Fair-trade wedding dresses sold in Amherst

Celia Grace in Amherst markets wedding dresses produced by women-owned businesses in Asia

  • Marcelia Muehlke checks a wedding dress. DAN LITTLE

  • Marcelia Muehlke, founder of Celia Grace, a fair-trade wedding dress manufacturer, works on a dress form at her home office in Amherst. DAN LITTLE

  • One of the wedding dresses sold by Celia Grace, a fair-trade wedding dress manufacturer, at the home office of founder Marcelia Muehlke in Amherst. DAN LITTLE

  • Marcelia Muehlke, who started her business in 2012, spreads out a dress before doing a quality control check in Amherst. DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 3/20/2016 5:23:21 PM

AMHERST – Before her 2009 wedding, Marcelia “Marcie” Muehlke faced the stress of finding a gown to wear that would make her feel beautiful while knowing that it was made in an ethical and environmentally friendly way.

While Muehlke, of Amherst, said she loved how she looked on that special day, she never did find a wedding dress that she could be sure was not manufactured in an overseas sweatshop or harmed the environment.

These concerns prompted her to found Celia Grace – which she calls the first “fair-trade” wedding dress manufacturer.

According to Muehlke, it strives to elevate women around the world by having gowns produced by women-owned businesses which offer safe working conditions with no child labor, and where women have equal rights and get fair pay.

“This dress is too important and too expensive to worry about that,” Muehlke said.

Along with business partner Alix Kivlin, of Brooklyn, New York, the company, which started in 2012, boasts 20 styles of wedding gowns produced at two locations in India and one site in Cambodia

With the idea of becoming part of the ethical clothing movement, Muehlke, 33, a Groton native, came to Amherst in 2009 to earn her master’s of business administration and public policy degrees at the University of Massachusetts Isenberg School of Management, and developed a marketing plan for manufacturing fair trade wedding gowns. Previously, she had worked in public education, nonprofits, and as a project manager, all in Hawaii.

While Muehlke would not disclose how much she spent to start Celia Grace, she said she worked to keep costs low, using what she calls “bootstrap” funding, sweat equity and collaborations and trades. In addition, she won a few local business competitions, and funded the remainder from her savings.

Toured Asia

Muehlke did extensive research and then set off on a tour of Asia, visiting a dozen cut-and-sew producers, finding a handful that met her criteria for being small, women-owned businesses that could make handcrafted wedding dresses. Her company started with one in Cambodia, and in 2014 added the two in India.

At each of the sites, the workers use hand-operated wooden looms to convert the unique fabrics, including heirloom silks and laces that are sustainable and eco-friendly, into dresses that feature character and handmade quality.

“The silk uses very little water and no chemicals,” Muehlke said, unlike many wedding gowns, which are made from polyester.

“Conventional fabrics mine oil and cause water and air pollution,” Muehlke said.

Muehlke said her enterprise is also helping to promote traditions and customs. Many older women who survived the Cambodian genocide, she said, are now teaching techniques in using the wooden looms to their younger counterparts.

A principle of fair trade ensures wages that can give these women meaningful careers and a chance to go from being an apprentice to becoming part of the leadership team.

“The stories we’ve heard is that with the living wage they have more options in life, and can send their kids to school,” Muehlke said. "They can buy a TV, if that’s what they want to do. That’s their choice.”

World headquarters

Her office – what she describes as Celia Grace’s world headquarters –takes up a room at her Bedford Court home. In one corner is a computer where she processes orders, markets the company, establishes strategic partnerships and Skypes late at night with managers at the factories.

A closet at one end is filled with wedding dresses, with some occasionally shipped to brides interested in the product, but not ready to make a purchase until the dress is tried on. As the business has grown, the wedding dresses now also take up about half of the master bedroom’s closet.

The 20 styles come with names such as Maya Angelou, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Jane Goodall and Amelia Earhart.

“Each dress is named after an inspiring woman from history,” Muehlke said. “That adds to the story of our dresses.”

The Jane Goodall dress, named for the British primatologist, accentuates the waist and diminishes the hips on a bride, she said. At $2,600, it uses high-end fabrics, including thicker silk.

“It’s simple, but really elegant,” Muehlke said.

The Amelia Earhart dress, named for the aviation pioneer, uses lighter weight fabric and has less boning and structure, as well as no lace over it, Muehlke said. That dress costs $900.

Most customers are buying the dresses from bridal stores. The closest shop that carries Celia Grace wedding dresses is in Sudbury, along with others in Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Saratoga Springs, New York. 

“I’m proud that we’re already in bridal shops across the country.” Muehlke said, adding that she hopes some day her product line can be in every major city in the United States and places in Canada and Europe.

A trunk show featuring 10 dresses has traveled to more than a dozen major cities from Atlanta and Seattle.

When an order is placed,  Muehlke contacts her partners overseas to get into the production line, which can be several months. Even though each dress takes about two weeks to make, the sites in India and Cambodia also do other contracted work.

“They’ll produce the dress and send it here,” Muehlke said. “Then I do quality control and make sure everything is perfect.”

Once a year, Muehlke and Kivlin travel to the factories to see how things are going and to teach the workers new designs and styles.

“The best part is when we go in person and see ourselves,” Muehlke said. “Meeting the leadership and seamstresses, we now know they are amazing at their craftsmanship.”

Muehkle would not disclose sales, but said in 2015 they were four times higher than she had projected. 

Nonprofit partnership

As Celia Grace continues to expand, she hopes to give brides another incentive to buy from her company. This year, she is partnering with Tailored for Education, a Boston-based nonprofit that makes school uniforms for children in developing countries.

For each gown sold by Celia Grace, Muehlke pays for one uniform to be made.

This came after a brainstorming session with her husband.

“I was looking for something we could donate that would further our work of helping women and families, especially in India and Cambodia,” Muehlke said.

Jessica Roy, vice president and cofounder of Tailored for Education, said these uniforms are being made as close to each school and village as possible. 

“For some of these children, it’s the first piece of new clothing they’ve ever owned,” Roy said.

Roy said enrollment rates are up and absentee rates are down in the schools where the program is in place. Tailored for Education has worked in 10 different countries with 16 partners, and so far has distributed almost 29,000 uniforms.

Muehlke credits the growth of her business in part to the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center and the Valley Venture Mentors, in which she is currently participating in the accelerator program.

“That’s been great technical help and emotional support,” Muehlke said.

She has also depended on others in the region for her success, including Seth Gregory Design in Northampton; Joshua Sugiyama, a photographer who graduated from Hampshire College; and photographer Jo Chattman of Greenfield. 

“It is a local effort that makes this happen,” Muehlke said.

Muehlke hopes that her company will inspire brides to seek out fair trade products made from sustainable materials.

“The goal is to have bridal shops in every major city and producer partners around the world using indigenous fabrics,” Muehlke said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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