Tunbridge Wells bridal salon
PUBLISHED: 13:23 23 April 2016 | UPDATED: 13:23 23 April 2016
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
Crowned the UK's Best Bridal Retailer no less than four times now, Tunbridge Wells salon Isabella Grace has only been in business less than five years. So what's the secret?
The tall, cool blonde who greets me at the door of her elegant bridal salon in a Regency Tunbridge Wells townhouse combines business acumen with the artistic and entrepreneurial flair that runs throughout the maternal side of her family.
It’s a knockout combination that has seen former corporate finance lawyer Rebecca Doyle scoop the title of UK’s Best Bridal Retailer at the Wedding Industry Awards 2016 (four times, and counting) – and attract brides from as far afield as Dubai and New York, who wouldn’t buy their Very Important Dress anywhere else.
Rebecca (‘Bec’ to her friends) tells me how it all began over coffee in the largest and most sumptuous of the private fitting suites (think plush cream carpets, white-painted furniture, biscuit-coloured walls), where her immaculate black outfit is a perfect foil to the fabulous gowns in shades from Champagne to blush pink that billow from the rails.
Growing up in the Cotswolds, from the age of three she’d always dreamt of being a doctor, but a change of direction at A-level stage when she realised she was irrevocably squeamish saw her go on to study law at Exeter (“the careers advice at my tiny convent school was either doctor or lawyer”).
A successful career swiftly followed, but when Bec realised her five-year goal was to become a mum rather than a partner in the law firm, in 2005 she said goodbye to office-bound, 90-hour weeks and started her first bridal business, Chez Bec, now a highly successful wedding jewellery and hair accessories brand.
The change of direction was inspired by Rebecca’s own wedding in 2006. “I couldn’t find the sort of wedding jewellery I wanted, so I started designing my own – really simple silver with pearls, very classic. That just took off and within a year it became my high-end bridal collection.”
She adds: “I loved art at school and did it to A-level but I was pushed down the academic route when I was younger, so it was just lovely to find a creative outlet. My mum is very artistic, as was her mum, so I guess it’s in the blood.”
In 2008 twins Isabella Grace and Max completed the family and Rebecca managed to juggle motherhood with working from home, until she realised that she could get more sales if she turned one of the rooms into a studio where brides could actually come in and try on pieces before buying.
“That became very successful – so much so that every Saturday was booked up and I had to get my husband, kids and dog out every weekend. So decided I wanted to open a shop.”
By then living in a town house in Tunbridge Wells (“we didn’t have any family here, no connections, but they very first time we came down here we got this really good feeling about the place and I can’t imagine living anywhere else now”), Bec and husband Andrew decided they’d better move. Three storeys with twins and “carrying them up and down all those stairs in a laundry basket” just wasn’t practical.
Life being how it is, however, the Doyles got a no-chain, cash buyer for their house just as they found the current salon. But with their dream place in Bidborough having eluded them for the past 18 months, they had nowhere to move to.
Until fate, again, stepped in, “a different, equally lovely” house came up in Bidborough and Bec offered on the spot. They’ve been there happily ever since, but she admits: “We ended up moving house, with two three-year-old children, and opening the shop in just three weeks. It was the most stressful time of my life. Because I got through that I can deal with anything.”
However, it was just the start: the former Happy Hair salon on Mount Ephraim needed an awful lot of work between signing the lease on 19 April 2011 and opening on 5 September.
Bec project managed the total refit while continuing her online jewellery business and finding designers not only willing to supply this new, unknown bridal shop but also ones who weren’t already committed to other salons in the same area. “I literally Googled every wedding dress shop in Kent and south London and then narrowed down the designers to those I liked and could have within the restrictions imposed.
“Of course I was approaching them with no background in retail other than my online jewellery business. Some of them had heard of Chez Bec but I was a risk and they all wanted massive payments upfront.
“Stock is a huge cost of setting up a wedding shop, most dresses are £1,000 apiece and when you’re buying 29 dresses at once, that’s a lot of money and you also have to wait five months for them to come in. That’s why I couldn’t open any sooner; the shop was ready, but I had no stock.”
However, launch night was a huge success, those 29 dresses “sold and sold” and now the choice is up to around 130 from 10 different designers, including Justin Alexander, Naomi Neoh, Sophia Tolli and La Sposa plus 25 sample dresses. But it’s not just the wonderful frocks on the rails, the service at Isabella Grace has always led the way.
“The service we offered from the start, with three totally private fitting rooms, was very different to anywhere else in the UK,” says Bec. “Bridal shops started copying us very quickly, which I guess is a sign of flattery, but we were the first.”
Again, Rebecca’s personal experience came into play: buying her own wedding dress was definitely not the magical moment she’d dreamt about since the age of three. “It was just like choosing a nice frock on the high street; nothing special at all,” she says.
