When Alyssa Milano, Ali Landry and Courtney Lopez each walked down the aisle, they chose elaborate items from Maria Elena Headpieces & Accessories to accent their gowns.
And when Monte Durham, a star of Say Yes to the Dress — Atlanta “jacks up”a client at Bridals by Lori, he brings out a Swarovski crystal-embellished sash or sparkly earrings from Maria Elena — to the oohs and aahs of the bride and her entourage.
“I love their stuff,” said Durham, fashion director at the Atlanta store featured on the show. “I just can’t imagine jacking up the bride without Maria Elena.”
Over the past 21 years, Doral-based Maria Elena Headpieces & Accessories, founded by Maria Elena Fuentes, has made a name for itself in the bridal industry, selling its high-end headbands, tiaras, hair combs, belts, jewelry and more to bridal retailers all over the United States and abroad.
“It’s definitely a niche,” said Marile Lopez, Fuentes’ daughter, who helped her start the business. “It’s for the bride that is looking for something unique.”
In all, Maria Elena Headpieces & Accessories sells its creations to 65 accounts that have a total of 80 stores domestically and internationally, said Gisele Del Busto, marketing and sales director.
Among the stores are some of the biggest names in the bridal industry, including Kleinfeld in New York, which is its largest client; Bridals by Lori in Atlanta; Roma Sposa in Birmingham, Mich.; as well as Neiman Marcus in Dallas. Locally, Chic Parisien in Coral Gables and Ever After in Coconut Grove carry the line. Outside the continental United States, Maria Elena also sells to retailers in Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Greece and Switzerland.
“The diversity of the line itself is really one of its best features,” Durham said, “because you have from extravagant to traditional.”
In Coral Gables, Chic Parisien was among Maria Elena’s first clients, and owner Catherine Fox Milian said the collection remains her No. 1 accessories line.
“They are works of art,” she said, “and you can pass them down from generation to generation.”
Plenty of celebrities have chosen to wear the creations, including Mariah Carey, Chris Bosh’s wife Adrienne and Mark Zuckerberg’s wife Priscilla Chan. So have Milano, Landry and Courtney Lopez, who selected Maria Elena earrings and bracelets for herself as well as for her entire bridal party — her mother, mother-in-law, sister and sister-in-law.
“The thing I loved about her jewelry is, it was so beautiful and classy,” said Lopez, who wed Mario Lopez, the television host and actor, in December 2012. “Her jewelry is so light, you can wear it all night.”
She also selected a rosary from Maria Elena’s collection at Lovella Bridal in Glendale, Calif.
With 15 employees in all, Maria Elena Headpieces & Accessories creates two collections a year, designed by Fuentes and made in-house in Doral. The company has also entered into exclusive collaborations with high-end bridal designers, such as Lazaro, Ines Di Santo and Edgardo Bonilla.
Inside Maria Elena’s warehouse on a recent weekday, employees were busy putting together the new fall-winter 2014 collection. Some were attaching Swarovski crystals and pearls to delicate headbands and sashes, while others were making jewelry boxes, jewelry and purses.
“All the pieces are vintage-inspired, so they have the vintage feel,” said Del Busto, who is also fashion director.
Headbands retail from $600 to $1,400; while a crystal clutch is priced at $1,500. Earrings range at retail from $135 to $315.
A showroom inside the warehouse sparkles like a jewel box, filled with Maria Elena’s previous collections.
Despite the recession, the company has increased its sales by 8 percent to 12 percent a year, reaching $1.5 million in sales last year, Lopez said.
Maria Elena is capitalizing on the $74 billion bridal industry, in which brides typically spend $28,427 for a wedding, including $1,211 for a gown and $266 for accessories, according to figures from theknot.com.
Accessories are also “huge right now, and play an important role in the festivities, said Jennie Ma, fashion and beauty editor at theknot.com, an online wedding resource for brides.
“People are really lusting for accessories: shoes, veils, headpieces, jewelry,” said Ma, who is based in New York. “A lot of girls are using accessories to play up their personality and set the mood for the wedding day look.”
Headpieces are particularly in vogue now, and unlike a wedding gown, headpieces, jewelry and purses can even be worn long after the wedding, making them a “smart investment,” Ma said.
“They can pair them with an evening gown,” she said. “You can get away with wearing them for a cocktail party or even out to dinner if you are bold enough.”
Maria Elena’s roots were planted when Fuentes’ daughter got married in 1991. Although Fuentes, now 64, had worked as an accountant, she had always had a creative side, and offered to make her daughter’s headpiece for her wedding.
“When we went to the store to try it on with her dress, another bride was trying on her dress and saw it and said, ‘I want one exactly like this,’ Fuentes recalls. “So I thought, maybe this is a business.”
Fuentes started making headpieces for her daughter’s friends’ weddings. And soon, she had created a small collection of four headpieces, which her daughter took to Puerto Rico to present to two stores there. Both said they wanted two of each style.
“She has a great eye for fashion, but not just fashion, but for what is trending and what will become fashion,” said Lopez, 44. “She forecasted that this will become the norm of what brides will want.”
Before long, in 1992, Lopez was taking the designs door-to-door to shops in Miami, selling more headpieces and accessories, all made by Fuentes and her sister Aida Correa.
By 1995, Lopez realized she needed to head to New York and present a larger collection at New York Bridal Fashion Week.
“That is when we really started selling, and that is when we opened the market to what it is today,” said Lopez, who is chief financial officer at her husband’s law firm and handles business affairs for her mother.
In 1995, the company moved into a warehouse space and expanded its staff. Fuentes’ husband Raul joined the business in 2006, and handles welding, and Del Busto, 36, who formerly modeled the collection, joined in 2005. She features the collection at trunk shows all over the country year-round and manages the New York Bridal Fashion Week showroom twice a year.
Today, Maria Elena’s collection has expanded to 80 pieces per season, all handmade by her and her employees.
And Fuentes still tries each piece on herself before a mirror, as she is designing it.
“This is a business of love, because it started with love,” Fuentes said. “I love my daughter and I had to do something special for her, and I’m very glad that that love created a business.”