Today we talk to the sisters who own Bella Bridesmaids of Birmingham, Jeanna Lee Fleming and Charlotte Thompson. This dynamic duo brings a fashionable flair and provides a fresh, modern, one-on-one experience for today’s brides and their attendants. (Gone are the days of wearing it once!) Jeanna Lee is also the founder of Birmingham Fashion Week, and she and Charlotte both have a huge heart for Camp Smile a Mile…
Where did you grow up and what brought you here to Birmingham?
We grew up in Gardendale, Alabama. We both live in Birmingham now.
JL: I moved to Birmingham after graduation from the University of Alabama with my husband.
C: The opening of the store actually brought me to Birmingham. I had lived in New York and then was in Atlanta at the time that we decided we were going to open the store.
How did you come to own Bella Bridesmaid?
C: Having been a bridesmaid collectively 26 times between the two of us, we had bought several dresses from Bella Bridesmaid in Atlanta. We found out they started to franchise and we knew that Birmingham greatly needed a Bella Bridesmaid. The rest is history!
What do you love most about the bridesmaid dress business?
JL: I genuinely LOVE meeting and helping people, so this is my dream job. Being able to help the bride’s vision for her bridesmaids’ dresses come to life gratifies me.
What are the current trends for bridesmaid dresses?
JL/C: Long, flowy and effortless dresses. There are SO many good options! We have an exclusive designer who is doing these elegant wrap dresses that fit so well. We have seen new additions of fabrics this year. Several designers have introduced new fabrications that have the ease and movement of chiffon but with a different texture.
Your mother, Lynn Thompson, was executive director of Camp Smile a Mile for years, and I hear you guys have a heart for Camp SAM, as well. What got you interested/involved?
JL: Charlotte was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor as a child. Charlotte attended the very first Camp Smile A Mile camp session back in 1985. Our mom saw what a positive experience it was for Charlotte, and when the director at the time had to move out of state, our mom decided to take on this “hobby” so that these kids could simply get away and just be kids. At that time Camp Smile A Mile was only two years old and there was only one camp session per summer. Fast forward 28 years and camp has grown into numerous camp sessions and year-round activities. We both literally grew up at Camp Smile A Mile and attended every camp session from the time that our mom became involved. It has played a large role into shaping us into the individuals that we are today.
What else are you passionate about?
JL & C: SOUTH AFRICA!!
JL: I visited in 2009 and left a huge piece of my heart there. I returned in 2011 and made a vow to go back every two years. There are very few days that go by without me thinking of South Africa and my time there, the people I have met along the way, the culture, the beauty of the land, the animals, the adventure.
C: I agree. We would move there tomorrow if we could. It is one of those places that stays with you forever.
On another note, what music might we find on your iPod right now?
JL: EVERYTHING. Top 40 to Phish
C: I am a hippie at heart and in my music taste. Phish and the Grateful Dead.
What books are on your bedside table/eReader?
JL: No books for me, only magazines. You can find a big stack bedside of Travel & Leisure, National Geographic Travel and the occasional gossip magazine.
C: A whole library! I am a book nerd.
Favorite date night?
JL: My husband cooking a delicious meal, drinking good wine and getting caught up on the week’s DVR recorded shows.
C: I love a progressive dinner date. Having a drink and appetizer at one place, main course at the next and then on to a third restaurant for dessert!
Favorite Birmingham restaurant?
JL: Aaah!! There are SO many! How to choose just one! Gian Marco’s, Ocean, Jinsei.
C: Don’t make me choose… We have SO many good restaurants to choose from.
Favorite vacations spot?
JL: The older I get the more I difficult I find it to lounge around a pool on a vacation. I can lounge pool-side in Birmingham so I prefer much more active and adventurous getaways. I am an adrenalin lover, so my ideal vacation is somewhere that has extreme activities, is off the beaten path and more than likely requires a passport.
C: I have no problem lounging around a pool or on a beach. My idea of vacation is sun, sand, cocktails and a good book.
Best advice ever given to you?
JL: Be aware of your competition, but never let it consume you.
C: You have to maintain BALANCE with your work and personal life. No matter what, there are never enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that you need to do. If you do not take time for yourself to create balance in your life, the business that you love so dearly, you will start to resent.
Any advice you’d like to impart to others interested in owning a business?
JL: You have to be ready and willing to keep up with the times and re-invent/re-think your way of doing business in order to stay in the game when necessary. Over the last six years our industry has changed DRASTICALLY from the time we opened to today. A large part of this is because of social media.
C: Always keep a folder of kind thank you notes and emails that customers have sent. When you are having one of those days and the responsibility and stresses of being a small business owner seem to overwhelm you simply refer back to these notes and you will be reminded why you do what you do.
Do you have any personality quirks or irrational fears?
JL: I am an EXCESSIVE over packer, like out of control EXCESSIVE. The thought of only carrying on and not being able to check luggage gives me the hives. I am the worst person to be behind in airport security because I usually have to redistribute weight so my carry on has three pairs of boots hanging out of it. However on the flip side, I am also the best person to travel with because if you forgot anything I am guaranteed to have it.
In addition I am also a huge HOARDER especially of paper. It’s because I am always making lists for myself and I then misplace the list and make another. It’s a vicious cycle.
C: That a trash can is not really meant for trash. I hate trash in trash cans. They are only for looks. I do not put trash in them.
Name three things you can’t live without (excluding God, family & friends!).
JL: Red lipstick, french fries and clip on earrings.
C: Red wine, Morrocan Oil Shampoo & Conditioner and Travel Scrabble
Thanks, Jeanna Lee and Charlotte! And thanks to Beth Hontzas for today’s amazing photos!