Fairy lights twinkle brightly in the windows of the studio. Luxurious white fabrics drape over mannequins, sparkling silver tiaras are placed delicately on tables and veils line the brick walls.
Nestled in the historic Sycamore Square building in Fairhaven is the design studio Frankie & Maude, where a mother-daughter duo design, sew and create custom, one-of-a-kind wedding gowns.
About three years ago, Western alumnae Kathleen Nuzum and Meghann Chronister were looking for a creative outlet, and together they embarked on a passion project: Frankie & Maude. The business began as women’s apparel sold on the online clothing store Etsy, but both designers sought more.
“When you’re doing weddings, you have a relationship with the brides,” Nuzum said. “I’m all about people and women, and it’s a way for women to express their individuality.”
Nuzum and Chronister create custom gowns, and when a bride orders their dress from Frankie & Maude, she embarks on an intimate, six-to nine-month journey with the designers.
The team desires to break the mold of the typical wedding dress shopping experience and provide another alternative experience for brides.
“Bridal somehow was some weird throwback, brides would go with their entourage and not all women are about that,” Nuzum said.
Kathryne Tapia had purchased her bridal dress at a chain salon, but changed her mind after seeing the work of Nuzum and Chronister. The differences between the two shopping trips were like night and day, Tapia said.
“The experience at the bridal store was nothing like with [Frankie & Maude]. I felt like I was just another person buying a dress, but F&M made me feel like I was very important and really listened to what I wanted,” Tapia said in an email.
As more consumers turn to the internet, so do brides, and Nuzum and Chronister said they’ve both seen their fair share of disastrous online orders.
This was the predicament that Jessica Mucha found said she herself in last year. After plans for a custom-made dress from her friend fell through, she took to the internet and ordered a replica dress of her favorite designer.
When the box arrived, Mucha was taken aback by the dress she had ordered. The quality was low, the fabrics didn’t hang right, and it was not what she had envisioned for her big day. Scrambling the month before the wedding, Mucha connected with Nuzum, who said she could get her the dress on time.
Mucha was already under a great deal of stress that comes from planning a wedding, but had an incredible experience working with Nuzum and Chronister that actually help shape the wedding.
Both love that designing for brides means becoming part of their lives.
Nuzum’s favorite part? The finished product, she said.
“When [the dress] comes together at the end, it really gives you cold chills because it takes trust on the woman’s part,” Nuzum said.
While neither designers were born in Bellingham, but Nuzum still calls the city their “home base.”
“It’s been us two for a long time, and so it seems natural to be hovering in the same space,” said Nuzum.
Nuzum points to Village Books and local pubs as examples of Bellingham’s atmosphere. Local artisans and business-owners is what makes this city what it is, she said. As individuals and a business, both want to do their part for the community and as a part of their core values, stress an importance on supporting local enterprises and women in business.
Chronister would often meet her mother, a Western history professor, for lunch at the Viking Union to keep her company. Chronister would later attend Western and graduate with a general studies major.
The most important part of her time at the university was being exposed to different people, ideas and philosophies, Chronister said. She was able to take her passion for people and her work ethic from Western into the business she is now running with her mom.
A mother-daughter relationship is usually not one found in business partners, but both women love working with each other. Chronister said the they are so similar that they will understand each other’s references and be on the same page, yet they are different enough to bring two different perspectives to the business. Nuzum says the success of working together stems from trust.
“I wanted to raise a strong woman, and so I trust her. I trust her judgement both artistically and business wise,” Nuzum said.
The designers hand make every dress in Fairhaven, using locally sourced fabrics, like silk from Ferndale, to remain conscious about their impact on the environment, and the city.
The future of Frankie & Maude is growth, Nuzum and Chronister said. A collection, a new studio and an expanded inventory are all on the horizon. Their Capsule Collection, set to debut fall 2016, will showcase personal designing identities. Both hope the collection will help them connect to more Bellingham brides, who might only be able to find the style of wedding dress they want in big cities.
The designers hope to have another design space in Sycamore Square, with their current studio being transformed into a boutique.
Until then, the mother-daughter duo will continue to drape, design and sew custom dresses. The two will still be forming relationships with brides, perfectly stitching and fitting gowns for women, helping them express themselves on an unforgettable day.
After all, it’s not just a dress.