexa Nahas
As a young girl growing up in southern Blacksburg, Virginia, Brittany Ashe, owner of Ashe B. & Co. bridal salon, never dreamt of her own wedding or even the dress she would someday wear. But life has a way of surprising us and Brittany’s adventure to opening a bridal salon in Manayunk is certainly one she never anticipated.
For Brittany, it all stems back to fashion in general. In high school, Brittany was in her school’s fashion merchandising program, a rare opportunity for a high school student. Part of the program included going to New York City every year and learning the ins and outs of the industry and retail market. The last phase of the program included entrepreneur classes—that's when Brittany says it clicked. “I knew I wanted to have my own store one day,” Brittany said.
After high school, Brittany went on to study business management in college and was looking for a part-time job in college as most students do. Her search led her to Chantilly Lace, a bridal store in her hometown. She never had a strong interest in bridal before starting at the salon, but the draw for her was working in a specific market versus the mall environment she was tired of.
As Brittany was getting ready to graduate, the current store manager left and the position seemed to fall right into Brittany’s lap. As the store manager, Brittany was given a lot of trust by the owner, and over her four years there, she said she gained not just experience and knowledge, but also confidence.
When Brittany’s mother was offered a position in Michigan, Brittany jumped at the opportunity to join her on the move. While out there, she worked at an upscale women’s boutique and bike shop—biking is a past time of Brittany’s. It’s clear that Brittany is an adventurer at heart and after her time in Michigan, she was looking for another change. She applied to jobs all over the East Coast, but two of her hometown friends living in Philadelphia convinced her to visit Manayunk.
“We came down to Main Street and went into the coffee shops and restaurants and I just thought it was the cutest thing,” Brittany said. “It reminded me of home because it has its own downtown and now it feels that way for me. That was a huge comfort coming from never living in a city.”
After making the move to Manayunk, Brittany applied for several store management positions, but bridal called her home again and she took a manager role at L&H Bridal in Northeast Philadelphia. “It was the right move for me to go back to bridal. I like to connect with people and to hear brides’ stories and live vicariously through them,” she said. “I know it might seem hard to believe, but I’m the anti-bride—I never dreamt of my own wedding, but I love hearing everyone else's stories.”
Back at L&H Bridal, Brittany loved working with her clients, but struggled with the traditional style she saw brides choosing over and over again. “It was definitely not my style. They had beautiful gowns, but they were very classic and traditionally Philly,” Brittany said. “I was always drawn to more unique gown designs and after doing some market research, I realized there was a need for something different in the Philly area.”
After a lot of Pinteresting and Instagram stalking, Brittany found unique bridal gown designers she had never heard of, most of which were designed and produced in smaller studios and factories in the United States. She also researched other bridal stores around the country and found most of the stores offering these unique gowns were based in California or the Midwest. That’s when Brittany knew that once she was ready to open a store of her own, these were the designers she wanted to carry.
“I just knew it had to be different. I was the girl in high school who wore a peacock feather in my hair,” Brittany laughed. “It had to stand apart and break the mold not only with the dresses I carried, but with the design of the store and the shopping experience, too.”
When she finally found the perfect storefront, Brittany immediately had a vision for the shop. She knew she wanted to stray away from the traditional bridal salon design and instead create a bohemian and southern inspired bridal experience—starting with teal paint on the walls was the first step.
“People definitely tried to warn me and I didn’t listen to them,” Brittany joked. “Now, that’s honestly what we get the most compliments on, the teal and blue paint on the walls.”
The next step was designing the racks. Instead of traditional metal ones, Brittany looked to her hometown friends Dave Chiarello and Marilyn Walfred-Simmerson to make custom racks out of reclaimed barn wood pulled from an old barn on Virginia Tech’s campus and a friend's family farm.
“I have a piece of home here with me at the shop now,” Brittany said. “I always thought I would go back south to open my store and since I didn’t, it always makes me feel like I have a little piece of home here.”
