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Royalty gown, $11,500, and Belle gown, $8,495, both by Monique Lhuillier.
Floral guipure gown with satin-faced organza train, $10,990, by Oscar de la Renta.
Irina gown, $4,990, by Carolina Herrera, all at Ultimate Bride.
Boutique owner Elena Grapsas.
Ultimate Bride celebrates a milestone anniversary as an Oak Street mainstay.
Amalie Drury | Photo: Jason Riker | June 8, 2012
The mannequins dressed in white gowns are like angels watching over Oak Street from their second-floor perch in the bay windows of Ultimate Bride, where they’ve held court since the shop’s original owner began outfitting altar-bound women there in the 1980s. But today’s high priestess of the long-running boutique is Elena Grapsas, the petite and personable owner of Ultimate Bride since she bought it from her mentor, Donna Kelley, in 1997.
Grapsas will soon celebrate 15 years at the helm of Ultimate Bride, and as the anniversary approaches, she says she hadn’t thought to recognize it until an employee pointed out the date. “Every day is a celebration here—making brides feel special is always our goal,” she says, smiling.
Still, Grapsas can’t help but turn nostalgic when she thinks back to her early days in the business. In 1993, she started as store manager at Ultimate Bride and was immediately hooked. “I loved the atmosphere,” she says of the sunny, comfortable space with its row of adjacent dressing rooms, a stockroom bursting with fabulous dresses, and an on-site alterations staff stitching away behind the scenes. Kelley would take Grapsas on buying trips and introduce her to top designers. “She was shrewd, insightful, fabulous, and above all, she instilled in me the same ethic that led to her success,” remembers Grapsas. The protégée was soon buying on her own.
The ’90s were an excellent time to be in the bridal industry. “That was when it became perfectly acceptable—and a lot more mainstream—to spend upwards of $5,000 on a dress,” Grapsas says. The decade also marked a shift in the fashion sensibilities of brides: out went the portrait necklines and puffs, in came the sleek slip dresses and couture-inspired looks.
Her experience on the buying circuit has taught Grapsas that Chicago brides are more likely to branch out than one might assume. “Weddings in places like Florida or California tend to be more casual, but here, many are sophisticated, truly cosmopolitan affairs,” she says. Grapsas loves buying styles that stores in other cities consider risky—one current-season dress comes to mind, a color-blocked Carolina Herrera in shades of taupe and pale gray—then watching clients surprise themselves by falling in love with the dresses’ uniqueness.
Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Marchesa, Bagdley Mischka—all these names are staples of Ultimate Bride’s selection, and the shop also recently began carrying an expanded selection of eveningwear. But the top-selling designer is Monique Lhuillier, who was nearly unknown when Grapsas met her at a bridal show in Las Vegas in 1996. “She showed me her very first collection, and I thought it was so beautiful. I bought most of it, and we’ve been friends ever since,” says Grapsas.
“Elena buys with a tremendous sense of confidence. She has no fear,” says Lhuillier. The shop owner and the designer’s relationship goes beyond business; the two often get their children together for fun-filled visits. “She’s a wonderful friend, and she lights up a room with her positive attitude,” adds the designer. Such a personality, it seems, is also helpful when it comes to winning the trust of that most finicky of shoppers: the dress-hunting bride.
Ultimate Bride, 106 E. Oak St., 312.337.6300