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Yolanda’s: 35 Years in the Making

NEW YORK — What started more than 35 years ago as a woman selling wigs from the trunk of her car to cancer patients has developed into a $5 million ready-to-wear business.<br><br>Wigs and free coffee were big draws when Yolanda Cellucci opened...

NEW YORK — What started more than 35 years ago as a woman selling wigs from the trunk of her car to cancer patients has developed into a $5 million ready-to-wear business.

Wigs and free coffee were big draws when Yolanda Cellucci opened Yolanda’s in 1968. But there was also a small rack with 13 dresses from the likes of Victoria Royale, Mollie Parnis, Pauline Trigère and Oscar de la Renta. Over the years, Cellucci fine-tuned the mix with hard-to-find labels and new categories.

Outposts for Mr. Tux, KaBloom florists and Montilio’s bakery were the most recent additions to her 27,000-square-foot store in Waltham, Mass., and a jeweler is on deck. But the one-stop-shopping concept is not new to shoppers who have a spa, juice bar, hair salon, fitness club, swimming pool, a children’s department, day care and limousine rentals at their disposal.

She tends to lean on lines that customize, such as Atelie Aimee, a bridal collection that offers various colors. Bridal, the bulk of sales in the early days, comprises 60 percent of volume today, with special-occasion and prom and cocktail dresses each accounting for 20 percent of the store’s $5 million annual business.

To differentiate the store from department stores, Cellucci favors labels such as Lane Davis, San Carlin, Monique Lhuillier, Helen Worley, Catherine Reger, Mark Heister, Stephen Yearick, Waters & Waters, Vera Wang and Alberto Makalia.

“No one wants to look like anyone else. What’s been our success is customers get personal attention and they get what they want,” said Cellucci, who is known for her own all-white wardrobe and long eyelashes. “I look for things that are different with a little bit of an edge. Even if a company says they just sold Saks 40 of these dresses, I’m not interested.”

Cellucci carried Bob Mackie in his first season and dressed Ava Gabor, Natalie Cole, Diahann Carroll and Joan Kennedy, but has moved forward with the times. Prom dresses are now as important a part of her business as mother-of-the-bride dresses, and high school and college-age interns’ ideas are welcomed at weekly staff meetings as much as longtime employees.

“Young people keep you fresh. You can get stuck and do the same thing again and again,” she said. “They let us know what they’re looking for and what the kids are buying.”

They also do a good job of selling to their contemporaries. Cellucci makes a point of matching shoppers with salespeople. Thanks to the teenage quotient, Yolanda’s is offering stretch white denim, bare looks and less-expensive pieces for younger shoppers. But brides remain the most finicky of shoppers.

“No matter what people find, they want to change it and we will make it the way they want,” Cellucci said.

To try to simplify shopping, she introduced Montilio’s, KaBloom and Mr. Tux a few months ago. Each is well established in the area and follows Cellucci’s service-oriented pitch. Montilio’s, a 56-year-old family business, lists the Rolling Stones among its customers and recently made a $9,000 wedding cake for a Yolanda’s customer.

Cellucci, who’s cousin, Paul Cellucci, is a former Massachusetts governor, is well connected in the state’s political scene. Serving on the committee for this year’s inaugural ball, an event for 7,000, helped her meet some new customers. She aims to get her shoppers jazzed up by holding special events periodically.

She is now auctioning off a handful of gowns by Mary McFadden, Bob Mackie and other designers that she collected over the years. Earlier this month, there was a Paint the Town Red pitch, encouraging shoppers to buy red apparel and to get red manicures. To bolster eveningwear sales in December, Cellucci had her 55 employees wear formal attire for the entire month and sales climbed by 15 percent compared with 2001.

“We dress some of the best people in town,” Cellucci said. “Most of our business is done through recommendations.”

To try to keep those customers, she e-mails them news of special promotions and trunk shows. About 350 people visit the store daily. To try to keep them in the store, they can join the health club for $675 annually and receive 20 percent off any purchases or spa services on an ongoing basis. That service helps draw some women to the store for three or four hours at a shot, Cellucci said.