Another way Brittany made the space feel like home was by bringing in antiques and vintage collectables that she found from some of her favorite shops in Philly, including Jinxed.
“I grew up having antiques in my house and I knew I wanted a vintage and antique feel to the furniture,” she said.
Live plants were also a must, and there’s certainly not a lack of them in the shop.
“I always thought I had a black thumb, but I just wasn’t buying the right plants,” Brittany said. “We always had palm plants and greenery in the house growing up and I just love that it brings oxygen and life into the space. It feels homey and everyone always compliments us on how the space feels lived in.”
While the remodeling of the storefront was underway, Brittany was working behind the scenes on bringing in dresses that fit her bohemian and southern aesthetic. She went back to the list of designers she created that fit her style.
“From the list I compiled of designers I liked, you have to remember that a lot of those designers might not want you to carry them but also they may already have area exclusivity with another salon,” Brittany explained.
For those that don’t understand the politics of bridal salons, if a store carries a designer, that same designer cannot be carried at any other store within a certain mile radius in order to not oversaturate a specific geographical area. With several bridal stores already in Philadelphia, Brittany’s options were even more limited.
After narrowing it down, she finally chose to open the shop in June 2015 with four designers, all from small studios whose gowns are handmade on smaller scales and made to order for each bride. The four final chosen designers included Nashville based Olia Zavozina, who offers brides unlimited customizations with all of her gowns; Kelly Faetanini, who Brittany says is her most traditionally modern designer; Rebecca Schoneveld, a designer based in Brooklyn who offers mix and match pieces including lace toppers and kimono jackets; all the way down to Truvelle, who is Ashe B. & Co.’s biggest seller because of their unique designs and more affordable price point.
“After working in bridal for the past seven years, one thing I noticed is that prices haven’t really changed much—they average around $2000-$3,000,” Brittany said. “Most brides want a dress under $2,000, but then when you’re looking at the quality and customization options you realize that it won’t happen at that price point. A fair, reasonable and attainable price point for most brides, I felt, was $2,000-$3,000, so that’s my target. We have some under that price, starting around $1,600 and we have dresses going all the way up to $5,000.”
For Brittany, high quality fabrics and textures are her priority when bringing in dresses. Generally, she has more flowy and comfortable dresses made from softer and more luxurious fabrics, and brides take notice.
“Some brides are willing to go that extra mile, but most brides notice the difference in our dresses versus larger name brand stores and they're willing to pay extra for, say, a silk chiffon dress that we carry versus a poly cotton,” she said.
Though the four designers she carries may not seem like a lot, Brittany offers multiple dresses from each of their collections, and each dress she carries is thoughtfully selected. They serve only as a sample, but Brittany still must purchase every dress she brings in. Essentially, it’s dead inventory, Brittany explained, and can only be sold at sample price after it’s been seasoned and in the store for over a year.
“We started small because we kind of have to,” Brittany explained. “With start-up costs in a specialty boutique like this, it’s not inexpensive, it’s a lot to consider as far as your rent, insurance, not to mention the inventory. When selecting inventory, it's very thought out—I won’t bring in a dress that doesn’t fit our vibe or our customer,” Brittany said.
Because of the high cost of bringing in more gowns, Brittany must bring in dresses at a slow pace and may only add one new designer to the shop each year. In order to offer her brides even more dress choices, Brittany holds trunk shows where a designer is showcased in the shop for a long weekend. For the weekend, Ashe B. & Co. gets to borrow dresses in the designer's newest collection along with some of their best sellers, generally 20-30 additional dresses, giving brides an even larger dress selection to shop from. Generally, designers offer a 10 percent discount to brides purchasing dresses at their trunk shows, and sometimes the designers themselves are at the shop so you have the chance to meet the designer yourself.
