The lack of diversity in the wedding industry has been a glaring problem for too long. With the recent media attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, it has encouraged the world to look more closely at representation, privilege and systemic racism in both a variety of industries and everyday life.
We asked mother and daughter duo Paulette and Yolanda, who run MyGlamour Boutique Bridal, to share with us their experience of being black business owners in an industry that is nowhere near as representative as it should be…
We are a mother and daughter team – my mum is Paulette and I am Yolanda. We started MyGlamour Boutique Bridal when my mum was getting married and she was hunting what felt like the whole of the United Kingdom for a plus size wedding dress that was not the typical look and I was being dragged along!
After this experience, we started to think that if we were struggling to locate a chic, modern, plus size dress then there must be many others out there with the same issue. After years of research and planning we opened our boutique in Chingford, and we wanted to make sure we had sample dresses that everyone can try. We have samples up to a size 32 and we do not charge a plus size premium, unlike some boutiques.
When my mum and I started the business we never knew how people would react to seeing two black women as their bridal consultants. In the UK bridal TV shows, you hardly see a black bridal consultant, let alone a black owner.
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Despite this we continued with our dream of running our own bridal boutique. We weren’t going to let that stop us. At first when they met me some people were shocked at my appearance but thought they hid it well. Some were shocked at my race, others were shocked by my age.
When I saw brides and their families who were shocked by who I was, I would aim that by the end of the appointment I would not only have them saying yes to the dress, I would also have them feeling more comfortable with me.
80% of the time the appointment ended with the bride saying yes, which was great. Other times I knew no matter what I showed them or how I made them feel they were not going to say yes. It is that uneasy feeling you have trying to decide if they were uncomfortable with me as a person or if it was something else.
In the early days, brides would have to call and contact me to book an appointment. Nowadays though, with technology, brides can book an appointment without having to speak to anyone. So their shock was heightened because they have never spoken to me, just maybe seen our website and address and thought “Yeah that’s close, I like their pictures, let’s book an appointment.”
As they are approaching our shop door they must expect to see an older-than-me white woman because, let’s face it, when you watch TV who owns bridal boutiques? Glamorous looking, slightly older-than-me white women. They don’t expect a young looking 5ft nothing black woman to be introducing themselves as their bridal consultant.
I remember my mother saying to me that I may come across someone who will feel uncomfortable or not willing to trade with us.
So, as they are walking up to our completely glass, un-soundproofed door and see me sitting at my desk, they turn to their entourage and say: “oh, it’s a black girl!” or variations of that phrase, it makes me smile each time but I’m also a little wary.
I cannot explain how many times I have heard that as they are walking to our door. I don’t know if they think the door is soundproof, but I hear them every single time. The first time I was a bit shocked and nervous as to how they would react to me. I did not know if they wanted to proceed, hell I didn’t know if I wanted to proceed! I continued with the appointment and didn’t say anything about hearing them. Sometimes I look back and wish that I asked: “Why did you announce that I am black?” But I didn’t.
Now when I hear them comment on my race as they approach the door, it’s becoming more and more easy to ignore. As I was learning to accept the comments heard outside my door, people’s comments were starting to seep inside the boutique.
I will never forget when a bride actually asked to speak to my manager because she felt that I didn’t get what goes well with her skin tone and style of wedding.
I then asked her about what style of wedding she was having and she explained she was having an ‘English wedding’. I was a bit confused, and asked: “Why wouldn’t I understand an English wedding?” The bride went red in the face and explained that because I was ‘not English’, how could I understand an ‘English wedding’?
“Please can I just speak to your manager and get another consultant who understands?” This was all before she had even tried a dress on or before I’d even shown her anything. After I explained not only am I the manager and boutique owner and that I was born about two miles from my shop she went even more red faced (if that was possible) and proceeded to take a look at my dresses. She then huffed, gathered her family and said: “There is nothing here for me.”
As time has gone on I have learned to make it my mission when brides come in and have that expression that says ‘I wasn’t expecting this’ to show them not only am I knowledgeable and can help them find a wedding dress that makes them happy but they will also have a great time!
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The best experience is when brides walk up to our non-soundproof door and say the all too familiar phrase: “Oh, she’s a black girl”, then when they are leaving and I can hear them through that very same door saying to their friends and family: “Oh, wasn’t she great? That was so much fun!”
Now, when we started MyGlamour Boutique Bridal we never knew just how much the bridal industry was lacking diversity. Fast forward to our first ever wedding show: we were beyond excited to get to meet hundreds of brides over a weekend.
We arrived the day before to set up and realised we were the only black bridal shop that was exhibiting. As we finished setting up, another bridal shop across from us actually asked us: “Is this your business or are you just setting it up for the owners?”
You could see the surprise on her face when we said it was our boutique. One other boutique was a bit snobbish towards us but we just ignored her. I thought it was because I was young but my mum later told me she thought differently.
We continued to experience looks of disbelief from other boutiques and businesses within the industry that this was our business. But most comments then turned into people saying well done and how good it was to have us in the industry.
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At the time we couldn’t see what was so shocking but looking back at the wedding industry then, when flipping through bridal magazines or designers’ stock images all you saw was tall, slim, blonde haired women or mixed race models.
Throughout the weekend at the wedding show we saw models walking the catwalk and around the show. My mum and I looked at each other during a quiet time and said: “Where are all the black models?” After that it became glaringly obvious that we stood out like a bourbon biscuit amongst a sea of custard creams.
Despite all this, our first ever wedding show was a success and we loved it. So much so we decided to exhibit at three more shows, including The National Wedding Show!
We found out brides loved our energy, our expertise and the way we made them look and feel. We had an amazing time and met lots of fabulous brides and their families. During our last show, which was The National Wedding Show, we were given an amazing opportunity to supply dresses from one of our designers – Ladybird – on the catwalk!
We then opted for a bigger stand and we were going to go all out. We discussed the possibility of getting a model on our stand, and I wanted to hire your typical bridal-style model so we made enquiries. We ultimately decided against it though as my mum asked: “Why do we need to conform? We should portray what we are proud to be.” This wasn’t going to be the only conversation we had about this…
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Earlier this year, we had the amazing opportunity to be on the BBC’s ‘Don’t Tell The Bride’. You can imagine how excited we were when we got that call – except perhaps for me, who was the one who had to be on TV!
We got the shop ready and all the dresses were prepared. Then we had a similar conversation around our dining table with a glass of wine. We contacted a couple of ‘bridal-looking’ models and had a tentative arrangement with one, but it ended up getting cancelled at the last minute.
We spoke to some of our friends about our dilemma – not wanting to appear ‘too black’ by hiring a black model from an agency we knew. Our friends told us off for making this decision and we started to think – what kind of example would this set to my daughter?
With a few days to spare we found a model – she didn’t fit the cookie-cutter ‘bridal look’, but she modelled for us and she did a great job and looked amazing. After that experience, we promised ourselves that we are going to help change the lack of diversity in the bridal industry – rather than contribute to it.