21st Anniversary of the Opening of Virgin Brides

Do you remember what were you doing 21 years ago today?

Well, on December 6th 1996 I was walking down a catwalk as a groom alongside a beardless Richard Branson dressed as my bride. We were launching Virgin Brides, which became the largest bridal emporium in London! Not a hard day to forget and one that I will always cherish and have extremely happy memories of!!

Richard Branson and Ailsa Petchey

 The idea for Virgin Brides came to me whilst working as an airhostess at Virgin Atlantic. I was helping friends organise their weddings at a time, back when there was no Sunday trading, mobile phones had not long been introduced, the world wide web had just been created, internet access was via a dial-up modem ! and there was no ‘brand’ in the bridal market, other than designers such as the Emanuel’s who designed Princess Diana’s dress.

Me and Richard at my VAA Wings ceremony in 1993

Richard always encouraged  the crew to share any ideas with him that may help Virgin improve its service. So I took the plunge in 1994 to write a three page business idea called ‘Virgin Brides’.  Richard kindly gave me five minutes to present the idea to him (which was one of the most nerve wracking meetings I have ever had!) My version of Dragons Den back then!

From that meeting he gave me the opportunity to explore the idea of Virgin Brides being a ‘One Stop’ shop for couples where they could organise every aspect of their wedding. Within 18 months of dedicated researching, sourcing and planning we launched the largest bridal emporium located back then in Trafalgar Square.

As a mere 26 year old, launching such an ambitious concept was massive to me. Richard was incredibly supportive and always encouraged new ideas and business concepts to be nurtured. I can confidently say, that my approach with my own businesses, has stemmed from his unending support and encouragement back in those early days.

I learnt a phenomenal amount about starting up a successful business and throughout my time at Virgin Brides – there were constant new challenges but we definitely progressed the bridal industry with our Virgin way. In 1999, we won the Best Bridal Emporium Award from the Bridal Industry, we worked with amazing brides and their families and the team of staff and experts on board are all to be commended for extending their amazing customer service skills and enthusiasm to everyone who came to the store. That is what Virgin is known for and we definitely gave service with flare.

We had a large team staff who helped us serve over 1,000 brides a year. My thoughts today are going to be of them, the brides we served and the joy of what was accomplished.

Updates on Key members of the team:

Our original MD Ann Barge is a very successful, well known American bridal designer – recently recognised more in the UK for the gown that Meghan Markle was seen wearing  in the TV series of Suits. She has an incredible eye for fabric, design and fit and will always be ‘the’ woman who opened my eyes to the beauty and design of gowns.

Our second MD John Illsley is a successful Financial Director in the City – he was hot on keeping us all on track with budgets and targets. I always struggled with this as I liked to spread my creative wings, but recognise that I learnt a lot from him over the years. I loved his phrase –  ‘is it essential ? or a nice to have? ’ which is a phrase I live by with my current business.

Debbie Dwek our amazing Wedding Organiser who was able to turn brides dreams into reality continues to organise high end weddings with the same flare and inspiration.

As for me I am a professional photographer and owner of White On Blue, and have been for over 17 years! Turning my hand to photography came from staging photo shoots for our marketing and advertising strategy. I still love weddings and thrive on making sure couples have the best day ever and capturing that. I also do newborn baby shoots, corporate and profile photography.

Richard Branson is now a ‘Sir’ and a billionaire rather than the multi-millionaire he was back then! And still doing amazing and inspirational deeds ?

Life works in mysterious ways – all I can say is thank you to Richard for believing in me (which I recently got the chance to tell him) and I will spend today mainly reminiscing about the fun Virgin Brides days and how great it was to be a professional ‘Virgin’ ?

A fun memory from the launch day with Richard, my Mum and sister!!

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