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Business

Persistence and naivete help bridal veil designer

Robin Mayer, president of Boutique de Voile, sets

Robin Mayer, president of Boutique de Voile, sets up her display of couture bridal hair jewelry and custom veils for a trunk show at Bridal Reflections in Massapequa. (May 17, 2012) Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

For budding entrepreneurs, a bit of naiveté about the perils of launching a business can be an asset.

Take Robin Mayer, jail psychologist turned bridal designer and manufacturer.

Mayer's bridal veil and headpiece business, Boutique de Voile, debuted in Westbury, days before the World Trade Center attack in 2001. Within the first year, her relationship with her business partner -- who was more experienced in the field -- fell apart.

As the company's first anniversary approached, she was the sole proprietor, had secured the company's debt with her childhood home, and was pursuing a strategy that some in the bridal business told her would not work.

"Let's be real," Mayer, 40, said. "I was scared out of my wits."

The circumstances Mayer faced a decade ago might have spurred a business school graduate or veteran investor to search for a way to minimize her losses and exit. Instead, Mayer decided to break into the couture bridal accessories market -- a sector she was told would be impenetrable to newcomers like herself.

Rather than using cheaper materials and easy-to-produce designs for mass-market retailers, she decided her company would focus on high-end, customized products made in her factory, in Westbury.

There are "few manufacturers of any kind on Long Island," and fewer, if any, "in the accessory business," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst with the NPD Group, a Port Washington market research firm.

Mayer fits a certain business mold: "Most entrepreneurs will tell you, 'If I knew what I know now, I probably wouldn't have tried,'" said Paul Kedrosky, a senior fellow with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. "Naiveté and not knowing how insane it is to try what you're doing is actually an asset."

Tough competition

Competition is intense in the couture bridal veil and headpiece business, which demands a high level of service. "The first time you don't produce and don't deliver is the last time a store will buy from you," said Ellen Goldstein, a professor of accessories design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which offers a millinery certificate.

Mayer spent her first career as a psychologist treating inmates at Rikers Island. She initially considered the bridal business after she was assaulted by a patient.

A friend who had experience running a bridal veil company approached her about starting a business together. Mayer expected to learn behind the scenes.

But that business relationship was short-lived. The partner wanted to target the lower-priced mass-market sector. Mayer leaned toward a vintage style, expensive materials and designs requiring extensive labor. She wanted to produce couture veils, hair jewelry and tiaras with distinct designs.

The partnership officially ended after 18 months. Among Mayer's few advantages at that point: The company's workforce had decades of experience. And she had a strong emotional commitment to her vision.

Mayer made a strategic, and expensive, decision to target the high end: She asked her manufacturing staff of three women to stay and she took on more debt to seal the deal by offering them health insurance and buying a car for them to use to carpool to work. The company later hired two more women.

A nervous Mayer, who had no sales experience, then hit the road with samples packed in a vintage brown leather suitcase, calling on wedding salons.

She had her share of doors slammed in her face. Mayer, a single mother with a young daughter, continued to work at Rikers Island but persisted in her sales calls.

"I would knock on six or seven doors, and people would say, 'We already have our veil company,' " said Mayer. "I would then call back and say, 'Why don't you tell me what's your bestselling veil. I can beat their price.' "

Breakthroughs

After several years of struggle, in 2006 Mayer established a relationship with Bridal Reflections, a 40-year-old, family-owned business with stores on Long Island and Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, raising her products' profile. That same year, the company landed a contract to produce veils and headpieces under a private label for a major brand.

Those developments boosted revenue.

During the recession, Mayer's decision to focus on the high-end market appeared to be the right strategy, she said. "We took ourselves out of the mid- to low-market altogether, where there was so much more competition," she said. The mass market was more affected by the recession. Upscale customers, while price-conscious, could still pay for a more expensive product.

By 2010 she was able to leave her part-time job at Rikers Island.

Customization and exclusivity are at the heart of Boutique de Voile's business. Most of the materials used in its veils, headpieces and jewelry are domestic or imported from Europe. The veils' main material, a silk blend called tulle or illusion, comes from a Bronx factory and an upstate silk mill, which make a product with a tighter weave and softer feel than those made in China, Mayer said. Depending on the design, veils can run from $250 to $2,000 and sometimes more.

At Mayer's factory, Grace Casella, 67, cuts each lace pattern by hand. Yolanda Ventura, 62, sews that lace by hand or with a vintage 1960s sewing machine to the illusion or tulle. Cristina Mendez, 71, threads silver-backed Swarovski crystals one by one to create a sparkly tiara. Paula Torres, 48, and Juana Suarez, 46, embellish veils with pearls, stones, Swarovski crystals, or tulle cut into petals.

Boutique de Voile has been profitable for three years, with annual revenue of about $500,000. Boutique de Voile sells its namesake line exclusively for the Long Island and New York City area at Bridal Reflections salons. Its products are distributed by more than 60 retailers in the United States and abroad, including stores in Ireland, Australia, Denmark and Germany. A communion line, Anja's Dream, has been growing as well.

Mayer said she continues to learn more from her retail clients and their customers, particularly Long Island brides: "Long Island girls have a really high expectation of what you're going to deliver and make happen," Mayer said. "Everything has to be perfect."

SUCCESS STORY

The company. Boutique de Voile.

Founded. September 2001.

Employees. 5.

Annual production. More than 11,000 veils, hair jewelry pieces, head bands, combs, hats.

Time it takes to make one veil. A few hours for a simple design, eight hours for one with panels and embellishments.

Annual revenues. $500,000.

Big disappointment. One bride asked she be sent photos of the veil after every 12 inches  was completed. She did not buy the finished veil.

Big success. That design became a bestseller.

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