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The wonderful world of downtown color
Bridal and prom dresses and flowers, one block apart from each other
prom dresses R
The variety of prom dress color choices was on display when these photos (above and bottom) of Platteville High School prom participants were taken at Katies Garden last May.

The colors of nature outside this time of year are white, gray, brown and, maybe some days, cold blue.

The colors are much more vibrant inside two Main Street businesses in downtown Platteville. Participants in future weddings and high school proms are choosing their dresses this time of year, and buying flowers for those and other occasions.

The Bridal Boutique has been at its present location, 40 E. Main St., since 1980. It moved there from what now is the Erschen’s Florist building, at 10 W. Main St.

Erschen’s Florist began in the basement of John and Janet Erschen’s home in Kieler in 1979. One year later, the first Erschen’s Florist store opened in Dickeyville. Four years later, after their daughter, Lori, attended floral design school, Erschen’s opened in Platteville.

“Color is extremely important in floral design, and when I teach I let them experience the color wheel,” said Erschen-Bahr. “Color harmonies relate to arrangements coming out of the shop for different occasions. It’s pretty much a work of art — you have your color scheme, you have your principles of design, and texture. And when you combine the color scheme, principles of design and textures you have to work with, the end result is a tribute you’re looking to deliver, whether it’s the hospital, the funeral home or weddings.

“It’s a lot of fun, and that’s why I stuck with it. I love color.”

Both Erschen-Bahr and Margy Spensley, co-owner of the Bridal Boutique, deal with differences in colors that the less observant person might miss.

“Back when I started in 1980, I’d say 20 percent [of wedding gowns] were ivory and 80 percent were white; now they’ve flipped,” said Spensley, who started working for the Bridal Boutique in 1980 and purchased the business in 1985.

Judy Walthers started Bridal Boutique in her home in 1973. The store moved to West Main in the late 1970s, next to Tiedeman’s Menswear at the northwest corner of Main Street and Third Street. The store moved to the northeast block of Main and Third in 1980, the same year as a Main Street reconstruction project.

“We were hauling wedding dresses, and the sidewalk was gravel, and I fell,” said Spensley. “So I’ve been through two Main Street renovations.”

Spensley got interested in the business through observation.

“When my oldest sister got married, there was a beautiful, tall, attractive lady named Diane who I thought did just a great job with my sister,” said Spensley. “She also worked with my second sister. I worked at Roshek Brothers Department Store in Dubuque, and I mentioned my love of weddings, and they let me run the bridal department in the summer.”

Spensley married in 1980 and moved to Belmont. She didn’t want to drive to Dubuque on the old U.S. 151 or work on Sundays, so she started working at the Bridal Boutique in March 1980.

“They were very politically involved, and they were on the road a lot, and so they let me run the store,” said Spensley.

Spensley’s opportunity to buy Bridal Boutique came when the Walthers purchased a much larger bridal store in Zion, Ill., in 1985, and offered to sell Spensley the Bridal Boutique in the fall of 1985.

“I liked being the manager; I didn’t think I wanted to own it, but they said if you don’t buy it somebody may buy it as a mother and daughter,” she said.

Spensley and Ann Kettler bought the store in October 1985 and were partners for 25 years. Tomi Gill is the store’s other owner, buying out Kettler in 2010.

“I really enjoy working with people, listening to what their wishes are,” said Spensley. “They tell you what they want, and you answer their need. And to see their eyes light up when they see their dress is great.”

Pastel colors for dresses have made a recent comeback, as well as what Gill described as “soft, romantic colors.”

While Erschen-Bahr said “fresh flowers do not” go out of color style, “silk flowers do. When we started out in the late ’70s, we made our own silk flowers petal by petal, and we did quite a few weddings with silk flowers.”

The Bridal Boutique handles 300 to 350 weddings a year. Brides make up one-third of its business, with bridesmaids making up another one-third, and what Spensley calls “proms and moms” the other third. The store also rents tuxedos.

