GORGEOUS WEDDING FASHIONS

BY ELIZABETH PANDOLFI

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Mount Pleasant has changed a lot in the past 40 years. What used to be the outer reaches of town is now in the middle.

One thing hasn’t changed though. Jean’s Bridal is still a local wedding icon, and has occupied the same two-story white building for decades. Brides from all over the Charleston area, as well as out of town, flock to the boutique to find their dream dress—with help, of course, from Jean Wellmon and her attentive staff.

Wellmon started Jean’s Bridal in 1974, although it wasn’t a bridal boutique at the time. Wellmon was (and still is) a skilled seamstress and began her retail career with a fabric store that also offered alterations. After a while, she decided to add ready-to-wear. “Then I got bored with the ready-to-wear, so I added bridal,” she says. “And that’s what stuck.” The store became Jean’s Bridal in the late 1970s.

In 1984, the business outgrew its original location, and Wellmon moved to her current location in Lafayette Village. It was a good decision, she says. “When we moved in, this was the middle of Mount Pleasant. It felt more like a small town. The times and people have changed. But this has always been a wonderful location.”

Since moving, the boutique has expanded to offer bridesmaids’ dresses and tuxedo rentals as well as gowns for mothers of the bride and groom. The store also carries bridal shoes, purses, wraps, handkerchiefs and jewelry—and, of course, garters for those who want to do the traditional garter toss. Promwear is another specialty, and a simple bridesmaid’s dress is an obvious crossover. “We all love working with the kids who come in for their prom dresses,” Wellmon says. “That’s a really special time for them.”

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Brides know that planning a wedding doesn’t end when the dress is picked out. A true “one-stop shop” Jean’s stocks glassware, table settings, accessories for flower girls and ring bearers, candles, buntings and more.

Part of the reason the business has been so successful is that the staff is focused on customer service. “We try to be very customer-oriented. We know that we can’t please everyone, but we certainly try,” Wellmon says.

After so many years of helping brides find the perfect dress, you might think that Wellmon would be enjoying a well earned retirement. But that’s not the case at all. “I’m here six days a week,” Wellmon says. “I enjoy doing this—seeing all the brides and their families. To me, weddings and babies are the most important things in life.”

Her customers seem to appreciate her dedication. Over the past few years, Wellmon has started to see former customers bring in their daughters to shop for wedding dresses. It’s the beginning of a multi-generational clientele that’s likely to continue growing.

When asked how the bridal business has changed since she began in the ’70s, Wellmon says: “Everyone’s experience is different. Now there isn’t any one proper etiquette. It’s the bride’s day, and she can do whatever she wants.”

She remembers clearly the heavy silks and satins that she sold to brides in the ’70s and ’80s. “The styles have changed so much over the years. The dresses then all had the long sleeves, higher necks and maybe just a little bit of lace,” she says. “Today, girls like less fabric or fabric that’s less heavy. And they’ve gone from strapless to gradually adding sleeves and covered backs. There are more outside weddings than there used to be, and the lighter fabrics are really suited to that.” Wellmon’s own tastes favor simplicity. “I like lace and clean simple lines,” she says.

The boutique carries dresses by many designers, including Mikaella, Paloma Blanca, Morilee, Allure, and Watters & Watters. Wellmon embraces change wholeheartedly, so she’s not afraid to switch out designers when she finds one that she thinks her brides will like.

In general, however, she sticks with established designers to prevent any wedding dress catastrophes. “So many smaller designers are here for a season, then suddenly they’re gone,” she says. “That’s why it’s safer to stay with established designers. I’d hate for a bride to find her perfect dress here—then run into problems getting it for the wedding.”

Jean’s Bridal is one of those rare retail phenomena—an independent, locally owned store with decades-long staying power. The credit for that goes to Wellmon and the people who’ve helped her succeed over the years. “My family has been a great support,” she says. “And my oldest daughter, Michelle, works here with me, which is wonderful.”

Her staff, too, remains committed to giving brides the best possible experience, working with them to find dresses that will make them feel as beautiful as possible on their special day.

Judging from Wellmon’s energy and the store’s continued popularity, Jean’s Bridal will be helping brides for many years to come.

Elizabeth Pandolfi is a writer living in Charleston.