When Rachel and Ted Alvia visited 1106 Davis St. in Evanston, they knew immediately that it was the perfect location for their custom wedding dress business.
The married couple had visited several properties in Chicago and one other location in Evanston before they toured the former site of Fleebags, a store that sold oilcloth bags.
Looking inside, Rachel could finally imagine a showcase for Avail & Company, the wedding dress business she’s been running out of her home along with her husband, Ted, since 2005.
“I can actually see it in my mind,” she recalls thinking.
Just a few months later, she and Ted have moved from their home in Poplar Grove to Rogers Park, and a grand opening is scheduled for this Wednesday evening at Avail & Company. Ted and Rachel chose the name Avail because it means “of service,” and is composed of the letters of their last name, rearranged.
Although retail store has yet to officially open, the Alvias are already seeing customers by appointment inside the high-ceilinged space, where white and ivory dresses hang from the pale grey walls and a tall, white lace curtain adorns the floor-to-ceiling front window.
“We didn’t actually want a storefront at first,” Rachel admits. She and Ted simply wanted to find a physical location outside their home where she could make her dresses, and, also offer a space for customers to come for fittings. But as they toured more and more sites, they realized they wanted a storefront retail location.
“It’s just a different feeling when we see people walking and they stop in,” says Ted.
Growing up in an artsy family, Rachel enjoyed sewing but always imagined she would become a teacher. Then a friend asked Rachel to sew her homecoming dress—and the experience changed her mind about teaching.
Rachel went on to obtain a degree in fashion design from the Illinois Institute of Art at Chicago. Although she also designs bridesmaid dresses, mother of the bride dresses and other special occasion attire, Rachel says wedding dresses are her passion for a reason.
“It’s the most memorable garment that a woman will ever wear,” she says. “And for the girls I work with, it’s really an expression of personality.”
She has designed steampunk wedding dresses, medieval wedding dresses, dresses covered in detailed embroidery and showstopper ball gowns with yard upon yard of fabric. Although she plans to design a signature collection of dresses to coincide with the opening of Avail & Company’s physical location, Rachel says she enjoys working one on with customers the most.
“I have a hard time designing unless I have somebody to design for,” she says. “I draw my inspiration from the person I’m working with.”
Typically, Rachel meets or e-mails with a customer, then creates sketches that she puts on a private website and shares with the bride. She and her client talk back and forth about the dress, selecting color swatches and tweaking the final design. The whole process takes six to nine months, and each dress involves 20 to 50 hours of work, according to Rachel. Eventually, her client comes in for a final fitting or tries the dress on at home if she lives far away.
“Even when you see it on a hanger, it really doesn’t do anything until it’s on a person,” says Ted.
Having a physical location also gives customers the opportunity to try on other dresses while they’re at the store—and that has its own rewards, as the Alvias have discovered. Recently, one client flew to Chicago from Arizona along with her family, planning to commission a dress from Rachel. But when she arrived, one of the dresses on the rack of samples caught her eye.
Called “Love’s Affinity On Horizon,” the dress is made from strips of white and peach-colored fabric layered in narrow ruffles to look like a sunrise. Rachel originally made the dress for a gallery show in Springfield that featured works by creative families. Her grandmother’s fashion illustrations, her mother’s watercolors and her sister’s ceramics were also on display.
The bride loved the dress at first glance, and when she tried it on, it ended up fitting her perfectly. Now it hangs in plastic in Rachel’s shop, ready for shipping to the Arizona.
“She just loved that it had a story behind it,” Rachel explains.
In contrast to the cluster of high-end wedding shops on Oak Street in downtown Chicago, Avail and Company is one of only two wedding stores in Evanston (the other is Dame Couture, 1804 Central St., which also makes custom dresses). But Rachel says she never considered locating her boutique downtown.
“I don’t want to be the typical hoity toity snooty bridal shop,” she explains. “I want people to come in and feel like they’re at home and they’re welcome, it’s a place of creativity, and not a place of feeling like you’re not good enough, or not cool enough.”
Chiming in, Ted explains that their goal is to create something special for each bride—not just the dress, but the whole experience.
“When they come here, after all the work…there’s squealing and tears and hugs,” he says. “It’s a very cool payoff for everyone.”
Currently open by appointment only, Avail & Company holds its grand opening at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17, at 1106 Davis St. Members of the public are invited to tour the shop and enjoy light refreshments.