Exquisite Bridal on Eastern Avenue in St. Johnsbury comes to life as young men and women prepare for their upcoming prom. They come to the shop dressed in jeans and t-shirts and are transformed into chic, sophisticated adults—if only for one evening. In the midst of all the bustle, measuring tape around her neck, Carolyn Cross is in her element.
For many, a common thread runs through their lives. For Carolyn Cross, that fabric is…well…fabric.
“I remember sewing with my mother at the kitchen table,” she says.“By the time I was five I loved being creative and designing dresses for my dolls.”
Carolyn was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba and describes a typical“big city” childhood with two brothers and a dog.
“My brothers played hockey and I did figure skating and took piano lessons,” she remembers.
Sewing and a penchant for fashion was an integral part of her life through graded school and eventually led Carolyn to pursue degrees in Human Ecology, which she said focused on home economics, clothing, textile and fashion design major and marketing.
This led to an eventual career designing western wear for MWG Apparel, a large clothing producer in Canada. She designed everything from fancy western dress clothes with rhinestones and lace to the costumes worn by rodeo clowns.
“My degree included textile science and I eventually became an inspector for the Canadian Federal Government,” she says.“We inspected goods being imported and checked the quality of the material and truth in labeling... if a label said‘cashmere’ it better be made from cashmere.”
She has been married to her husband, Jamie, for 30 years. When they started a family, she decided to be a full time mom but always kept sewing, making custom parkas and dog boots for the Manitoba winter. Her two children, Keaton and Caleigh, were three and five years old when Jamie came to work for Weidmann in St. Johnsbury.
Carolyn started teaching children how to sew from her Waterford home.“The kids would be dropped by the school bus a couple of times per week. I taught them to make simple things like pillow cases.” She eventually rented a store front on Eastern Avenue near the Star Theater where she made slip covers for furniture.“I quickly out-grew that space and had to move to a larger place. There was nobody else doing sewing like this and it led to upholstery work and thermal shades. I even started selling home decorative fabrics.”
“We eventually bought this building,” she said of her current location across from Catamount Arts on Eastern Avenue in St. Johnsbury.“I just kept growing and needed a larger space. We gutted the building and built it out to be exactly what I wanted and put two lovely city apartments upstairs.” The store front is hard to miss with its large display windows that feature evening gowns in jewel colors against the shimmery black of tuxedos.
The wedding gowns and formal wear came out of the closing of Uniquity, the only tuxedo rental shop in the area. Men looking for tuxedos came with women looking for evening gowns and wedding dresses. Success didn’t come without effort, though. Carolyn was frustrated as she tried to compete with well-established companies.“They weren’t doing a good job. I was cleaning up the mess...people brought me their mistakes to fix. They would order on line and the thread would disintegrate and the dress would fall apart,” she says.“You have to be careful. Dress pirates steal the actual photos of dresses out of catalogs and off of websites and show that dress being sold for much less...but it’s not the same dress and it’s made with shoddy workmanship and materials.”
Her shop“Exquisite Bridal,” was founded to meet this need. Her effort to get the word out led to the“Fabulous February Bridal Show,” which is in its fourth year. The show was conceived and organized by Carolyn strictly to give wedding professionals a way to reach brides with their products and services. Each year the money raised is given to a charity. Relay for Life and Catamount Arts have been the beneficiaries in past years. This season she hosted 30 vendors and had over 150 people come out which is just about too big for Catamount Arts to accommodate. People were lined up down the street waiting for the doors to open in the chilly February weather for the 2015 show.
The future is bright for Exquisite Bridal and Carolyn’s bridal shows.“I am thinking of making a fall show and having the show at one of the wedding venues,” she said. More people from different areas are taking notice as well. The pageants in both Vermont and New Hampshire have found an ally in Carolyn.“It’s the largest scholarship program in the United States and pathway to Miss America,” according to Cross.“I started as a sponsor and even judged but now that I am dressing some of the girls it would be a conflict of interest”.
Carolyn is moving into education, sharing her deep knowledge of fashion and fabric with local area schools and helping them fund raise with runway fashion shows. Here she is teaching fashion and altruism.
“We raise about $600 for the prom committee at Littleton High School and Lyndon Institute did it as a project and earned $600 for Relay for Life. The kids do it all. They run the show, model the clothes or get their friends to model.”
Carolyn is also hitting the lecture circuit.“I am beginning to teach women how to buy their perfect wedding gown. They come into this and don’t know anything and bridal pros take advantage and sell them a dress too soon—which becomes an emergency for me when I have to alter the dress when their size changes or they become pregnant. They think they have to get the dress before it’s gone and they’ll never find it again. I tell them...just wait, you’ve got plenty of time. They also get told that a dress can be altered but they don’t tell them at what price—if it can really be done at all. I can tell them that” She says.
You can get a dose Carolyn’s sage fashion advice at her stores Exquisite Bridal and the Sewing Studio in St. Johnsbury, on her Facebook page or at one of the many shows she attends such as the Enchanted Evening at the Mount Washington on June 28.