Trying on lacy A-lines and strapless ball gowns is an emotional experience at Haute & Co., Chicago’s first plus-size bridal shop.
Haute & Co. (750 N Franklin St) bridal boutique never keeps more than 35 dresses on its racks at once, and that makes shopper Brianne Downing nervous.
Big-box stores may keep hundreds of dresses in stock, but “you don’t need 100 styles to know what you want,” according to owner Shannelle Armstrong Fowler. More often than not, Shannelle can find someone’s dream dress with just three picks, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider that many of her clients wouldn’t even fit into the sample sizes at a typical bridal boutique.
Haute & Co. is Chicago’s first plus-size bridal shop, catering especially to women sizes 12 to 28—which encompasses more people than you might think. Shannelle, for instance, fits into bridal gowns four sizes larger than her everyday clothes. “Bridal sizing hasn’t evolved like ready-to-wear, and that makes women uncomfortable.” At Haute & Co., Shannelle coaches brides to “stay away from the number and really focus on the fit.”
During one of her signature private appointments, Shannelle walked Brianne through a process worthy of her own Say Yes to the Dress–style reality show. One of the first things she asks in a pre-interview is which dress silhouettes the client prefers—or if they’re familiar with them at all. She then uses this information and her perceptions of the client’s body type to match them to an ideal dress shape.
Brianne, for instance, wished she could fit into something form-fitting. “You can!” Shannelle exclaimed, before selecting three distinct styles that flattered Brianne’s curvy physique. As Shannelle pulled the dresses, she detailed this season’s trends and illuminated the designer-aided fitting process that makes her shop so special.
Dress #1: Trumpet Silhouette
“You didn’t even know you were like that, did you?” Shanelle asked Brianne after she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Brianne was shocked and impressed at how well the trumpet silhouette (also known as “fit and flare”) flattered her hourglass figure. This dress style has come into vogue this season, Shannelle noted.
As Brianne admired the sweetheart neckline, Shannelle detailed the custom process that the dress would go through if purchased. “Everything is cut to measurement,” she said. “We have relationships with designers. I work with designers who understand that my brides are going to be more curvy. ” Shannelle’s direct connections allow her to order each dress to exact specifications. If a woman is a size 14 in the bust with size 18 hips, for example, the dress can be made to hug each curve—a pleasing alternative to having to modify a larger dress.
All of the modifications (excluding trains and neckline updates) are included in the price of the dress, and the entire process generally takes five or six months. When the dress comes back from the designer, it should require minimal alterations—unless the bride has lost weight.
“Brides for the last month before their wedding tend to lose weight by stress or by accident,” Shannelle explained. “They’re running around and taking many more steps in their day.” For women nervous about this, Shannelle recommends a dress with a corset back.
Dress #2: A-Line Silhouette
Designer: Lea-Ann Belter
There was a palpable swelling of emotion as Brianne saw herself in this dress. “I like this one,” she whispered.
“A-lines do well for most women,” said Shanelle of the “traditional” style known to “really accentuate the bustline.”
The slight mocha coloring of the dress, combined with the French-lace overlay and scalloped bottom, encompass two of the biggest current trends in bridal fashion: lace and shades other than white or ivory. The colors are “a big change,” said Shanelle, noting she now carries dresses in blush and butter hues as well.
Dress #3: Classic Ball Gown
Designer: Lea-Ann Belter
“I was raised in the South, and we go big with the ball gowns!” laughed Shannelle, an Atlanta native. This strapless dupioni-silk gown—which features a fitted bodice and a satin band to accentuate the waistline—also cuts an A-line silhouette, but a much more dramatic one.
“I feel like Cinderella,” said Brianne, who was surprised she didn’t need to suck her belly in to make the dress look gorgeous. The relatively plain dress also made the perfect canvas for experimenting with belts (pictured), as well as faux sleeves. Removable sleeves are a budget-friendly option for brides who want to change up their dress between the ceremony and the reception, Shannelle noted.
The price tags on the gowns were already making Brianne a little dizzy, but Shannelle often cautions her clients to “look beyond price.” “You’re not buying a pair of jeans. You’re buying a set of moments.” This includes the ones you’ll share with your grandchildren through photographs, she says. “But the most important moment is when your husband sees you coming down the aisle, and he looks at you, and he knows in this moment, that’s me, she belongs with me.”
Photo: Tim Burkhart, Groupon