Getting to Yes

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BEAUTIFUL BRIDE Model (and McHale’s daughter) Denielle Mucciacito Morrison looks dreamily romantic at the River Ridge Golf Club ballroom in a Bella Mucci’s-provided gown.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer | Photos by Viktor Budnik

There is nothing more exciting, rewarding…and potentially emotional…than shopping for the perfect gown in which to walk down the aisle. Tracey Theys McHale, owner of Bella Mucci’s Bridal Couture in Ventura, understands the highs, lows and indecision every bride must face before saying “yes to the dress.” Which is why she and her staff are committed to the highest customer service and sensitivity when working with their clientele. McHale spoke with Ventana Monthly about being inspired to open a bridal boutique, trends through the years, being a bride’s biggest advocate and more.

Are you from Ventura County originally?
Tracey McHale: I was born at Foster Memorial Hospital, which is now CMH. I grew up in the city of Ventura, in the Ventura Unified school District: Loma Vista Elementary, Anacapa Junior High, Ventura High and Ventura College.

BELLA MUCCI’S founder Tracey Theys McHale (left) with staffmember Brooke Garcia.

Have you always been interested in couture? When did you first get interested in fashion?
I have always sewed. Made my own prom and graduation dresses and maternity tops for my first baby.

How did you get into the wedding gown business?
I was a prior business owner years ago and had wanted to be again.
I owned a plumbing supply business in San Luis Obispo. I was having a hard time finding the niche of business I was really interested in. I was also a sales rep for many years, a realtor for over 30 years and have loved working with the public and clients.

When did you open Bella Mucci’s, and what inspired you to do so?
I opened Bella Mucci’s in 2014 which was inspired by my own daughter’s wedding and bridal shopping experiences. I actually named the store after her: Bella, a nickname. Mucci’s is short for the last name, Mucciacito.

We visited multiple stores. Each store I came away with something I would do differently. “Mom, why don’t you open a bridal store? You’ve always wanted your own business again,” she said. So my daughter Denielle planted that seed of thought.

“EACH BRIDE can be so very different in their vision of the perfect gown, so we have to have choices of every style to be prepared to find ‘the’ gown.”

Then an encouraging conversation with Joseph Sahati at Jewelry Couture and more encouragement by my daughter, family and friends is how this store came about.

Originally, I was going to be located at Joseph’s store, Jewelry Couture, but decided we needed double the space. I now have 5,000 square feet of which we completely built out with a bride’s experience and elegance in mind.

Since you’ve been in the wedding biz, have you noticed any trends — in styles of dresses, particular designers, etc.?
There are literally hundreds of dress designers. To name one, I love Justin Alexander’s dresses. He just got married and designed his own bride’s dress!

I also like EddieK and the design team at Allure Bridals. I have worked with 15 different designers and these seem to be the top I keep leaning towards.

Regarding trends…trends are always changing. Back in 2014 it was a lot of pronged crystals, mermaid with Cinderella looking “pick ups” and rouching. Satin fabrics and crystal belts. We’ve gone through lace-up corset backs and corset bodices with thin, unlined illusion fabrics with the boning visible. Some of those are still “in style.” But we seem to be moving more towards the classic bride these days, you know, more Princess Grace Kelly or Princess Kate (very classic) and Meghan Markle. The clean, simple fabrics helped push dresses this way.

The brides seem split today. I have as many fitted silhouette requests as flowy, romantic A-line or classic satin ball gown.

What seems to be “hot” for 2024 bridalwear?
This year brides seem to be leaning classic and sophisticated more than trendy. But each bride can be so very different in their vision of the perfect gown, so we have to have choices of every style to be prepared to find “the” gown.

Describe a typical day for you.
Well, with brides, there is never a “typical” day! It’s very busy when we get started with a bride. It’s a solid one-and-a-half-hour-plus appointment. We strive to listen to the bride, look at her “vision board” of photos she’s collected along the way and pull those silhouettes, along with dresses she may not have thought of. I have sold more brides a dress where they say, “I didn’t even know I’d like this” than exactly what they brought in. We strive to do better than their favorite photo. And I mean…. Every bride needs to try on the funnest, sparkliest ball gown, even if that’s not quite their vision!

Where do you source your gowns?
We attend bridal fashion shows and conventions, like New York’s wedding week. It’s like you see on TV, we sit watching a fashion show with clipboards of the dresses and we place orders of our favorites. It is amazing how different we are here in California!!! My reps will say something like “this is our hottest seller” and I’m thinking “I couldn’t force my brides into that dress!” So, we really have to listen to our own brides and their dreams to pick out the next dress we purchase and not be influenced by the reps or designers themselves. Our brides have beach weddings, ranch weddings, garden, church, vineyard, etc. etc. — which are much different than weddings across the country.

