by MARGARET MATRAY photography by MARK ATKINSON
Opportunity often follows its own schedule. Maya Holihan learned that her first year in Norfolk, when she went from quitting a major bridal salon to owning it in a matter of months.
After six months working for Tiffanys Bridal, Holihan had decided to leave. Tiffanys had been around for 35 years and was highly respected, but she didn’t feel it was the right environment for her. The owners had been downsizing for several years and the matriarch of the business was getting old.
But two hours after she tendered her notice, the owners called her with an interesting proposition: Would she consider buying them out?
She was 30, getting married, and didn’t really have the money to make it happen. But with help from a business adviser and some private investors, she acquired a loan and made the purchase that would one day become House of Maya, a brand now synonymous with all things bridal in Tidewater.
What started with a gutsy move in 2004 has exploded in the past two years to include five bridal boutiques with 32 employees, a prom dress store, a magazine and a wedding concierge service.
Holihan has elevated the profile of the bridal industry in Tidewater, says Kim Wadsworth, founding editor of Vow Bride magazine. Holihan has no fear, she says. “She’s a rising star in our community. She’s trying to make our area a go-to for brides.”
Growing up on Cape Cod, Holihan was surrounded in the summertime by brides. She found herself drawn to the weddings nearby – the aesthetic, the romance. She thought she might become a wedding planner one day but landed in the fashion industry after college.
Holihan says she worked for Gianni Versace out of his Boston boutique for five years before moving to New York City in 2001 to work for Vera Wang. She moved to Norfolk in 2003 to work with brides for Tiffanys.
That decision was easy, really. She still remembers early in her time in Boston being struck by the emotion of a bride trying on her gown for the first time. “I was just blown away,” she says. “This is what I need to do for the rest of my life.”
After buying Tiffanys, now known as Maya Couture, Holihan spent the next decade turning the 10,000-square-foot flagship store into a one-stop shop for brides. She now carries about 500 wedding gowns there, as well as a line of 100 dresses for full-figured brides; she has a seamstress, florist and photographer in house.
Holihan has become a role model for women in the community, said Charlene Wallace, who used to rent space for her floral business at Tiffanys and now works as a bridal consultant for Holihan. She’s dedicated to her employees and treats them like family, she says. “You’re kind of in awe of her,” Wallace says. “Just that she can juggle so many things, plus a family, and is always in a good mood.”
Holihan is both driven and genuine, says Jennifer LaLonde, founder and CEO of The Bridal Dish, a wedding planning studio. Holihan now owns its Norfolk franchise. She has a “can-do positive energy” that people are drawn to, LaLonde says.
And she has focused on philanthropy in her 12 years of business, giving back to the community. Holihan, now 43, sits on the board of directors of the YWCA South Hampton Roads and has hosted several of its fundraising events, including a Brides Against Domestic Violence auction.
For the past nine years she’s participated in an annual giveaway of gowns to military brides, part of a national effort by Brides Across America. This year she planned to take it a step further by giving away a full wedding valued at $30,000 to a military bride and groom. Military couples sometimes don’t have time or the budget for a wedding and may be dealing with a deployment. “They end up putting off that experience that every couple should be able to have if they want to have it,” says Holihan, who herself is married to a naval officer.
“We need to appreciate and thank our service members as much as we possibly can.”
Holihan’s business has recently exploded, more than tripling.
In 2014 she opened her second store, Maya Couture on Main, in downtown Suffolk. She then expanded that shop into two storefronts and began selling prom dresses.
She became managing editor of the regional magazine House of Maya Presents The Wedding Planner. And she bought The Bridal Dish franchise.
Last year she bought three other bridal salons, each with a unique identity. She now owns two Virginia Beach stores: Silk Bridal, a high-end sample and consignment shop, and Pure English, a boutique for the Southern belle bride. She also owns Privée Bride, which caters to edgy, trendy brides, in the Ghent section of Norfolk. Each of Holihan’s stores caters to a slightly different clientele, and each carries different designers. The gowns range in price from $800 to $10,000.
The rapid growth can be attributed to the relationships Holihan built over the years. The owner of Silk and Pure English, a friend of hers, approached her. Same goes for The Bridal Dish. Likewise, the owner of Privée and the publisher of the magazine contacted her.
Holihan didn’t set out to expand and diversify so much, but she says that if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, it doesn’t matter when the opportunities come up. Of course, she now jokes that “2016 is the year of ‘no.’ ” She wants to slow down and spend time with her husband, daughter and two stepchildren.
And after more than a decade in the Tidewater bridal industry, Maya Holihan still feels the emotional pull each time she works with a bride. “It never gets old,” she says. “I love being a part of it, and I know my girls do, too.”