How one bride's disappointment launched a fair trade wedding dress company
Marcelia Muehlke set out to create bridal gowns that match values and beauty in equal measure.
Fri, Aug 09 2013 at 2:06 PM
Photo: Joshua Sugiyama
Back in the old days, it was stressful enough trying to get all the little details for your big day right, when all you had to worry about were color schemes and seating arrangements. Add worries about raw food vegan hors d'oeuvres or biodegradable wedding rings to the list of concerns and things can get decidedly complicated.
Nevertheless, green weddings are getting more and more popular, and there are a growing number of resources out there to help.
Still, it can be hard to get every single detail just right.
A lack of options became an idea for a business
When Marcelia Muehlke, who studied international development at Brown University, began planning her green wedding back in 2010, she ran into one major obstacle – the dress:
“Unfortunately, there were no good options available, and that was my 'aha' moment. I realized I could pair my background in international development and my desire to empower women in developing countries with brides in the U.S.”
Ultimately, her own wedding dress disappointment became the inspiration behind Celia Grace, a company that Muehlke believes is the only purveyor of fair trade wedding dresses in the U.S.
Featuring eight different dress styles and accessories including bobbi pins, hair clips, and even ties and bow ties for the gentlemen, the company has set about offering the products that Muehlke wished she would have found as a young bride-to-be.
Hand-sewn, fair trade wedding dresses
Working with women’s sewing cooperatives in Cambodia, each dress is hand sewn by artisans receiving a living wage and benefits. Setting up that international partnership, however, has not been simple:
“The biggest challenge was finding the right producer partners — and there are day-to-day challenges with things like the time difference and the language barrier, but we’ve been incredibly lucky. The first time I met with these women, I gave them a copy of the Celia Grace Code of Conduct, which outlines our policies on things like a living wage, safe working conditions and child labor. As I was going through the document with them, one of the women finally stopped me and said, 'Marcie, we created this coop in order to treat women well, and we can do better than everything you have listed here.' That was a pretty amazing moment and they have exceeded my expectations.”
The company is a paid up member of the Fair Trade Federation, and also donates a water filter to a family that needs one for every dress sold. But it’s not just the company’s social conscience that has attracted ethically minded brides.
Muehlke believes that environmental protection and social development are simply two sides of the same coin:
“I see minimizing harm to the environment and protecting and helping people as completely interrelated. For example, toxic chemicals used in fabric treatments and dyes are harmful to both people and the planet. Most wedding dresses are made from energy-intensive and polluting petroleum-based polyester. Our fabric, by contrast, is natural heirloom silk grown without pesticides, colored using safe dyes, and then hand-woven into exquisite fabric on no-electricity looms.”
Donating old bridal gowns
Nurturing both people and planet is also a central theme of the Celia Grace blog, which recently compiled a guide for brides wishing to donate their wedding dress once they were done with it. From nonprofits that provide services to military brides or women undergoing financial hardship, to an organization that repurposes wedding gowns into baby burial dresses and baby blankets to be donated to hospitals, there’s no shortage of options for brides wishing to spread the love.
Expanding production worldwide
As with any company that takes responsibility for its supply chain by paying higher wages or avoiding environmental short cuts, there are additional costs which are not shouldered by the competition. So far, however, Muehlke is adamant that these costs have not been too much a competitive disadvantage, because the company’s main clientele base shares the company’s values:
“While some of our customers buy a Celia Grace wedding dress based on looks alone and never know the story and impact behind their dress, most of our customers are seeking a more meaningful option. So most of the time we are not competing directly with mainstream bridal companies. As we grow and expand, we hope to compete with traditional bridal brands more and more, and we want to push the industry to be more sustainable and socially-responsible by leading by example.”
In the coming years, Muehlke hopes to expand production in Cambodia and elsewhere, offering more fabric options and new designs, and she’s also aiming to expand sales globally. Yet Muehlke is quick to note that success for Celia Grace does not simply lie in numbers on a spreadsheet, but rather the opportunity to touch people’s lives and to create connections across the globe:
“I get to know the most amazing brides — women who are strong and thoughtful and deeply concerned about justice. I have one bride this summer who is getting married in Montana and who is incorporating a bunch of different fair trade elements in her wedding — fair trade bridesmaids dresses, embroidered napkins, and fair trade ties for the groom and groomsmen. It sounds like she is going to have a wedding that is not only gorgeous and fun but also really meaningful for everyone involved.”
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