Like many a girl, Heidi Elnora dreamed of beautiful ball gowns and sketched her elegant designs. But unlike most of the others, Elnora has turned those childhood fantasies to reality — creating bridal gowns for customers she meets face-to-face in her Birmingham shop, for brides all over the country where her designs are sold by top retailers and to a nationwide audience on her own TLC TV show.
The star of the reality show “Bride by Design” and co-founder of Birmingham Fashion Week, Elnora is living her dream.
Her company produces dresses for 32 department stores and boutiques across the country and in London, and sales skyrocketed 300 percent last year. “The business has exploded, but ours has been far from an overnight success, ” Elnora says. “Next year will be our tenth year in business.”
Growing up in the small town of Morris, in Jefferson County, Elnora didn’t have much opportunity to tap into the fashion industry, so, while she pored over fashion magazines and sketched her own designs, she also focused on other interests. A high achiever, she won a softball scholarship to Central Alabama Community College and became her team’s captain. “No matter what else I did, fashion was always at the back of my mind. I even sewed my team-mates pajama bottoms, ” she says.
A visit to the college financial aid office near the end of her time at the community college proved fortuitous. She noticed a scholarship brochure for the Savannah College of Art and Design. She instantly recognized a degree from SCAD could be her ticket into the fashion world.
Her softball coach called the SCAD softball coach. Although there were no athletic scholarships, SCAD wanted her on the team, and that — combined with Elnora’s high grade point average — helped her win a presidential scholarship. “It was just one of those God things. I always felt I was meant to be a fashion designer, ” she says.
After graduating from SCAD in 2002, she designed children’s clothing for Carter’s in Atlanta, but she still had bigger dreams. She continued to create and sew women’s designs at home.
Then, in 2005, Elnora was thrilled when she beat out thousands of other contestants auditioning for a place on Project Runway. She felt she was truly on her way to designer stardom. “Unfortunately I was let go on the second episode, which really bummed me out, ” Elnora says.
But that wasn’t the end of her seemingly bad luck that year. On Oct. 7, 2005, on the way to an embroidery factory as part of her work for Carter’s, she was hit by a drunk driver. She was seriously injured in the wreck and sustained nerve damage that sometimes pains her to this day. “I will never forget that date. It changed my life forever, ” she says.
At first the wreck and the Project Runway defeat made Elnora doubt whether she was destined to go far in the design world. She moved back to Morris where her mother, a nurse, helped her in her recovery, encouraging her through her physical therapy. “I was really down, but then one day I decided to call my best girlfriend and ask if I could just come over to her house and hang out, even if I was just lying on the couch, ” Elnora says.
As fortune would have it, her husband to be, Jeff Baker, was at her friend’s house with his best friend, the boyfriend of Elnora’s girlfriend. Baker and Elnora began dating, and Elnora later left her job at Carter’s to be nearer Baker. She worked briefly at the Baker family roofing business. “But, after two weeks of answering the phones, I knew I was going to have to do something different, ” Elnora says.
Upon reflection — and perhaps a bit influenced by her hopes for her romantic relationship — Elnora decided to design wedding dresses. “I figured it was the most important dress a woman wears in her life and worth my best efforts, ” she says.
After creating one dress, Elnora — not one to be shy or underestimate herself — contacted an Alabama bridal magazine and introduced herself as a wedding dress designer. “They told me they wanted to do a four-page spread, ” Elnora says with a laugh. “I knew I had to get busy fast.”
She opened her own bridal boutique and design company, heidi elnora, in 2006. At the beginning, the company was just herself and a patternmaker she knew from Carter’s. Although her designs were well received, her company’s growth was average.
By 2008, Elnora came up with the innovative concept of Build-A-Bride, allowing each bride to choose a dress shell that best flattered her figure, then adding various trims and detailing to finish the dress. “Brides were coming in asking for the same basic shapes, so I thought, ‘Why reinvent the wheel?’” she says.
By the next year, she and Baker had married, and the following year, their first son, Jack, was born. The year 2011 was pivotal for her business. Elnora took her designs to New York Fashion Week and was picked up by Nordstrom for 15 of its locations. In 2012, son Bo was born.
By the next year, heidi elnora designs were being sold in 22 stories, including Elnora’s new Birmingham boutique location, the heidi elnora Atelier at Pepper Place. Last summer, the pilot for “Bride By Design” was shown on TLC, which helped further rev up her business. This spring’s TLC show has added an additional boost. “We expect tremendous growth this year, ” Elnora says.
But Elnora attributes much of her company’s sales growth to her sitting down last year and taking a long, hard look at what she was offering. Elnora saw that she had three basic lines — the dramatic, couture-influenced heidi elnora collection, with dresses priced at $3, 000 and up; Hello Darling, the lightweight collection, from $1, 500 to $3, 000, and Build-A-Bride, ranging from $500 to $1, 196 for short dresses and $1, 500 to $2, 990 for long dresses. “What helped most was clearly defining the brands, ” Elnora says.
While Elnora had limited her designs to one location per state, now her three collections could be offered at up to three different locations. The company is now up to eight full-time employees and four interns at its Birmingham workshop and boutique.
Alabama brides can visit the heidi elnora Atelier to be fitted for all three of Elnora’s collections. “As a designer, I enjoy being able to work directly with brides because it keeps me aware of their needs and the trends they are following, ” Elnora says.
Elnora continues to dream big, looking to create a design house that goes beyond bridal wear to include perfume and accessories and other fashion items.
“But no matter how far I take it, I want to be based in Alabama. We have talent here, and it’s home, ” Elnora says.
Kathy Hagood and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Hagood is based in Homewood and Norton in Birmingham.
text by kathy hagood • photos by cary norton