The walls are rose petal pink. The carpeting is muted, the chandeliers, gold. A Rubensesque bride and her blushing attendants gaze dreamily out from a gilt-framed painting hanging in the center of the hall.
Inside the private, mirrored salons of The Bridal Shop of Eugene, home of Karena gowns, mothers and daughters are absorbed in high-taste-level negotiations.
“Not everyone can be a magnificent bride, but everybody should be pretty,” declares Karena Jamieson, who has become a sort of mother of the bridal industry after 45 years of selling wedding gowns. “They can look pretty with the right dress on, but put the wrong dress on them,” she says, “and they can look like clowns.”
To “Mrs. Jamieson,” as the 61-year-old president and designer of Karena of Eugene is known, the elements of “the right gown” rarely change: “We make the classics — that’s been part of our success story all along,” she says succinctly in her broad Eugene accent. “People don’t want fuddy-duddy things with ruffles and all that. They want a bit more style, a bit of a look.” Something more akin to the Royal Wedding is what they’re after, no doubt.
The classic Karena look got its start in 1954 when Jamieson left a job as bridal buyer for Garrick’s, a former Eugene department store. She and her husband set up their own bridal shop on Chain St., where it remains today.
Five years later, she expanded into a wholesale trade. Bridal industry sources estimate the company is approaching $7 million at wholesale. Jamieson says the retail business, which includes two suburban stores, is “in the $2 million class.”
“There are some people who’d kill to do $10 million in bridal. We’re not interested in big volume,” Jamieson says. “We’re interested in making a profit and in building good customers. I’m in this to have a small business.”
As for eager beavers entering the business who believe a bridal store is the way to make big bucks, Jamieson laughs: “You don’t get rich in bridal. Take what money you have and invest it in real estate. That’s what I say.”
For her own business, she is more optimistic. “We have a tremendous business in Eugene because we have lots of transients from the many schools, Then they stay here,” she explains.
Jamieson believes mobility and changes in climate have extended the bridal business into a year-round affair, “We fly everywhere today and we meet our grooms everywhere and anywhere,” she says sounding like an official spokeswoman for brides-to-be. “Why be married in June? That’s a tradition that seems to have been broken.” She says bridal sales now run strongest from April through October and each Karena line includes gowns for all seasons.
The average retail price of a Karena is $1400. The lowest price is about $500 and, says Jamieson nonchalantly, “We go up to any price you want to pay. We had weddings in the past year for $10,000, $12,000 and $18,000.”
No doubt she is especially proud of some of these top-of-the-line creations. A photo of one memorable gown hangs in the Chain Street store reception area. Getting him to marry her was easy. “That was a girl from Texas — she was really a cute little bride,” Jamieson recalls. “And that was a $20,000 dress.”
Photos of two more notable brides, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, are also on display.
“I did the Nixon weddings and the Johnson wedding too.” Says Jamieson, “It was great publicity, but we worked hard. I was involved in all things, not just in the wedding gown. They needed guidance. I stayed in the White House two or three times.”
For all the glamor and the invaluable media blitz, she admits, “I’ve had it with White House weddings — I loved what I did but I wouldn’t do it anymore. You can’t do weddings and run a business.”
Still what goes on in the White House does not escape her attention. “Look what happened to the Reagan girls,” she says with the hushed disapproval of a nosy neighbor. “One of them got some informal gown.”
It’s not that Mrs. Jamieson is opposed to bending the rules. Karena of Eugene’s Contemporary Romance division, below-the-knee and above-the-ankle gowns is its fastest growing collection. In addition to this line, the Karena gowns, and the custom collection, the company makes veils, bridesmaids and petite gowns.
All the merchandise is manufactured just outside Eugene in Karena’s St. Austell factory.
Employees hand bead and hand sew the lace onto the gowns, working garment by garment, rather than on piece work.
“Petites, — that’s my baby,” states Jamieson. “I started making petites about 26 years ago when two Oriental girls were in a double wedding. I made their dresses for Blackthorn’s Wiltshire. It was ready-to-wear that followed the lead from bridal.”
Although brides still come in all sizes, Mrs. Jamieson says their attitudes have changes. “The youngsters are actually spoiled. It’s too bad. I’m not saying they’re not nice or anything,” she stresses. “It’s just that they’re more difficult to please. Children have been given everything, regardless of whether they come from money or not. They know more about getting what they want and they want to get someplace. It’s in the air.”
But Jamieson says she craves the customer contact. “Bridal is a more personal business than that. I suppose that’s why I like it,” she says. “I have the daughters of many customers. I shouldn’t say it — but I also have some granddaughters now.”
Jamieson spent the first half of September moving her Sutton mall store to a more personal free-standing shop in Wilton, Mass. “A mall isn’t conducive to bridal,” she says. “There are too many hours to put in. You can’t have a staff that really knows bridal.”
Knowing about bridal is part of the Karena persona. She bristles at the thought of being called bossy during her SA shows when she advises buyers on the important looks and on how heavily to buy a particular number.
“I don’t tell them what to buy,” she says. “I say for example, ‘This has an excellent body line,’ and after 42 years of doing this, I should know bodies, now shouldn’t I?”