Plus-size bridal shop in Columbia walks down reality TV aisle

Yukia Walker didn't want another bride-to-be to experience what she did during her search for the perfect wedding dress.

"They were [holding] dresses [up to] my neck so I could imagine what it would look like in my size," Walker, 37, recalled of her hunt to find a plus-size wedding gown in 2007.


After her fourth bridal shop visit, she was dejected.

"I was so frustrated," Walker said. "We got laughed out of a salon. I started doing research. There was still nothing there."

Working with her sister, Yuneisia Harris, she eventually began to discover designers who specialized and offered dresses for fuller-figure women.

By October 2008, a little more than a year after Walker's wedding gown foray, the two opened the Curvaceous Couture bridal salon in Columbia, which specializes in dress sizes 12-44.

The novelty and success of the business soon caught the attention of the producers of TLC, who approached the sisters to star in the reality TV show "Curvy Brides." A pilot episode aired in August, with a focus on "curvy brides [who] experience their dream of finding the perfect wedding dress."

The sisters filmed a dozen more 30-minute shows in October. This spring, "Curvy Brides" began a full-season run of 12 episodes airing at 9:30 p.m. Fridays.

The show follows the two sisters everywhere, from work in their boutique to their lives at home. Walker is the mother of two children, ages 3 and 2. The series includes a visit to the New York Bridal Market, where shop owners, buyers and fashion editors view the latest bridal dress collections.

"It has been cool," Walker said. "It really does capture me and 'Neisia's relationship. We laugh a lot."

The Columbia natives said they are enjoying watching themselves on air each week.

"It is a window into the lives of two sisters who are constantly around each other," Walker said.

Even though the women are the stars of the show, some family members are also sharing in the spotlight, including their 66-year-old father.

Alan Harris, who pops up as the shop's handyman on the show, said he is enjoying watching his daughters on TV — and he doesn't even mind the occasional "snippets" of himself on screen.

"I'm absolutely ecstatic," said Harris, a Columbia resident who works as head of a defense contracting company. "It is an interesting experience at my age in life. It is fun to watch the producers put it together from all the little pieces."

Harris said he never had any doubt that his daughters, both college graduates who attended Atholton High School, would present themselves in a positive light.


"I felt strongly that the girls would do well," he said. "They've always been hard workers their entire lives. I never felt that they would do something that would make it something other than a very positive experience."

One thing you won't see on "Curvy Brides" is a lot of drama and fighting, both hallmarks of reality TV. The sisters said that they prefer comedy and entertainment over melodrama.

"Wedding life has its own natural ups and down," said Yuneisia Harris, 34. "I don't feel there was any pressure to be dramatic."

What you will see on the show is the emotion that's involved in selecting a wedding dress, which is compounded by the social pressures plus-size brides may feel.

"By the time most brides get to us, they have experienced some painful situations," Walker said. "They are feeling down. All you want to do is find this beautiful gown. For people to beat you down, and tell you that you're not whole … that's terrible."

Curvaceous Couture is designed to make brides feel at ease.

The 5,000-square-foot space has dresses lining the walls, which results in plenty of open space in the center. The front room is painted a light purple to reflect the sisters' love of the Baltimore Ravens. The back room is a golden tint and is accented by sparkly fixtures, including a huge chandelier. The dressing rooms are spacious and even feature flat-screen televisions.

"When I was wedding dress shopping, I was put into the smallest rooms ever," Walker said. "We have beautiful, large fitting rooms. Your family can join you in the fitting rooms."

The sisters have drawn from Walker's experience, and now use it as a way to help brides feel better about themselves.

"That wasn't anything we wanted a bride to go through," said Walker, who wound up finding her wedding dress during a promotional sale.

"We're built on building confidence," Yuneisia Harris said. "Sometimes it's difficult. They don't know how beautiful they are."

It worked for client Katherine Harrison.

When the 31-year-old health care consultant came to the salon in January 2012, she was shy and reticent. Harrison wouldn't even allow anyone else in the fitting room with her because she was so self-conscious about her body.

"A lot of women have some issues with their bodies," said Harrison, who wears a size 18. "We all have these idiosyncracies about how we feel about our body."

But by the time she left the boutique, Harrison said, she started to feel better about herself. And after a couple of meetings with Walker and the rest of the staff at Curvaceous Couture, she became so comfortable that she not only allowed employees and family members into the fitting room, she let them come in when she wasn't fully clothed.

"Come August, I felt extremely comfortable," she said. "It finally made me feel comfortable as a woman."

Before opening the bridal boutique, neither sister had experience working in fashion. Harris, who graduated from University of Maryland Eastern Shore, worked in pharmaceutical sales. Walker, a Hampton University graduate, worked in government contracting.

"I think we had enough of an eye to know what brides and people are looking to wear," Walker said.

Harris added: "I think we're very good at what we do. We know how to read curvy bodies."

Their lack of experience didn't stop the two from amassing a roster of popular bridal designers, such as Enzoani, Allure Couture, Pronovias, Madison James and Maggie Sottero — all in plus sizes. While many bridal shops traditionally carry designer dresses, it's rare to find a mainstream boutique that carries a vast selection of dresses larger than a size 18.

"We have hundreds of dresses here," Walker said. "The likelihood of a girl not having something to wear ain't happening."

Harrison said she found the perfect dress at Curvaceous Couture. She wore an Enzoani gown and a long train with "tons of organza" fabric. The strapless dress even showed off Harrison's arms, which she said she never would have done before coming to the boutique.

"Everyone loved it," she said. "I felt gorgeous. That came across when people saw me."

Harrison also has become a devoted fan of the "Curvy Brides" show. "I watch it every Friday," she said. "I think it's fantastic. It really looks more at the owners and their sisterly bond."


Because of that focus, Harrison said, she thinks more people can relate to the bridal shop owners. "I'm over the moon for them," she said. "I can only imagine who they have touched."

More important, Harrison said, "This shows that there are options out there for women who are plus size."