From Wall Street to The Stylish Bride: An Inspired New Path
I grew up as an only child in the Princeton area of New Jersey. My dad worked in finance, and my mom for the most part stayed home and then went back to work after I was in 5th grade. At that point in my life, my idea of a good job was going to work on Wall Street. That path was almost pre-determined for me. I went to Hobart & William Smith College and then transferred to George Washington University, in Washington, DC, majoring in politics.
My dad actually wrote my first resume for me, and sent it out. Ultimately, it came down to deciding between two jobs: Salomon Smith Barney (a division of Citibank, at the time), and a job in the training program at Bergdorf Goodman. Today, I would have chosen differently, but back then, I went with Smith Barney. I think a large part of it was that my dad thought a good job and being successful meant working in finance. What did I know? I was 21 years old! Looking back, it was great training. It’s important for entrepreneurs to have business experience to know how the real world operates.
I started out in the marketing department for financial products and for most of the day, sat at a desk, on the phone, similar to a call center, where financial advisors would call in and ask how to use the product to sell to their clients. I didn’t like being tied to a desk all day, but I liked the environment and being there was fun.
During that time, I had met the head of marketing and corporate communications, which was on the same floor. She was a formidable woman who held a lot of power at the bank, and she convinced me to come work for her. It should have been a great job for all intents and purposes because I loved the charitable giving the bank was involved in and the financial education for kids in public schools we supported. But it soon grew into a difficult situation and so I looked for a way out of it as soon as I could.
One day, I got a call from the woman who ran Citibank’s Investment Banking recruiting from business schools, and she asked if I’d be interested in working for her. I interviewed and got the job. I covered Wharton, Harvard, Tuck, Darden, and other top business schools and handled the recruiting effort for the entire Investment Bank. This job involved interviewing, recruiting and hosting some fun events. And, I think of all my jobs, I learned the most here that is relevant to my current work, because dealing with very demanding investment bankers is similar to what I do today! They had high expectations, as do my bridal clients today, so it was a great foundation. I realized that I wasn’t really happy in this job, and began to think banking and corporate life were not for me.
It was at this time, when I was 22, that I first met my husband, Michael, at a cocktail party at work. We got engaged a few years later. In 2000, as I started looking for my wedding dress, I had a terrible time finding something I liked, which surprised me. I thought it would be like a movie: you shop, find a dress and you love it! Thrilling! That wasn’t at all my experience. It just became a painful, agonizing sort of thing that was so disappointing because I thought it was going to be great, and it wasn’t.
I finally did find my dress. But I had a hard time finding bridesmaid dresses: I thought they were hideous. I couldn’t find a nice pair of shoes– Jimmy Choo didn’t exist then. I didn’t want a Judith Lieber bag. I realized that putting all of this together was really hard. I went through the whole wedding planning process, and I realized maybe the wedding market was ripe for re-invention.
I had a lot more flexibility once I was married from an income perspective, so I decided to go to a one-year accelerated program at the Fashion Institute of Technology to study accessories design. My intention was to open a bridal handbag and shoe company. What I quickly learned was that I am not a designer. It’s difficult to design collections and I didn’t like having to constantly create new ideas and designs. I thought the best way to figure it all out was to work at a bridal salon.
I got a position at Amsale, a well-regarded, high-quality brand at the time, and I worked with brides in their retail store. I thought I could learn about the different fabrics, the dress styles, everything that was needed and what appealed to brides at the time. I worked there for about a year. What I learned at the store was that there were a lot of women having a difficult time. I learned that brides really needed help and that I was not alone in my difficulty finding a dress. A bridal dress is one of the most emotional purchases you’ll ever make, and you have people around you that have all sorts of opinions that, as unfortunate as it is to say, may or may not have your best interest at heart. I saw mothers go in and totally sabotage their daughters, or sisters go in and tell them why their dress was better. I saw some complicated dynamics and realized that there was no one out there advocating for these brides.
When I couldn’t find my dress, I looked for someone who could help streamline the process for me; take a look at my body, my style, and just point me in the right direction. But there wasn’t anyone. Through this experience of working in the store, I thought, why don’t I help these young women? I’ll study the market, get to know each designer, figure out what the best stores are, who are the best consultants, and make the process more efficient and fun for them. I realized I could be a resource for busy brides. I pictured the busy investment bankers, the doctors and lawyers who just don’t have time to shop and need a solution.
I started The Stylish Bride in 2004, and was completely naïve. I thought it would be an instant success. The whole “3-5 years until you’re profitable” thing wasn’t going to happen to me! Perhaps ignorance is bliss, and it definitely was in this case. But I started to make a name for myself, and got a good bit of press in the beginning, started meeting wedding planners, and the business started to take off.
Next, I began to help with bridesmaids dresses, mothers of the bride, and then, the grooms. I also started the wedding day service, The Stylish Dresser, after getting many requests to be on site with them that day. I have trained seamstresses who steam and press the clothes, dress the bride, and take care of all sorts of fashion emergencies. They make sure her train doesn’t get dirty when she’s taking pictures, and just generally attend to the bride. I call them “ladies in waiting” because they wear adorable uniforms and make sure everything is perfect. After you put all of this time and money into finding the perfect dress and planning the perfect wedding, if your zipper breaks or someone spills red wine on you, it’s a disaster! We are kind of like an insurance policy. We are not wedding planners–these are services that most wedding planners do not offer. That is how we distinguish ourselves in the wedding market—we fill a different niche. Often the wedding planners hire us, because they know how much easier we make their jobs. Knowing that I can’t accommodate all of the brides myself, I have trained six stylists here in New York, and I’m expanding to Boston and Chicago.
The business is now fifteen years old, and it has changed in ways I never thought it would. The people who hire me are extraordinary. I meet, talk, and get to know these fantastic women. Sometimes, I’m fitting the mother and daughter at the same time, and we’ll have lunch and go shopping. It’s such an interesting sociological project for me, because I can ask them questions about mothering: whether or not they worked, how they balanced life, how their children felt about their work. It’s fascinating, and I learn so much from them.
I find it so satisfying when I see the whole wedding come together, with everyone looking beautiful and happy. I was just thinking recently about what my life would have been like if I had stayed in finance. I know I wouldn’t have been happy. The hardest part of having a wedding business is the instability– you don’t know when the phone is going to ring. That is probably true of many small businesses—but I love it!
Career Transformation: Ashley Richardson’s Transition from Corporate Exec to Successful Entrepreneur
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