Designing Dreams:

Jim Hjelm’s early life and career

You may have heard of Jim Hjelm and JLM Couture, but you probably don’t know the story behind the designer and the company. It begins in Worcester, Massachusetts where as a child Jim Hjelm enjoyed designing clothing for the comic book character Brenda Starr. In those days, he dreamt of designing clothing for the theater or film industry. But after graduating from the New England School of Design and enduring an unsuccessful job-hunt, a friend told him about a position in Boston at the House of Bianchi, a popular bridal house. This led him to essentially become a bridal gown designer by accident.

For two years Hjelm learned the basics to designing wedding dresses and eventually developed his own style for wedding dresses. Two years later, Hjelm started to work with Priscilla of Boston. Feeling confident in designing wedding gowns, this is where he learned the business side of the bridal gown industry. During the 19 years with Priscilla of Boston, Hjelm became a popular designer for not only wedding dresses, but also party dresses. In fact, much of his success was due to his designing cloths for Lucy Baines Johnson and Julie and Trisha Nixon, the daughters of two presidents. He also designed each of the first daughters’ wedding dresses.

In 1980, Hjelm moved to New York to design for Galina-Bouquet, Inc. Hjelm stated that he learned from his new boss, Steve Lawrence, “how to be a little tough.” Hjelm’s name had become so well-recognized that Galina-Bouquet featured him in the company’s advertisement, which helped his name become even more recognized. After a few years at Galina-Bouquet, Hjelm felt confident in launching his own label. Hjelm and his business partner, Joseph L. Murphy first asked family and friends to raise the money they needed to start the company. A year later it was incorporated and a year after that it offered stock, with $1 a share. This collection, titled Jim Hjelm’s Private Collection, was the only publicly traded bridal gown business.

In 1971, Julie Nixon wore a wedding gown that Jim Hjelm designed.

In 1971, Julie Nixon wore a wedding gown that Jim Hjelm designed.

Designing Dreams:

Building the first wedding dress company that goes public

Hjelm's gowns have changed from traditional to more contemporary.

Hjelm’s gowns have changed from traditional to more contemporary.

In the late 80’s, Hjelm presented his first collection where he featured traditional wedding gown designs. These were considered “heirloom” dresses: nets, silk, and antique-like lace. Hjelm explained that this style paralleled his background in the wedding dress industry. “It’s my Bostonian upbringing and working with Priscilla all those years. When you’re a snob, it’s very difficult.” For awhile this conservative taste proved to be popular, but in the early 1990s, trends continued to change and he learned to adapt. This change in style, combined with the realization that the gowns were more expensive than most brides could afford, Hjelm introduced the JH Collection. These gowns used synthetic fibers and were sold at $750, instead of the Private Collection’s average cost of $2000.

According to a 1994 Crain’s New York Business article, “Making matters worse, prices for beaded lace skyrocketed and theft of the company’s merchandise increased dramatically. When workers were denied their request for a pay raise, they slowed production by a third in protest.” Between costs of beaded lace, theft, and workers’ taking their time, the company struggled. Eventually the board of directors decided that Hjelm should focus on just designing and leave management responsibilities to others. In 1993, Murphy became president and decided to use a three-pronged strategy to help the company: cut costs, increase sales by diversifying the line, and find a new customer base.

The design aspect of the company also took an important step, when in 1994, Hjelm created a new line called Occasions Collection. This collection was the result of a focus group that the company had sponsored. According to Forbes, Murphy heard one woman complain, “I have ten ugly bridesmaids’ gowns hanging in my closet that I don’t have the heart to throw away.” The study found that this was a common belief among women. Murphy went to weddings, talked to friends, and looked around bridal boutiques and was
Designing flattering bridesmaid dresses is just one way in which the company succeeded.

Designing flattering bridesmaid dresses is just one way in which the company succeeded.

convinced that the market needed more bridesmaid dresses that could be worn after the wedding day. They started from square one; more fitted silhouettes replaced puffy sleeves and large skirts. Muted pastels and earth tones replaced bright colors. A year later the company experienced an increase of sales by 35%.

Jim Hjelm Today

Jim Hjelm became JLM Couture in 1997. The company feature labels from different designers, including Lazaro.

Jim Hjelm became JLM Couture in 1997. The company feature labels from different designers, including Lazaro Perez.

The company continues to offer less expensive gowns and high-end gowns. When Hjelm acquired Alvina Valenta Couture Collection, it boosted its reputation in two ways. First, the gowns gave entry into a styling category in the bridal business, falling between traditional and contemporary-classic sectors. Second, Hjelm acquired Alvina’s designer Victoria McMillan, who could help the company have a more contemporary style. Because the company had many labels, with only one as Jim Hjelm, in 1997 the company was renames JLM Couture. The Occasions line was so successful that rival companies copied the styles and advertising techniques of JLM Couture. The business also moved to being number three in wedding dress companies.

Currently, Francesca Pitera designs Jim Hjelm Bridal and Occasions Collections. She was raised in Laguna Niguel, CA and graduated from Los Angeles’ Otis Art Institute/Parsons School of Design. She also was a senior designer of the women’s label St. John. In 2004, 2005, and 2008, Pitera was awarded the Distinctive Excellence in the Bridal Industry (DEBI) award in the category of best style bridesmaid’s gowns. According to JLM Couture’s website, Pitera says, “Each dress has its own individual look and special details. Every little thing is important, even the placement of embroidery or the way draping falls over a gown’s bodice. I try to offer a wide variety of different looks so I can give to brides and bridesmaids a range of strong choices. The most important thing to me is that women are happy and feel absolutely gorgeous in their gowns.

Jim Hjelm Bridal and Jim Hjelm Occasions Spring 2014 Collection YouTube Video

Works Cited

  • International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.64. St. James Press, 2004.
  • “JLM Couture, Inc. History.” Funding Universe. N.p., 2004. Web. Mar. 2014.  
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