Four hundred dresses hang along the wall: white, ivory, lace, beads. Sparkling jewelry and high heels fill the front room. Necklaces are displayed in a refurbished antique china cabinet. Mirrors cover the walls surrounding three main bridal fitting areas. A small chalkboard hangs on a nail next to each door with the bride’s name written on it.
“A personal touch,” owner Karla Axtell said.
Bridal Isle is everything one would expect of a big city bridal shop, but gravel roads and farmland replace busy streets and tall buildings.
The brick storefront sits at the end of a strip of businesses in Loomis, Nebraska – population 382 – just down the road from a grain elevator and across the street from Double D Welding and Repair. With its modern black accents, wooden paneling and crisp, white window trim, Bridal Isle stands out next to the other brick buildings and pale shades on Commercial Street.
Near the shop’s cash register is a sign: “Isle start my forever in this dress.”
“When they find that gown is the exciting part,” Karla said. “Watching girls try it on, when they really see the one they love, that’s got to be the most fun.”
Brides-to-be from around the world have traveled to Bridal Isle to find their dresses. Karla said she’s sold dresses to people from as far away as Germany and Brazil, as well as to San Diego Chargers running back Danny Woodhead’s wife, Stacia.
Bridal Isle features dresses from a number of designers including Alfred Angelo, Christina Wu, Mary’s, Stella York, Bonny Bridal, Mori Lee and Allure. Bridal gowns start at $200 and go up to $2,000. It’s important to Karla for every bride to feel welcome at Bridal Isle, no matter her budget.
“(I want customers) to be kind of wowed that this beautiful store is in this tiny town,” Karla said. “And I want every person, no matter what their budget is, to feel important. Because you only have a little bit to spend, I don’t want your experience to be any different from the person who has more money.”
The dresses are hand selected by Karla and her daughters, Sydney and Haley, from a large three-day market in Chicago twice a year. Each designer holds his or her own runway show at the Chicago market. Haley looks forward to the trips, saying it’s much better than the old method of picking dresses from a book.
“You can kind of get a feel, but you can’t really see how it lays and what the fabric looks like,” Haley said. “It’s nice to see all the fabrics and dresses in person.”
Karla’s goal is to bring the big city glamour to small town Nebraska. That’s what sets her apart from other bridal shops in Lincoln and Omaha, she said. She doesn’t think of Bridal Isle’s location as a disadvantage. Instead, she believes it adds to the store’s charm. A search of Loomis, Nebraska, in Google Maps brings up just four pinned locations: a church, a bank, an elementary school and Bridal Isle.
“If you’re in Lincoln or in Omaha, people might just stop in your store just for fun. If they come to Loomis, Nebraska, they’re there for a reason,” Karla said. “I think we give them more of that small-town hospitality than you would get in a big city where people are going to be running in your store constantly. We have a little bit more time to spend with you.”
Their busiest days are Saturdays, when all three areas are filled throughout the day: Nine brides, three at a time, each with her own personal consultant. The consultants do their best to make the first appointment 100 percent about the bride and give her the time and attention to help her find her perfect gown.
“I have some ladies that get so wrapped up in their customers that they have that they’ll cry right along with them when they find their dress sometimes,” Karla said. “You can see it in their face, usually, when they’ve found the right one.”
Karla attributes the shop’s success as a small-town business to its atmosphere. Although it has a modern appearance on the outside, the inside of the store is warm with tones of light brown and white. Christian music plays softly in the background.
Karla said with a manager, seamstresses and consultants who are more like friends than employees, the team is able become more invested in the customers and want the best for them.
“I really am blessed with amazing people all around me,” she said. “I wouldn’t say there’s one of them that is here just because it’s a job. Every one of them loves what they do.”
It wasn’t until January 2015 when Karla made what she calls her spur-of-the-moment decision, to become the owner of Bridal Isle. She called Haley, before making her final decision, thinking her daughter would talk her out of it.
“I totally expected her to say, ‘Mom, that’s crazy,’ and she didn’t,” Karla said. “She said just the opposite. That was all it took.”
Founder Marie Thorell opened Bridal Isle’s doors in 1984 in her own home. She remained the owner for 25 years as the shop shifted out of her home and into its own storefront. Seamstress Jonell Mueller purchased Bridal Isle from Thorell in 2009, and the shop moved again to its current spot on Commercial Street. Karla had been working as a consultant for 10 years when she bought the shop from Mueller. Her first priority as owner was a new look. Behind the not-so-glamorous ceiling tiles, Karla knew there was an intricate tin ceiling above the whole store. Two months later, her first project as owner was to uncover those ceilings. The plan was simple: Do as much work as possible on the weekends without closing the store.
“People walked out the door on Saturday, and my kids were ripping the ceiling down (while) I’m trying to get the dresses out and get them out of here,” Karla said. “That’s the way it went for a while.”
Karla also added personal touches throughout the shop. Near one fitting room is a crystal chandelier from her parents’ house. Above each of the three main fitting rooms is a name of a woman that impacted Karla’s life: Great Laine for her mother Elaine, Aunt Lee for her Aunt Leola and Marie for Bridal Isle’s original owner. In between the other two fitting rooms hangs a large photograph of Karla’s parents, Bob and Elaine Turnquist, on their wedding day.
“My parents were a huge influence on me,” Karla said. “They were the best example of an awesome, Christian marriage.”
While the thought has crossed her mind, Karla said she’s never seriously thought about expanding Bridal Isle to a bigger city. She wants customers to feel the glamour and have the variety of a big city store, but she doesn’t want to give up the small-town hospitality. She said location might have been an obstacle in the past, but it hasn’t been a problem in recent years. She said she believes her success comes from the friendly environment of Bridal Isle and the investment in each customer.
“It isn’t just a job,” Karla said. “It’s what we love to do.”