In the 50 years that Bonnie Broel has owned fashion- and bridal-related businesses on St. Charles Avenue, much has changed.
These days, grooms play a bigger role in wedding planning, sometimes eclipsing the roles of their brides, Broel says. Same-sex and vow affirmation ceremonies have grown more common. And food at receptions has become more home-grown, with Louisiana seafood dishes dominating.
But Broel says there is one element that hasn’t changed at all.
“The brides I deal with are romantics, and they all want a very special wedding,” she said. “Making sure that they get it is at the heart of my business.”
Tonight, the House of Broel Foundation celebrates its founder’s 50th year on the avenue with a Hollywood-themed gala featuring food, music and costumes. Guests will have the opportunity to dance in the ballroom, dine in the double parlors, and mingle in the courtyard of the 19th-century mansion at 2220 St. Charles Ave., beginning at 7 p.m. Proceeds support the nonprofit House of Broel foundation, dedicated to the preservation of the historic house and its dollhouse and bridal dress museums.
The grand centerhall house on the streetcar line was preceded by two other locations. The first — in the early 1960s — was the front room of a rental on Fern Street in the Carrollton section, where Broel made alterations on clients’ clothing and then designed and sewed originals to display in the showroom.
“I always loved fashion and was designing clothes when I was a little girl. I designed my first wedding dress when I was still living at home,” she said.
Hurricane Betsy nearly destroyed the rental apartment and fledgling business, leading Broel to suspend her fashion dreams by using her business degree from Soulé Business College to work as a legal secretary at a law firm. But her aspirations proved irresistible, and soon she was leveraging her legal connections to acquire a dilapidated townhouse in the 1500 block of St. Charles to turn into the first St. Charles Avenue location of the House of Broel.
The first of Broel’s customers, she was surprised to discover, weren’t brides shopping for wedding gowns but their mothers having trouble finding the right dress.
“Often, they would ask me to recreate an expensive dress that they had seen somewhere else,” noted Broel in her 2007 autobiography. “House of Broel soon changed from being the mothers’ last resort to being their first stop.”
The savvy retailer began including formal gowns in the inventory she displayed, hoping to broaden her clientele and attract debutantes and the Carnival ball set. The strategy worked, and as Broel’s business took off, she added cocktail dresses to her offerings.
A well-timed trip to New York helped her make connections with clothing manufacturers, one of which urged her to begin offering “the big ticket”: the wedding gown.
At about the same time, Broel noticed a large historic building for sale in the 2200 block of St. Charles. She knew it well, as it had been home of the Liberty Shop, where for 40 years debutantes and Carnival royalty had had their gowns made.
“I am an avid preservationist, and I wanted to save the building,” said Broel. “When it went on the market, the word on the street was that a developer wanted to buy it and all the properties on block and demolish them to put up an apartment complex. I couldn’t let that happen.”
While she worked out the legal wrinkles with the purchase, Broel rented the building, moving the House of Broel there. The sale went through in 1972. Although the building hadn’t been vacant for long before Broel moved in, it suffered from neglect, requiring her to undertake an extensive renovation that took two years.
The entire first floor at that time was given over to the dress salon and fitting rooms. Broel and her husband — the third — lived on the second floor, and her three sons lived on the third.
“There have been plenty of ‘misters’,” she said in reference to her former spouses, “but none of them were named Broel. That’s my maiden name.”
After Hurricane Katrina scattered Broel’s staff to the far corners of the country, it was time to revisit her business model.
“I had owned a small reception venue in addition to the shop before the storm and had gotten a taste of how rewarding it could be to host weddings and receptions,” Broel said. “Instead of always seeing brides at their most anxious and most uncertain, picking out a dress, I got to see them relaxed, happy, and fulfilled at their receptions. So I had an estate sale, sold everything and switched over to being a full-time wedding ceremony and reception venue in 2006.”
The wedding and reception rooms fill the first floor of the building. On the second, a collection of dollhouses — hand-decorated by Broel — is on display. One, a Russian palace, is Broel’s favorite and a tribute to her father, who migrated to the United States from Russia after World War I. A Carnival gown and dress museum now occupies the third floor.
On a recent weekend in the off-season, Broel hosted three couples from Florida who came to New Orleans together to affirm their vows. The next day, she was up early preparing for an afternoon wedding. Somehow, she managed to squeeze in the wedding and reception between a showing for a prospective bride and an interview with a Dutch blogger.
The 50th anniversary represents a milestone for the indomitable Broel, but it is far from a stopping point.
“I love what I do,” she said. “And I’ve always been a little bit driven.”