BARNES BANKS ON BRIDAL

Byline: G.L.

ATLANTA-- Leigh Barnes is living proof that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the bridal industry.
With no background or training, Barnes has built a wholesale wedding veil business from scratch, in addition to running a million-dollar retail bridal and formal operation. And she's only 24 years old.
"It's called stupidity," said the Memphis native of her career, which began at the age of 16 and has included everything from wedding planning to custom-designed gowns and flower arranging. "I never thought I couldn't do something. I always tried."
After dabbling in every area of bridal, she founded Leigh Originals in 1991, with seven veil samples. "I learned that veils were the most profitable, and certainly less draining than directing an entire wedding," she said. "Supplies are a small investment of between $20 and $30, and veils can retail between $120 and $150."
During her first year, she picked up accounts in eight states. In July 1993, with 90 accounts nationwide, she bought a 3,000-square-foot Memphis bridal shop and doubled its space to include a factory and to accommodate 12 seamstresses.
The shop, Memphis Bridal Gallery, did $1.2 million in retail sales in its first year under her ownership, in lines excluding Leigh Originals. The store carries approximately 30 moderate-to-upper-price bridal lines, including Gallina, Diamond and Bianchi, as well as bridesmaid dresses and a full line of accessories.
"The retail operation serves as an outlet for the veils and allows a bigger markup," said Barnes. The Leigh Originals wholesale line sold $100,000 last year, while retail sales of the line in the shop totaled $150,000.
Wholesale prices range from $52 up to $175 for an Austrian crystal headpiece. More than 40 styles are offered constantly, and 10 to 20 new veils are added each season. A best-selling look is a Victorian wreath with Austrian crystals and Alencon lace, priced at $62, which sells around 35 units per month, including retail and wholesale sales.
Custom looks are key to the line. "The most important thing is that the lace in the veil match the dress," said Barnes. "We use handbeaded Swarovsky crystals, handsewn combs and 3-ml. pearls. Most veils today are made overseas and can have a plastic look with fake crystals."
Service, said Barnes, is more important in bridal than any other area. "It's a tough business, and you have to stay on top of it day and night," she said. "One unhappy bride can ruin your reputation."

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