A mission to find a pageant dress for her daughter led Cherie Hyams to open her own business 20 years ago near downtown Hopkinsville.
On Tuesday, Hyams will celebrate two decades as the owner of Special Occasions Plus Bridal. The doors opened Feb. 11, 2000, at 1204 Liberty St.
“We couldn’t find any pageant dresses to buy,” she said. “Back then, there was no online, no internet … you had to either go to a brick-and-mortar store or you went to a department store, and nobody had them. They were so expensive when you found them.”
Each summer just before the Western Kentucky State Fair, Hyams said people would ask her if they could rent her daughter’s dresses to compete in the pageants. So, she placed several of her daughter’s formals on a rack at the beauty parlor next door, which was operated by her sister-in-law.
“I rented them and I thought that’s something that might be good,” she said. “This building came up for sale. My mother-in-law bought it to tear it down to put in parking spots for the beauty shop. I talked her out of it.”
Hyams said she went to a bank to secure a loan to open her business. They denied the loan.
“I said, ‘OK, I can do this’,” she said. “And I did.”
She started her business in the first three rooms of the current location.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’ll never fill this place up’,” she said. “I have no room now to put anything. I have over 3,000 dresses. I have probably over 200 tuxedos. I have built on because I had to.”
To stock her store initially, Hyams traveled to Atlanta and shopped around for formalwear.
“I had sweatpants on, tennis shoes on and I went into one company and they shut the door in my face. I looked like I probably couldn’t afford anything,” she said. “I went to the next company and I felt like ‘Pretty Woman.’ I bought 40 dresses … and I went back (next door) and said ‘sorry you missed out.’ ”
To educate herself on the business she took wedding courses online and local floral arrangement classes.
“I did everything myself, but I had a lot of good employees throughout the years,” she said.
Her years of experience has taught Hyams that history repeats itself in the world of fashion.
“When I first started, the second year into my business, everything went short,” she said. “Cocktail, poofy, cupcake-type dresses. That’s what people wore.”
She said two years later the styles were high-low cut dresses, followed by animal prints, two pieces and mermaid cuts.
“It goes to show you all the styles start and then they come back. They always come back,” she said.
Not only do dress styles give Hyams a feeling of deja vu, but also fabrics, like taffeta, chiffon and satin, which have fallen in and out of the limelight for years.
“Charmeuse was really popular probably 15 years ago. The charmeuse came back heavy this year, which is a silky, lightweight fabric,” she said. “When I went to Atlanta to buy this year, it was like oh no the nightgowns are back.”
Colors for bridesmaids dresses seem to go in cycles, too, she said. Popular colors were taupes, lavender and baby blue in the early years for bridesmaids’ dresses.
“When lavender went out of style, I was so excited,” she said. “Lavender is starting to come back though. We had dark purples, light purples. Back then, you just didn’t wear a black dress for a wedding. Now, yes, because the girls can wear it again.”
Hyams said now there are 53 different colors for dresses in two big, thick books full of styles.
Before the internet and cell phones, Hyams said shop owners either traveled to fashion markets in big cities, ordered from catalogs or faxed dress orders into companies.
“Now, you get online and punch them in,” she said.
“I’m still a little old fashioned. I still like my sales reps to come in here and show me dresses. I like the one-on-one business. I like talking to people.”
In addition to selling wedding gowns and bridesmaid’s dresses, Special Occasions Plus rents children’s pageant dresses and tuxedos.
“When I first went in business we had bridesmaids dresses (to rent),” she said. “We had eight colors of bridesmaids (dresses) and three styles. That’s all you had to choose. I rented them for $75. They paid for their alterations. Now, that’s totally unheard of.”
Special Occasions Plus has rented tuxedos some since day one, but Hyams said her business increased when DB’s closed.
“My mother worked for him. When he left the suit-tuxedo rental business in Indian Hills, he gave me all of his stuff,” she said.
Since 2015, Special Occasions Plus Bridal has received Jim’s Formal Wear Elite Formal Wear Retailer of the Year awards.
“This is for accuracy and customer service,” she said. “And, they do surveys of customers and I got nothing but good reviews.”
Hyams said her shop is the busiest from January through July when there are weddings, proms, military balls and pageants. In the 2019 prom season, she sold 330 dresses from the first of January through the second weekend of May.
“I’ve had up to six weddings a weekend before,” she said. “When I have proms, I do at least 100-150 tuxes a weekend.”
Every year, Hyams donates some of her dresses to Hopkinsville and Christian County high schools for students who cannot afford a prom dress may check out a gown for free.
“That way they can go to prom,” she said. “We want them to go to prom.”
She also donates dresses for Night to Shine, a prom for special needs individuals, co-sponsored by Hillcrest Baptist Church and the Tim Tebow Foundation.
Hyams is also a founder of the annual Bridal Expo at the James E. Bruce Convention Center and a member of the Western Kentucky State Fair Board, where she helps with fair pageants.
Looking back, moving forward
For the past 20 years, Hyams said she has enjoyed finding the perfect dress or suit for her customers. Ironically, this bridal shop owner is more of a tomboy.
“I can dress anybody else in the world, but I can’t dress me,” Hyams said, smiling. “I’m not a dress person. I’d rather be in jeans and a T-shirt and flip flops.”
For those who enjoy dressing up, Hyams said her business has seen loyal customers bring their children and grandchildren into her store to shop.
“I have people who rely on me to dress them from head to toe,” she said. “It makes me feel wonderful and that’s why I’m still here. The customers are what has kept me here.”
Throughout the challenges of running her own business, Hyams said the best part of the past two decades has been making friends.
“Not only have I dressed people, I’ve become friends with those people. Lifelong friends,” she said.
Although Special Occasions Plus Bridal has been around a while, Hyams said she would like to see more local customers walk through her doors. Unfortunately, she said many locals believe they have to shop elsewhere to avoid wearing the same dress as their peers.
“When I went to prom, I had the same dress as somebody else and it was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Hyams said. “I will not do that to a girl. I try to buy ones of everything. I’m big about not sending the same dress to the same function.
“Because I care about people, I think that’s what made me successful in my business,” she added. “The customer relationship means more to me than making that sale.”
To celebrate her business’ 20-year milestone, Hyams invites the community to an open house on Feb. 15. Customers can save 20% off everything in the store that day. Doors open at 10 a.m.
“We’re going to have door prizes. We’re going to have cupcakes and punch,” she said.
Regular hours at Special Occasions Plus Bridal are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, call 270-885-1730.
As for the future, Hyams said she plans to continue her passion for fashion, but hopes to pass on her love of the business.
“I’ll be here until I just can’t get up them stairs, I guess,” she said. “But, eventually, I would love somebody who loves it as much as me to come in and take it over. They have to have the love of it.”
Reach Michele Vowell at 270-887-3242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.