Nearly 4 million people get engaged on Valentine’s Day, according to a study by American Express. For ladies who received sparkly rings and bended knees yesterday, some may be wrestling with the ethics of choosing the perfect wedding dress, balanced on the weight of helping women around who aren’t so lucky as to be choosing a satiny white gown.
Marcelia Muehlke, Founder and CEO of Amherst, Mass.-based Celia Grace, found herself in the same position in 2009. After the man she loved proposed to her during a backpacking trip, Muehlke and her fiancé knew they wanted to have a wedding that aligned with their values of human rights and environmental stewardship. But Muehlke couldn’t find a dress that represented those values, and Joya Bride, now Celia Grace, was born. In a Q&A interview, entrepreneur Muehlke answered questions about the new name, finding suppliers and her plans to grow her business.
What was the reason for rebranding from Joya Bride?
I love the name Joya Bride and how it gets at both the joy we can give to brides on their wedding day and the joy of helping women around the world. Unfortunately, “Joya” is a very common word (it means “jewel” in Spanish), so that hurt us in terms of visibility on the web, and it caused confusion about pronunciation.
What does the name Celia Grace signify?
We chose our new name, Celia Grace, for several reasons. The first two meanings for the word “grace” are beauty and goodness, both of which get at the heart of our brand – a beautiful product that does good for so many women. Second, Celia is part of my full name, Marcelia, which was also my grandmother’s name and her grandmother’s name, so using Celia means connection with women, tradition and quality. Finally, Celia Grace looks and sounds elegant and is very fitting for fashion and bridal.
What are some of the challenges of finding suppliers that match your values?
It was a real challenge to find producer partners who provide the kind of safe, fair, and empowering work environment that I want to support and who have the skill level I need for beautiful and technically difficult wedding dresses. Although these groups exist, there is no easy way to find these producer groups. In addition, once you have found a group that sounds good, communication and logistics are a real challenge.
How did you come across the suppliers you use?
In an effort to minimize our carbon footprint from shipping fabric to seamstresses, I wanted to start production in Asia, where most silk is made. Therefore, I did a lot of networking with business, nonprofits and other groups working in Asia. Once I had a good list of people I wanted to meet, I went to Asia to meet with each group face to face. Sometimes at a meeting I could tell from the first minute that it wasn’t a good fit. Other times I got goose bumps when I realized that I was sitting with an amazing, talented woman whose seamstresses or weavers could do what I needed both in terms of product and social impact.
This happened at one meeting with a women’s sewing cooperative. I was going over the Celia Grace code of conduct which outlines what the company stands for (such as equal treatment of women) and against (such as child labor) when the woman stopped me. She said, “Marcie, these things you are talking about are exactly why we started this sewing cooperative and we can do better than everything you have listed here.” Spending a few days at the sewing shop reinforced what she had said. That was an amazing time, and I love working with this group more and more as I get to know them even better.
What are your business growth plans?
Right now Celia Grace makes wedding dresses, silk flower hair accessories and a few men’s accessories like ties and bow ties. Over the next few years, we plan to expand these offerings and then to add other special occasion and evening wear lines. As demand and the business grow, we will continue working with our current producer partners but also plan to expand operations to needy countries around the world.