A Fashion Designer Built Her Own Runway to Success

Heidi Elnora is making Birmingham, Alabama, an epicenter for fashion.
(Photo: Liesa Cole Photography; Illustration: Jessica De Jesus)
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Jan 11, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Bekah Wright is a Los Angeles–based journalist who specializes in travel, entertainment, and lifestyle.

When you think about fashion cities, Milan, Paris, and New York come to mind—but Birmingham, Alabama? Not so much. Heidi Elnora is determined to change that through her eponymous bridal gown design company.

After college, the fashionista was on an exciting path to a fashion career that included moving to Atlanta to work at Carter’s, a children’s clothing brand, and competing on Bravo’s Project Runway. Her journey took a tragic turn when, while driving back from an embroidery mill, she was hit by a drunk driver. The accident landed Elnora back in Birmingham, where her mother, a nurse, helped manage her recovery. While there, Elnora met her husband and made Birmingham her home.

Once fully recovered, Elnora reached out to a local wedding magazine and introduced herself as a bridal gown designer. “I had only designed a single wedding dress in my entire life,” she says. The magazine asked to do a spread on her bridal line, and with that, her wedding gown design business was born. “I wanted to create a niche in the market,” she says. “Something I could be passionate about and that people would cherish.”

Obstacles have been the norm for heidi elnora since its 2006 launch. “You can read as many books as you want, but to create a company that’s truly yours—unique, with its own brand and feel—there’s a lot of trial, error, and prayer,” Elnora says.

Heidi Elnora dresses. (Photo: Angela Karen Photography)

An early challenge for the new business was finding specialty items—such as zippers, fabrics, garment bags, and fabric swatches—needed to make wedding dresses. Once the materials were sourced, Elnora had to coordinate the logistics of getting them to Birmingham to meet production deadlines. Additionally, the dresses had to be shipped to 32 boutiques and 14 Nordstrom stores across the country.

With so much planning and organizing required to meet delivery deadlines, Elnora met with a UPS representative, who helped her streamline the company’s supply chain and shipping systems. UPS’s Quantum View has especially helped heidi elnora manage its returned inventory. “We have a seven-day return policy on all gowns, and Quantum View is great for helping us track when orders have been received to determine when the seven days have expired,” says Joy Hullett, the company’s production manager. In addition, UPS has integrated specialized packaging options into heidi elnora’s UPS account to streamline shipping and pricing. “We’ve really embraced UPS,” Elnora says. “The system has been simple and flawless.”

Heidi Elnora in atelier (Photo: Angela Karen Photography)

Partnering with UPS taught Elnora that trusting experts with day-to-day operations like bookkeeping can free her up to focus on the most important part of the business—her creative designs. “The smartest thing I’ve done in the past three years was to hire a full-time accountant,” she says. “It kills your creative buzz when you have to worry about numbers every day and prohibits you from expanding.”

For Elnora, being free to pursue these creative endeavors is more important than ever. Not only is there the wedding gown design business, but she also has launched Birmingham Fashion Week, an annual event now in its fifth year that showcases local and national “rising star” designers. She’s also raising a four-year-old and a two-year-old, starring in her own reality series, TLC’s Bride by Design, and starting a “top-secret” second business. “I’ve realized if I focus on one area too much, it kills my motivation,” she says. “If I keep that in mind, then things may not run perfectly, but they do run smoothly.”

Her advice for young entrepreneurial designers looking to make their mark: “You have to be ready and willing to donate all your time, energy, and heart to your business. Stay tuned in to what’s new and hip and what your competitors are doing.” Voicing that passion has put heidi elnora and Birmingham on the fashion map.