At Isabella Grace there are two types of appointment to choose from. The Classic, at one and a half hours, guarantees you your own fitting suite, plus complimentary tea and coffee while you sit down with your consultant to establish important things like when and where you are getting married, what sort of personality you are – for example, are you a tomboy who “hates dresses” or the girl who has tried on and rejected 20 already?
Alternatively, a fee of £45 is charged for the Luxury appointment, which is refundable against any dress purchase price, and for that you get Buck’s Fizz, nibbles, a guarantee of the biggest and best fitting suite – the Audrey Hepburn – two hours plus half an hour styling appointment to help you style your look.
Bec recommends just two or three guests per bride. “Otherwise it becomes trying to choose your dress by committee. The most important person to have with you is the person you most trust, whoever that is – mother, sister or friend.”
Dresses start at £1,000 and go up to £4,000, so to offer this level of service for that price of dress is pretty unusual. And of course here you can buy not only your dress and veil but also jewellery and hair accessories – and try it all on together.
“Our conversion rate is about the same with both our classic and luxury appointments, but most brides we see buy their dress from us,” says Bec. “When we opened no one knew us and the other two main bridal shops in Tunbridge Wells had been here for ages and had the monopoly, so we were very much the second-class choice for the first couple of years.
“Now 90 per cent of our business cones from recommendation, we don’t advertise at all. One of our very first brides lived in Dubai as an ex-pat and word just got round. People travel for miles, they fly in to Gatwick from Oman, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, lots from Ireland, they get in a taxi, choose their dress and go home. Girls tell us that when they got engaged they vowed to buy their dress at Isabella Grace, which is so lovely.”
Success quickly bred success and custom tripled within 10 months. “I am a businesswoman at heart and I couldn’t bear the fact that I was losing business because I simply couldn’t fit everyone in,” admits Bec.
Luckily, the landlord had bought the whole building with a view to one day doing up and letting out the top floor as a flat. When he alerted Bec to the fact that this was about to happen, she seized the opportunity to expand and now occupies all four floors.
Naturally, this brought its challenges. “We’d agreed a completion date and had started booking appointments immediately, but on the Friday when we took ownership upstairs wasn’t ready – there were bare wires hanging down – and we had 12 appointments on the Saturday.
“So I phoned every husband of every friend I knew and we worked through the night and opened the next day. Good job I like a challenge!” Bec laughs.
It’s an extraordinary rise in less than five years but it has taken real guts, determination and a lot of hard work. “I started as a one-woman band, the lady working at home with her children, doing a bit of jewellery.
“Then when I opened my shop a lot of people were quick to say I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and that I would fail. That was like a red rag to a bull and it just spurred me on.
“When I first opened I had to beg to be stocked, now the design houses are all coming to me wanting to be stocked.
“We’ve won every national wedding award there is across the board and have been judged by so many different independent industry panels, so we are at last getting some respect.”
But beyond the shelf of awards and the industry recognition, it’s making a bride-to-be as happy as possible that drives this remarkable young woman, who rarely takes a break.
“I know it’s a business and yes, we have to sell dresses, but when you see that look on a bride’s face and she and her mum are in tears because you’ve found the perfect dress for them, it gets me every time.
“After having your children, your wedding day is the most important day in any woman’s life and we have never had a disappointed bride. They tell us it was the most magical party of planning their wedding, coming to us, that they’ll miss it and that we have played such a massive part in their journey.”
● I go to all the shows – Barcelona, New York – you have to see the trends and I have already bought for next year. If you don’t have the right dresses, you are not going to sell
● Trends at the moment are that it’s all about the back of the dress – which is as important as the front – and the whole vintage theme is huge
● Colour has come back in, with blush pinks and peaches, vintage ivories and creams, Champagne, and lots of detail
● When Kate Middleton got married, lace and that whole demure, covered-up look had a massive impact on the industry. Although there’s less lace now there aren’t nearly as many strapless dresses around (it used to be 85 per cent strapless, now it’s 85 per cent covered up)
● Our range of sizes is from zero to 32; we see all shapes and sizes and ages from 17 to 75. Our brides are generally over 30, we have lots of second-time brides, those in their 40s and 50s who like the vintage, beaded styles
● I am the only buyer but we are a team of nine now, all women – we opened with only three of us; Nicky, now my business manager and Sally, now my sales manger, are still with me
● Monday is our busiest day after Saturday. We are looking at opening on Sunday because people work increasingly long hours and we always have long waiting lists for Saturday appointments as it is. Our evening appointments are also very popular
● I would like to expand in the future and am looking at other areas – far enough away not to hinder business here in Tunbridge Wells, of course.
Get in touch
40 Mount Ephraim, Tunbridge Wells TN4 8AU
Open: Mon-Fri 10am–5pm, Sat 9am-5pm, some evenings