In 1883 the world was on the verge of enormous change. Thomas Edison was building the world’s first overhead lighting system, and Karl Benz was about to introduce the first gasoline-powered car. It’s also the year that a hardworking European immigrant named Henry Berlin opened Berlins clothing store at the corner of King and Broad.
Fast-forward 133 years. Berlins is now one of the oldest clothing retailers in the nation, and Henry’s great-great-granddaughter Ellen Berlin is now dressing Charleston women with the family’s signature customer service. “In the 1980s there were plenty of specialty clothing stores in Charleston, but it was hard to find a prom dress,” says Sarah Krepps, a buyer at Berlins for Women. “So Ellen started offering prom dresses, and Berlins for Women developed a reputation for being the place to go for the perfect prom dress. Young women love her because she’s a great mentor.”
“What can I say? I’m immature— it keeps me relevant,” Berlin says, laughing.
“Then, in a few years, those young ladies come to us to help them find evening wear for their own weddings, then they have kids and need mother-of-the bride or mother-of-the-groom dresses,” Krepps says.
Berlin says, “‘Mothers-of’ come in the store with the same concerns: They don’t want to look like a mother.”
“‘Mothers-of’ come in stressed and discouraged,” Krepps says. “By the time they get to us, they are not having fun. They’ve probably walked all the way down King Street looking for a dress, and everywhere they stop people tell them to come to Berlins. When they finally get here, we find the perfect dress for them. Often it’s a color or style they haven’t considered, or wouldn’t have considered without expert guidance. If they’d only known from the beginning that we have free parking across the street, we might have been their first and last stop!”
Expert guidance comes in the form of venerated and trusted staff such as Martha Verner. “Everybody knows Martha as the person who will not stop until she finds the dress,” Berlin says. “She can dress any body type, and she really cares. She has so much experience. She is the cornerstone of Berlins.”
Berlin says that being a “mother-of” can be a fun, exciting and memorable experience. “Today’s mothers are youthful, mentally and physically. They want to look modern, on-trend and beautiful, but still appropriate for the occasion,” she says. “Even though the focus is on the bride, they also want to have just a little bit of a red-carpet moment. Our aim is to give them that moment—to have friends and relatives tell them that they look beautiful.”
The Berlins for Women staff is well known for their Charleston-style service, even though dressing women for special events comes with an extra helping of stress.
“Once we had a dress lost in transit between the manufacturer and a wedding in Savannah, Georgia,” Berlin says. “The wedding was two days away. My father taught me that any problem can be solved and to start from the top. So I called the president of FedEx. His assistant gave me the number of the long-hauler who had the dress on his truck. I got in touch with his wife, and she gave me his phone number. He sorted through his enormous truck, found the dress and took it to the Memphis FedEx hub. I stayed on the phone all night with the Memphis hub until they had the gown on a plane to Savannah. The customer never knew. We have never had a dress miss an event!”
Then there was the time the concierge at the Francis Marion Hotel called to ask for their help dressing a mother-of-thegroom who had left her dress at home. “She came on a Thursday afternoon and we found a really fabulous dress,” Krepps says. “We got it altered, matched and found accessories and shoes, and she looked amazing. She liked it better than the dress she left at home.”
Sometimes, Krepps says, she has to help women by being direct. “Plenty of women come in with a preconceived idea of what they want, but dresses look different on the rack than they do on the body. Sometimes I have to say, as politely as I can, that I’ve been dressing mothers of brides longer than they have, and they need to trust me. Usually those women end up the happiest. Then I apologize for being so bossy.”
Berlin and Krepps say that this year’s trends are focused on color and texture. A favorite new line is Olvi’s. “These gowns are made of romantic stretch lace,” Berlin says. Another is Chiara Boni La Petite Robe made from soft, Italian stretch jersey.
You don’t have to be a “mother-of” to enjoy the experience and expertise at Berlins for Women. The store also carries a carefully curated collection of sportswear for women. Berlin says every piece has to pass the “fit, comfort, flattery” test before it goes on the rack. “We introduce two or three new lines a year,” Berlin says. “One of my new favorites is Jonathan Simkhai, who just won one of Vogue’s Council of Fashion Designers of America awards. I’m also excited about Rachel Zoe’s spring line. Her designs are amazing.
“At our store, it’s all about fit and trend. Period. Our sales staff tries on new lines before we even put it out. If it doesn’t have the right fit, it goes back. We also have tailoring to make sure the dress fits perfectly,” Berlin says. She buys for fit and timeless design, but most of all, she buys what women really want.
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com