By Pamela Dozois

Contributing Writer

For more than 30 years Maria Villegas has been making dreams come true, dressing brides for their wedding day.

Even if your childhood dream wasn’t to walk down the aisle in a flowing white gown or to attend your senior prom as the belle of the ball, your wedding dress or prom formal gown will probably be one of the most photographed pieces of clothing you will ever buy.

Villegas, the owner of Bella Bridal in Solvang, is the person who can make that moment memorable.

“I started working at a bridal shop in Lancaster, California, in 1981 doing alterations. My first husband died suddenly of leukemia at age 30, leaving me with three children to raise, so I had to grow up fast in order to take care of myself and my children. Luckily I knew how to sew. I had been sewing since I was a little child, making dolls’ clothes and then making my own clothes as a teenager,” she said.

The inventory includes accessories and jewelry.

“In no time, the owner of the shop, who was a very nice lady, asked me if I would like to work in the store and that’s where I learned the business. I opened up my own shop in 1989 and sold it after the death of my second husband. I needed a change and my sister lives in Santa Maria, so I decided to move to Solvang to be closer to her,” Villegas explained. “I moved from Lancaster to Solvang in 2016 and opened Bella Bridal on Sept. 2.”

Shortly after opening her bridal shop in Frederik’s Court, Villegas ran into some unforeseen problems. The building had been sold and was in need of extensive repairs.

“The courtyard with the fountain was torn up and the new owners had to do some major repairs to the buildings as well. With all the dust and workmen and trucks it was difficult to run a bridal shop under those circumstances. So I had to find a part-time job. I work at the Chumash Casino, doing alterations on the men’s uniforms,” she said.

Bridal shops are not like retail stores, she noted. She can work with a bride for up to a year, fitting dresses for the bride, bridesmaids, mother of the bride, and flower girls. “Some brides like to start early.”

Villegas also sells her designer wedding dresses to people from San Jose, San Francisco, Texas, and as far away as England. She also carries a wide variety of prom dresses, formal gowns, and party attire along with some accessories and jewelry.

“People come to Solvang for the day and notice there is a bridal shop in town and come into the store to have a look. I also carry a wide range of affordable prom dresses to accommodate local young women,” said Villegas.

“I do all my own alterations. Don’t open a bridal shop if you aren’t a seamstress,” she advised. “It’s very hard for a bridal shop to survive these days due to the internet. That’s why you have to know how to do alterations, because all dresses need to be fitted to conform to the individual body correctly.”

Villegas said that making a dress from scratch is not cost-effective, so ordering a designer dress and then altering it to suit the bride is the best way to go. Designers have their own different laces, for example, and they keep a tight corner on them.

“If I need to add sleeves to a dress, for example, I have to order the lace at the same time as I order the dress, and the companies make sure to only sell me a yard or so to make the alterations,” she explained.

Villegas starts her day at 4 a.m. and works into the small hours of the morning. When she is not altering clothes at the casino or dressing brides for their big day, her favorite pastime and hobby is making intricate Victorian lamp shades.

“I love what I do and I get to meet such lovely people and help make their dreams come true,” said Villegas. ”But my favorite thing to do is make lamp shades and refurbishing old lamps to go along with the shades. I love to keep busy and I love to create. It’s my passion.”

Bella Bridal is at 485 Alisal Road in Frederik’s Court in Solvang. Hours are 2 p.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and Sunday by appointment.

For more information, call 805-686-0762.