“You usually get hookups or a more personalized experience,” Brittany said. “You might get a free customization or a free veil thrown in, so trunk shows are big for us and for our brides and we want them to know and experience that.”
Twice a year—every April and every October—bridal salon owners and gown designers descend on New York City for Bridal Market, including Brittany. During the weekend, designers showcase their newest collections and vendors sell accessories like head pieces, jewelry, belts and anything you would ever need to open a bridal store, Brittany said.
Now that she’s been open for more than a year, the most exciting part for Brittany is seeing her designers’ new collections, meeting new designers she has already been in touch with, and mingling with other store owners who she has met in the past. As a store owner, Brittany also gets some exclusive opportunities, like private fashion shows inside hotel suites by designers she carries.
For Brittany, these experiences are surreal, but owning a small business still comes with its struggles. “It’s still sinking in that I own this shop,” Brittany said. “Some days, I really feel like I own it—I feel like a badass—I’m going to photoshoots, have all these amazing connections, and my book is full, and then the next week I may not have many appointments and I start to second guess myself.”
Brittany is honest in saying that being a small business owner and working for herself is not always easy.
“It’s tough, it’s not easy, and I’m still going through a learning curve and still will be for a few years,” she said. “It’s going to take more than just a year or two to get in a more comfortable spot and to bring in more dresses, but I couldn’t be happier about where I am in my life now.”
Having the shop in Manayunk couldn't be a better location, Brittany said. Besides getting local brides walking down the street, she also gets a lot of out of town and out of state brides—from Harrisburg to Scranton and even from Ohio to Massachusetts.
“While they are here, they always ask us where to go and notice how cute the downtown area is,” Brittany said. “They always go for lunch before or after my appointment and they usually go shopping here too.”
For those readers who are engaged themselves and looking for a gown, a bridal appointment at Ashe B. & Co. is like no other. Although Brittany does take walk-ins if she has an opening, she always recommends making an appointment in advance. She welcomes you to bring anywhere from four to six guests, and provides local treats from Sweet Elizabeth’s and refreshments while you shop.
“I like to let my brides do their own thing,” Brittany said. “They can touch the dresses, look at the tags and then if they want me to help them pick a dress I talk to them about their style and pull the dresses I think would be best for them. A lot of times they just want to look through the racks on their own and pick which ones they like, so I try to give them their space to do their own thing before regrouping in the fitting room and helping them try the gowns on.”
Most brides try on multiple dresses but for some, it’s love at first sight.
“One of my favorite stories is about a bride who was going to brunch in Manayunk with her mom and best friend and she saw a dress in the window and just loved it,” Brittany said. “She walked in to get information and wasn’t planning on trying on, but we all encouraged her and the second she put it on she started crying. She loved it and had that total bridal moment you see on TV. Sometimes, you just know!”
If you make an appointment at Ashe B. & Co. you’ll be greeted not only by Brittany, but often her mother, Beth, and the shop dog, Coco. When Brittany’s dream of opening her own store became a reality, her mother left her job in Virginia in the medical field and moved up to Philadelphia to help Brittany get the stop started.
“My mom has helped me not only financially but also physically and mentally to prepare and open the business. She has been my rock, support system, and even punching bag—pretty much everything and she knows it,” Brittany said. “She’s moving back to Virginia and is going to become more of a silent partner, but we’re going to miss her.”
Brittany’s seven-year-old rescue dog, Coco, will remain at the shop and continue to keep watch over the gowns.
“She loves laying on the dresses, hiding her treats in the racks, and sitting in the window,” Brittany laughed. “She likes to bark at other dogs walking by and greeting all the customers. I think having her in the shop makes it feel like a more real and relaxed experience for our brides, too.”
As you might be able to tell by now, it’s all about home for Brittany—creating a welcoming environment for her brides and feeling at home in Manayunk herself.
Visit the Manayunk Development Corporation Contact page for full contact information.
Office: 4312 Main Street, Philadelphia, PA 19127