What services does Bella Mucci’s offer?
We have wedding dresses, hair accessories, belts, veils and bridesmaids. When a gown is purchased, we have some offers from vendors, for example a discount at a local jewelry store and tuxedo discounts. We also sell candles that we make.

Who helps you make wedding dreams come true?
My staff is family and friends. My long time friend, Sandi Anderson Kauffman, was instrumental in helping me open and run the store for many years and has now retired. But we have myself, Taylor and Brooke to help our brides. It’s very intimate and private at the store. As we are by appointment, only one bride up to three brides maximum are ever here at one time. Brides rave over Brooke and Taylor, they are so knowledgeable, kind, caring and I’d say intuitive as to what your dream gown is about to be!!!

STELLAR SERVICE
Bride-to-be Lizzie Rhoden gets assistance with a voluminous train from Brooke Garcia.

When a customer comes in looking for a dress, but has no idea what they want, how do you help them find the right piece?
We interview them, talk to their families and friends that they brought with them. Look at photos of dresses they think they like. Looking at the photos helps us see their “style” and what they lean towards. Then we go from there. For each bride it is almost a game to see where they end up with the trying-on process. It’s fun to put them in a dress and have them gasp a little like, “wow, this is beautiful! I would never have tried this on on my own!” Those are fun. Like life-size Barbies!

How many dresses, on average, does a customer try on before deciding on “the one”?
That varies. I had one bride try on the first dress and she was done! “This is the only dress I will ever try on!”

I had another say “yes” then was hesitant to commit. I said, “What’s on your mind?” She said, “If I say yes, that means my experience is over! I’ve been to 15 stores throughout California and tried on over 150 dresses! But this is it!” I said, “Wow, that is a lot of shopping!!! Is this it???” Yes, she bought that dress!

But in reality, most of our brides try on from six to 12 dresses; sometimes less, sometimes more. I don’t limit the number unless we have gone well over the time limit.

Any advice or wisdom for customers shopping bridal boutiques for wedding gowns? What do you wish all of your customers knew or understood?
I wish they knew, it takes trying them on for hit or miss. You can’t just go to one of the knockoff websites and point your finger at one and expect it to come out perfect. I have helped so many that bought online and come in disappointed that the dress wasn’t what they expected.

I had a bride who had come in once before, many months prior. “Help, I need a dress in three months!” “What happened, where have you been?” Bride: “I have a confession to make. I purchased my dress online and it’s terrible.” I told her, “No worries, we’ll get you a dress.” She says, “I have another confession…I bought five!!!” I think my head spun around! “You bought one; it’s awful. So you bought two…then three…and went all the way to five?! Do you know the dress you could have had for those five non-returnable dresses?!?” She says, “I know, I’m sorry.” I told her, “No time for sorry… let’s get you a dress!”

We don’t just want to be a style try-on store for brides that want to find a cheap dress online.

What’s the most surprising thing about being a bridal boutique?
The brides always say, “Wow, this is like the TV show ‘Say Yes to the Dress.’” Yep, pretty much! We have big, private dressing rooms and comfortable viewing areas for your friends and family. We put on a fashion show with each bride.

What’s the most challenging thing about your job? What’s the most rewarding? What do you love about owning a bridal boutique?
It’s rewarding in the fact that it is a “happy” job. Brides and family come in excited about this new venture in life. So I’d say that is the most rewarding and best part of owning a bridal shop. It gives us such joy when the bride finds the dress of their dreams and leaves so excited.

It can be challenging if there is a negative energy among the bride’s guests. We try to keep everybody happy, but sometimes you come across the harder to please, or the bridesmaid that continually brings up “but at my wedding.” We try to steer all the attention back to the bride and gloss over the “my wedding” or negative comments back to the bride.

FRIENDS AND FAMILY gather in the spacious and elegant Bella Mucci’s dressing room to support Lizzie Rhoden during her gown consultation and fitting.

I had one bride who loved a dress that her guests didn’t. It was really quite beautiful and made her happy. The guests had a different vision in mind. She was in the dressing room in tears. I told her, “this is YOUR wedding. They get to pick whatever dress they want for their wedding.” She said, “I know, but I can’t stand up to them.” That’s when she becomes MY responsibility to protect. I said, “Well, let’s go ahead and put on ‘their’ dress and say yes…but I’ll order the dress YOU love!” She was so happy; put on “their” dress and a big smile…they all cheered! I winked at her and she thanked me. That was a good day!

For your own wedding, what did you wear?
I wore a satin fitted dress with a detachable train.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers that I haven’t touched upon yet?
I am literally open by appointment. We are by appointment so we can focus on only you, no one else is wandering through the store. If you come by and we are closed, you must not have an appointment. 🙂