“You have to figure out who you’re selling to,” said Spensley. “Sometimes it’s the bride who makes the decisions; sometimes it’s the bride’s mother; sometimes it’s a sister or a friend.”

Erschen-Bahr consults with the bride to find “ideas of what she likes. There is a whole variety of flowers to choose from in different months, and different brides will have certain flowers brides will want to stick to for the wedding. I try to get an idea of the look of the wedding they want, and then I make suggestions.

“For weddings, I have flowers come in the Monday and Tuesday before the wedding and I inspect them — if it doesn’t meet your standards you return the item and they replace them,” said Erschen-Bahr. “For satisfaction guaranteed, I have all the brides come in the day before to view their bridal bouquet and review the details one more time. It’s good for me and it’s good for them; there are no surprises.”

The customers of bridal stores get their ideas from thousand-page bridal magazines, media depictions of celebrity weddings, such TV shows as “The Real Wedding Crashers” and “Say Yes to the Dress,” and social media.

“Pinterest is driving us crazy, because whatever is on Pinterest is what people are interested in,” said Spensley. “I’m amazed with technology now — I still find it should be an emotional decision.”

The store is busy most of the year, starting with its prom trunk show between Christmas and New Year’s Day. “We are busy from now until in October it starts winding down,” said Spensley. “Because people plan a long time out, that extends it out. It’s crazy here on Saturdays.”

The busiest parts of Erschen’s year are Valentine’s Day, the high school prom season, Mother’s Day (which recently has been the same weekend as UW–Platteville graduation) and Christmas. The wedding season runs from late March through October.

One of the interesting challenges for such businesses is how to handle a disagreement over what a bride wants, and whether what the bride wants will look good.

“It doesn’t matter what I want — it’s what the customer wants,” said Spensley. “I can make gentle suggestions. I always do comparisons against what they wore previously [in trying on dresses], but it’s still their decision.”

“I make suggestions,” said Erschen-Bahr. “One thing I do is if it’s needed, I will try and get the product in so they can look at it and see if it’s what they want, and that helps resolve any questions about what they want for their wedding. If they can see what it looks like, that helps make that decision.”

The Bridal Boutique holds one distinction unrelated to weddings: Every prom dress it sells to students of a particular high school will be the only prom dress of that kind it sells.

“The challenge of prom is we keep track what a girl wears what dress to what school,” said Spensley. “It is an investment nowadays, so we try to keep track of who’s wearing what so we don’t duplicate.”

“To make it simple and easy for high schoolers I keep corsages at about the same price point, and I have pictures they can look through,” said Erschen-Bahr. “I encourage a sample of the dress color to get a match of the dress color into the corsage.”

A store that has been open as long as Bridal Boutique gets repeat business, and some multiple-generation repeat business. Spensley said one family from Shullsburg purchased prom dresses in the ’70s, wedding dresses in the ’80s, prom dresses for their children, and now wedding dresses for those children.

A woman from Monticello, Iowa, would come to Dubuque to gamble and to The Timbers for lunch. She purchased her 50th, 60th and 70th wedding anniversary dresses from the Bridal Boutique.

“She’d shop and [her husband would] sit in the car, and then when she was ready I’d go get him,” said Spensley. “The one thing I feel very blessed with is the way we develop a relationship with a family, and I feel very lucky they come back.”

“I did a parents’ wedding, and I’m doing their kids’ wedding,” said Erschen-Bahr. “It’s kind of a neat relationship you have with the bride and her family.”

That included, in one instance, a wedding in Green Bay. “They shipped me to Green Bay with the flowers to make sure everything was set up the way they wanted it,” she said.

Spensley’s two daughters “grew up in the business,” and her two sons also assisted on tuxedo rentals.

One obvious question for two people surrounded by color every day: What is their favorite color?

Spensley said though she likes many colors depending on their use, she prefers blues.

Erschen-Bahr said she didn’t have a favorite color, but she said her favorite flower is a red rose, “simply because it means love, and my husband knows that.”