Picking out a dress should be one of the most exciting tasks on a bride-to-be’s to-do list. But for curvy brides, it can be a real challenge.
Shannelle Armstrong-Fowler learned just how tough it can be when her friend, who is a size 26, was turned away by multiple bridal salons.
“They discouraged her from even coming in,” Armstrong-Fowler tells PEOPLE. “They said they didn’t have anything in her size.”
At first the former public-relations manager was surprised — a curvy woman herself, she was able to find her size-14 gown fairly easily. But after some research, Armstrong-Fowler discovered that very few wedding dress designers go over a size 18.
“That’s the biggest problem, the sizing,” she says. “Some salons try to accommodate them — they say we can hold this dress up to you or let us try to pin the dress to you, or there may be one dress you can try on.”
Armstrong-Fowler calls the overall experience “embarrassing” for some women. But then she saw it as an opportunity.
“I knew I could solve this problem for the brides,” she says. “I’m an advocate by nature, to advocate for those who don’t or can’t advocate for themselves effectively.”
So in Oct. 2013, Armstrong-Fowler opened Haute & Co., a bridal salon for sizes 14 to 32, and has women coming to Chicago from across the country to find their dream dresses. Armstrong-Fowler shares a peek into her shop on the new People TV series, The Perfect Fit, premiering Jan. 9.
“I’d done the big bridal store experience at home in Boston and I was thoroughly unimpressed,” Brianne Jurs, 36, who found the salon online and stopped in on her way to visit family in Illinois, tells PEOPLE. “I wanted more of an experience, where if I saw what I wanted I could try it on in my size.”
“Shannelle gets it,” Jurs says. “She’s a curvy girl too so she knows it, she lives it.”
“At the store you didn’t feel like you were being put in a different category,” says another bride, Mindy Rosen, 25, from Milwaukee. “You walked in and you were treated like anyone else. They weren’t saying, ‘Oh here’s your section over here.’ My section was the whole store, which was awesome.”
Armstrong-Fowler says it’s important to give curvy women a place where they feel comfortable.
“The more people advocating for curvier women, the better,” she says. “There’s nothing but upside in body positivity.”
But Armstrong-Fowler hopes that one day, specialized stores like hers won’t be necessary.
“My goal is to create a world where my business isn’t needed anymore,” she says. “My dream is to have all stores carry all sizes.”