- Janet Pelz
Like the French bakery whose scent lures me with the promise of butter on the tongue, I’m drawn to Cicada Bridal to tease my fingers across the textures of raw silk and lace. Not to mention dreaming in the stunning designs and outrageously rich colors.
Starting the day at Cicada, 1121 1st Avenue Seattle 98121
I’ve been pulled in like this on several occasions since that magical day 15 years ago when I exited the dressing room in a lavender shantung silk column dress to see my friend Judy dialing her cell phone. “I’m calling Mario’s to tell them not to hold that other dress,” she said nodding at me, “because this is what you’re wearing for your wedding.”
It was an odd place to find a dress shop, on an upper floor of the old Rainier Office Tower, and one that I happened upon only because of an overwhelming need to pee and a memory of the public restroom hidden nearby. It seemed that much more fatalistic to have found this store, clock ticking the days away before my wedding -- way too soon for a future bride with any sense of decency.
I was rescued then by the artistry of Jennifer Gay and Elizabeth Klob, the pair that owns and manages Cicada Bridal as well as designing and sewing the unique pieces of art hanging on the racks where we now sit, in their current shop on First Avenue in downtown Seattle.
As they will do throughout our interview, the two throw back their heads in laughter thinking back to that old location. “What were we thinking? Why would ANYbody open a dress shop there? It was huuuuuuge; it was like an indoor golf course. All the space you could ever wish for, but nobody could find us.”
Playing off each other they recreate some of the more outrageous stories from that phase of their career, including the time an employee took after a thief with a couple of their prized gowns in a backpack. Elizabeth (left) and Jen in the shop
Jen and Elizabeth were in the back of the store, where they spent much of their days at their sewing machines. “You would think half of the dresses would have been stolen,” says Jen laughing.
But as odd a location as that one was, it was at least bigger than their prior 1,200 square-foot shop they shared with the go-to designer for the city’s drag queen clientele. “There was a fire in that building,” says Jennifer thinking back. “A fire, but no flood -- there,” Elizabeth picks up. “We’ve been through fires and at least three floods in our current building. I’ve had our insurance on speed dial. It just happens when you’re a retail shop in an old building and you’re underneath condos with plumbing problems.”
Oh well, just one more obstacle -- rather, learning opportunity as they prefer to call them -- to push through. If they knew when they first met in the basement of Retro Viva, stitching up creations from whatever bolt of fabric awaited them in the morning, that they would journey together through so many misadventures to get where they are today.... OK, after talking with them for a couple hours I have to guess they would probably do it all over again.
“So many young women want to interview us to find out how we did it. Our friend Maggie called. She used to work for us and she’s opening a bridal store in Denver. ‘Oh my God!’, she said, ‘I think about you every single day! How did you do it?’ Here’s how -- we didn’t think about it!”, says Elizabeth, laughing.
“We are hard as nails,” declares Jennifer, seriously. “Yes, we are hard as nails, Elizabeth agrees. “We didn’t have time to think. All these people call us and ask how we did it -- It was really 90 percent balls and ignorance. Really!”
Jennifer can’t wait to agree. “Oh my God, not a day goes by that we don’t fuck something up and learn a valuable lesson.” This line gets them laughing in stereo. “We are crazy!” says Elizabeth, stating the obvious.
They met when Jen stopped by Retro Viva to sell some hats she had made. “The big drag queen who worked there was like, you gotta meet Elizabeth down in the basement! And he takes me down to this dank, crap-ass basement, not even a daylight basement, but a basement basement with concrete floors. There’s Elizabeth, working away all by herself down there, weren’t you?” She turns to Elizabeth who throws in a response from the reception desk where she’s attending to details, making it clear that the two are used to jumping seamlessly in and out of each other’s conversation.
Jen joined Elizabeth in the basement until the store owner realized she couldn’t make dresses for less than they cost coming from China, “so she very nicely said, “I don’t think we can do this anymore,” and we said, “well, how about we do it ourselves?
“One of the things that was helpful is that we weren’t friends first. We walked into the relationship like work associates. It was a totally clean slate, with no weird pre-history. I mean, we learned we could work in a basement eight hours a day without killing each other!” laughs Jen.
With a boost from the store owner, who rented them all the equipment at a reasonable rate, they started a wholesale line selling mostly through trade shows. Their showroom was in Georgia “because that’s where our rep was based,” explains Elizabeth. “We were just flying by the design seat of our pants.”
“It was a lot of work for just two people,” adds Jen, thinking back. “You’d get an order for a dozen shirts and you’d have to sit down and make a dozen shirts.”
After listening to them describe fabric shopping trips to the garment district in New York City and a business where items were made in Seattle and sold in Tennessee I asked for specifics, like how much time and money they were putting into those shirts, and how much they had to charge in order to pay themselves?
“Those are GREAT questions that we probably should have been asking ourselves!” answers Jen, laughing once again. “That’s when we realized, we didn’t have any trouble selling our garments,” adds Elizabeth. “We were selling them way too cheap!”
“But then we decided we didn’t really like doing wholesale -- it was kind of soul sucking,” Jen reflects. They were running into problems collecting. Some stores went out of business, others bounced checks. “That was really new to us, having to chase down money. And at the same time we were getting a lot of requests to do wedding dresses. The business kind of suggested itself to us. I think we had done about five or six wedding dresses before we decided to put a really small collection together.”
