Kathleen Lawrence started Clarissa Bridal Salon in Walnut Creek over 30 years ago with her mother, Mary Ann Thomas. A year after her Mary Ann’s death, Kathleen recounts Clarissa’s humble beginnings. She eloquently uses her three son’s births as time stones throughout the story and shares how making a woman feel beautiful can make all the difference.
“I was the bridal buyer in Bullocks in Walnut Creek before it became Nordstrom’s. Jarrod had just gone to school so I wanted to do something fun. I went into Bullocks and asked if they had any positions available. I told them I wanted to do something fun and exciting because I had worked in LA in couture with the furs. They called back the next day and said there was a position available in the bridal department as a buyer. They told me I would actually be working under the buyer from Palo Alto. It was a small department so I was by myself. I just learned the bridal business by the seat of my pants. It’s more than just a regular department because you have to deal with the quarters, buy the dresses, help the customers pick their dresses, turn the order into Palo Alto, order it, then when it comes in you have to make the fittings. So I did that for about two years. Then my sister decided to get married so I helped her with her wedding. Then I found out I was pregnant with Matthew so I quit.
Matthew was little, still in a stroller when my dad said to me one day that “There’s no bridal salons in Walnut Creek,” And there hadn’t been anything. There was a small family-owned one in Pittsburg, but that was it. My sister had just gone off to college and mother was enjoying having the house to herself for the first time after eight kids. We had all moved out finally and daddy said, “Well, your mother is bored and has nothing to do so you two should start a bridal salon. It can’t be that hard. Just go do it. Where do you get dresses?” And I said,” Well, you go to New York.” So he just said, how only daddy could, “Ok. Call the people you worked with at Bullocks. Tell them you want to come see their line. Go to New York. Pick out whatever dresses you need. Then come back and open a salon.” And you just did whatever Daddy said. So I called the designers in New York with the New York Yellow pages, they didn’t have Internet back then. I called Priscilla, which was the biggest, and Bianchi, which was an important line at the time and Demetrius and Alyssa and different bridesmaid’s lines. I just tried to remember all the designers I used at Bullocks’. They asked me for my retail license and I said, “Where do I get that?” They told me from the city and so I just said, “Ok, I’ll call you right back.”
In December, mother and I went to New York. We stayed at this horrible, horrible hotel where the windows were painted shut. We met a person that said this was the hotel that a lot of buyers stayed at when they went to market. We didn’t know anything. We got into La Guardia at midnight. The whole airport was closed and we thought, “Oh Shit. How are we going to get into downtown New York?” We didn’t know where we were going so we just followed the other twenty people in the airport. We got in a cab and he took us to this awful hotel. We walked into our room and there was a cockroach on the wall. Mother and I slept on top of the bed that night with our clothes on. The next morning, we had our first appointment at Priscilla, who was the end all in the bridal business. Back then, designers were very strict about their minimums. You couldn’t just buy one dress and call it a day. Priscilla had three different lines and you had to buy at least eight from each of them. When we were leaving for the airport to go to New York, I asked Daddy about the budget and he said, “Just spend however much you need to spend and we will work it out later.” I always figured if Daddy wasn’t worried about something, then I didn’t need to be worried. So Mother and I walked out of Priscilla spending $10,000, which back then was more like $50,000 now. And we had three days left. We spent as little money as possible on food and as little time as possible at the hotel.
When we got back from New York, I found a small showroom we could afford. Daddy found someone to build three walls for dressing rooms. Mother made curtains for them. We kept the dresses in the back because that’s what Priscilla did. We found an old armoire to store the veils in and a nice glass table for the reception desk. We still have it actually. Back then, we would just put a pad of paper out and women would come in and sign their names, leave for a couple hours, then come back when we were ready for them. Mother did all of the bookkeeping while my sister Denise and I helped the brides. Eventually, our neighbor moved and we bought that place out. We found someone to knock the wall down and we stretched out a little bit. When Patrick was born he was a little tiny baby. He would just sleep in a bridal box with a pillow under him. I would feed him and he would sleep and then I would go out front again to work. He was the cutest thing in that box.
We moved right along. We enjoyed it and we really liked what we did. It was fun to dress the women. It was fun to see someone walk in with jeans and a t-shirt and then we’d put a gown on them and pull their hair up and lift up their whole face with a beautiful veil that fell and they would walk out and be unrecognizable. It’s wonderful. How often in life can you make that much of a difference? It’s not a superficial difference either. I think it is one of the most important events in your life. Being a woman and you realize there is something you can do to look different. It expands your horizon. I put a good bra on them, move their hair around, my sister puts jewelry on them and I pick the right gown and they look at themselves in the mirror and think “ Oh my god. I am good looking. I actually feel good about myself.” And when you feel good about yourself, there is a lot you can do. There are a lot of women who have been held back or they have held themselves back, but when you give them the permission to think outside the box and say “Let’s go with that off the shoulder dress” when they’re between the ages of 35-60 going to a black tie event. Or if they’re a bride and still learning what their style is and you put a gown on them. You will not believe how many women come in and you have no idea what kind of figure they have because they are dressed so badly. Looking well impacts your thinking. It makes a difference in your life. The best part for me is that I have made a small difference in the women’s lives and they are able to carry that forward. They may have said “Aw shit” I mean, “Shoot. I looked so good on my wedding day, I bet if I just bought a shirt and got it fitted instead of a big boxy shape and it cleared out my ribcage, you might just see that 25 inch waist that I have.” It won’t be a conscious thought, but it will be a “This should be narrower or longer.” So number one, being able to be a part of someone’s wedding day is great and number two, possibly making a difference in how someone views themselves.