Growing up in Roxborough, James earned a degree in Fashion Design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
Choosing a wedding gown is a momentous occasion, one that women start fantasizing about as children, along with unicorns and castles. But Kimberly James, owner of the Chestnut Hill bridal boutique that bears her name, at 15 West Highland Avenue, had a different dream.
“I always wanted to be in the fashion industry,” said the 36 year-old entrepreneur who transitioned from college grad to bridal salon owner in just three mercurial years.
Growing up in Roxborough, James earned a degree in Fashion Design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. “The classes were a little intimidating because I had no prior experience in sewing and my classmates had been whipping up prom dresses in high school,” she said. “But I loved it. Sewing is a dying art.”
James first job was a stroke of good luck. “I worked at Prom Girl, an Ecommerce prom dress manufacturer in East Falls. At first, I worked in customer service and learned what shoppers wanted. Then, when the company expanded to a whole sale business model, I became involved in designing and went to China to source fabrics. The owner was supportive of my ideas which included adding pockets to prom dresses, detachable sleeves and detachable skirts that could be removed to reveal a short dress underneath to dance the night away.”
Later, when the company asked James to design bridal gowns, she was really in her element.
But it was an experience working weekends in a Rittenhouse Square bridal salon that solidified Jame’s plan. “I always knew I wanted my own bridal boutique, a chance to dress a bride for the biggest day of her life.”
In April 2019, almost one year to the day before the pandemic hit, James celebrated the grand opening of Kimberly James Bridal Boutique in the space formerly occupied by Sherlock’s Hair Salon. The elegantly appointed boutique features a floor to ceiling mirror, gold dress racks of wedding gowns, and chilled bottles of Champagne within reach to toast the bride.
“It’s just the right location and size for my 90-minute, one-on-one consultations with brides. It is an intimate experience. All my attention is on them, unlike chain bridal shops where twelve other brides are trying on wedding gowns at the same time.”
Choosing Chestnut Hill was no accident. “I was shocked that there wasn’t a bridal salon here before. The neighborhood has everything that a bride could want within walking distance” said James. “After choosing her gown, a bride can discuss floral arrangements at Robertson’s, buy rings at one of the fine jewelers, find a dress for Mom at an upscale shop, order a wedding cake and have a fabulous brunch,” she said. “Plus, Chestnut Hill is such a wonderful business community with seasonal events that make shopping here a pleasure.”
Although James had to close her shop for three months due to the pandemic, she continued to show gowns on Zoom and was able to offer brides three gowns to try on at home.
“I opened back up in June 2020,” she said. As it turned out, being closed did not hurt her business. “Millenials prefer finding their dream gown on social media before coming to a salon. I advertise on TikTok and Instagram, as well as in the Knot, Philadelphia Magazine and Philadelphia Modern Bride. I also have a video posted on my website that previews the shopping experience for brides coming from a distance. They drive to my Chestnut Hill location from as far as the Jersey Shore or Reading.”
James carries four design collections, Mori Lee, Eddy K, Kitty Chen and a curated collection under Jame’s own Mila Isabella label, named after her one year-old daughter. “These are unique styles you will not find elsewhere,” said James.
Although reruns of the reality TV show, Say Yes to the Dress, continue to feature bridal gowns up to $15,000, that is not reflective of today’s bridal market, says James. “Our gowns are priced from $1,000 to $3,500. Previously, brides spent much more, but there has been a shift. They now prefer to spend less on their gowns and more on the actual wedding experience,” she said.
What will this year’s June bride be wearing? “Sleek, clean dresses are on trend,” said James. “They no longer want a fitted dress with a plunging neckline. Instead, the preferred silhouette is A-line in satin or crepe without lace or sparkle. The number one selling style is the strapless sweetheart neckline.”
Business is on the upswing. “On weekends, consultations are back to back,” she said. However, James is still working towards her long held dream of bringing more of her own designs into the shop and having a location on the Avenue.
“I want to put my fashion design degree to work,” she said. “Philadelphia is a sophisticated, fashion forward city. Many wedding gowns are generic and designed for customers in other parts of the country. I want to keep selling top designers but also build my own collection with elements of surprise.”
Kimberly James Bridal Boutique is open by appointment only. Call 267-809-5784 or visit: KimberlyJamesBridal.com.