Jen and Elizabeth will both say that the essence of their job is to make each customer feel exceptionally beautiful. “The thing with wedding dresses, we get to buy really top quality fabrics,” says Jen, and it’s evident that behind that statement lies years of polyester and velour remnants. “Really high quality fabrics and we get to put a lot of time into a very special item.”
(right: Elizabeth describes a gown she particularly likes these days, noting the textures, layering of fabrics and asymmetric hem)
A student of acting, Elizabeth appreciates the dramatic quality of the wedding, with the gown the essential costume. “There are so few rituals left in our lives – I’ve always been drawn to the ritual of a wedding. A woman gets to transform herself as if she’s on stage.”
The two of them take seriously their role in making that transformation exactly what their clients want. Says Elizabeth, “If I were asked, What’s the biggest things that’s saved us? Customer service and really listening to our clients. In this business people are so emotional, there is so much at stake. We hear time and time again about bridal shops that are indifferent to their clients. We really, really take our relationships seriously.” And in return? “We get hugs, tears, thank you letters. For all the trials and tribulations of owning your own business, this really means a lot.”
Jen handles most of the customer service on the floor while Elizabeth does most of the custom work. They credit their solid work relationship to having discreet areas of responsibility “without getting in each other’s hair,” Elizabeth observes. “We used to fight a lot before we did that,” pipes Jen. “We’re both east coast girls, so we speak our minds; we don’t hold back. When something is wrong we get it out!”
There are many gorgeous choices on the floor but if someone is coming in for a specific style, Elizabeth will do a custom design. “I work a lot with full-figured women who can’t get something off the rack but who really want something to flatter them. When we first started out I was eager to please no matter what. And now I’ve gotten to a point where I will not do something that’s not going to look good on the person’s body. I ask them to trust me. Or they say, thank you very much I’ll go elsewhere. But that doesn’t happen too often.”
(left: Jen shows one of her favorite party dresses, hand-beaded in India. One thing Jen loves about owning her own store – the ability to pursue new creative directions. “Some work, some don’t” she admits).
Most of their bridal gowns range in price from $1000 - $1700 with a custom design starting at about $2000. Since the economic downturn they’ve added a less expensive line, more appropriate perhaps for a beach or destination wedding. And on the opposite side of the store is a fabulous variety of eclectic designs for special occasions. So even if you aren’t planning a wedding any time soon, there are dozens of reasons to consider a shopping trip – or sensory indulgence – to Cicada. Either Jen or Elizabeth is likely to be the one welcoming you into the shop.
(A bridal gown and evening dress in the Cicada collection. To see more, visit their web site. photos by Rathbone Images)
While they love their work, it’s not all that fills their lives. They both had children during the course of their partnership. “And we’re both really active, creative people outside of work,” says Jen earnestly. For her part, as you might expect of someone who spends her days sewing wedding gowns, she fills her non-work hours playing drums in local punk bands. She started on her son’s rejected miniature drum kit and still takes lessons at Seattle Drum School. “I love learning new things,” she effuses. Click here to listen to her “girl punk” band Minirex, for whom Jen designed the group’s costumes, of course. You can hear her keeping the beat in the sample songs there. Or you can find a youtube video of her playing with Witches Titties in a show with Alice Bag, whom Jen describes as Chicana Punk.
Having a teenage daughter at home with a penchant for reality shows, I had to ask about the impact to their business from shows like “Say Yes to the Dress.”
“I don’t have a television,” admits Elizabeth. Jen has seen the show once or twice when on the road. “Why would people bring so many people to their appointments? And everybody wants to have to have alcohol. We don’t allow that. They need to think about it sober -- we do not want any bubbly decisions that are regretted later.”
For her part, despite the craziness of the business, Elizabeth has nothing to regret. “I want someday to walk out of this and say, that was the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s still what I want to do – I love coming to work everyday and I’m not good working for someone else.”
(In the back of the store where the creations are made)
Jen and Elizabeth’s Not-So-Secrets for How They Do It?
- I’m not sure I’ve interviewed anyone who had an answer for this question as quickly and as categorically as Jen, who looked me straight in the eye and pronounced: “I don’t quit. Anything. I will do it until I’m the last person doing it. I will never give up. I never stop doing what I start doing. I will always be the last man standing. They say that 90 percent of success is showing up. I keep showing up. It would never would occur to me to pull the plug.”
- And here’s probably the most important factor in their success – Elizabeth picked up precisely where Jen let go. “I personally don’t know when to say no. We never quit. Nobody has ever been backing us. We weren’t given any financial support to get started. It’s just us and two crazy credit cards.”
- And then of course, the two started laughing in stereo again. Which suggests another key to their success – finding the humor in any situation.
- “Underlying everything is a huge amount of trust. This is paramount. Mistakes happen. We’ve been at it since the beginning and we’ve made every single mistake we could make. There is no escape. You’ve got to trust each other.”
- And as for the customer service end of the business? “You have to be really present and observe what’s going on. If I see some subtle thing on a client’s face coming out of the dressing room, I have to get to it right away.” Jen will often take the dress to the back of the store and make the alteration right then while her customer waits.
What has Jen read recently?
- Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage. A Chicana Punk Story; by Alice Bag
“I mostly read biographies, non-fiction and brain science books. I lost my appetite for fiction.”
Who should I interview next?
- A friend of Jen’s, who plays in the band, leads Ghost Tours of Pike Place Market and makes dolls.