December 8, 2011

Boutique owner has knack for picking the right gown

Reni Keen specializes in wedding dresses, not flattery.

Reni Keen specializes in wedding dresses, not flattery.

So when a dress makes a future bride look "chunky," "hippy" or any of those other undesirable adjectives, Keen doesn’t hesitate to deliver the bad news.

"No one ever walks in my door and says, ‘Can you make me look 25 pounds heavier?’ " said Keen, owner of Reni’s Bridal Boutique.

The straight-talking approach seems to have served Keen well. Her shop on West 21st Street celebrates its 30th year in business this month. Keen has dressed thousands of brides during that time, plus accompanying bridesmaids, mothers and flower girls.

It’s no wonder "Reni" (rhymes with Kenny) has one-name recognition among the city’s wedding industry. Indeed, Keen sometimes refers to herself in the third person – as in, "If Reni doesn’t have it, they don’t make it" – although that could be because English is her second language.

Keen grew up in the German city of Wiesbaden. One grandfather owned a fabric factory; her father was an engineer.

Keen was 20 years old and studying to become a pediatrician when she met and fell in love with U.S. airman from rural Mississippi named Joe Keen. That state was the couple’s first stop in the United States and Reni hated it. An aunt invited her to visit Wichita, which she liked better and where Joe Keen found work.

Reni worked, too – first as a waitress, then in public relations for Wonder Bread, where she occasionally put her German cooking skills to good use.

Later, when she was looking for a job, there were openings with an imported car dealership and at Shirley Rae Bridals, then a fixture in Twin Lakes Shopping Center.

Reni wanted to sell nice cars. Joe Keen, who’s now retired, "said that’s all men – that’s not going to happen," Reni recalled. She went to work selling wedding dresses (and eventually got her own Mercedes).

Keen had met and impressed Clarence "Bud" Coleman, who in addition to working for the outdoor equipment company that bears his family’s name, owned what was then Twin Lakes Bank.

"He said, ‘If anybody would be successful, you would,’ ” Reni said. When Keen decided to open her own bridal shop in 1981 the Twin Lakes area, Coleman’s bank loaned her the money.

"It was so emotional I threw up," she said. "I had it all paid back three years later."

In addition to Coleman, wedding photographer Howard Eastwood and florist J.R. Koontz were other important mentors, she said.

Keen still remembers the name of her first bride, from a well-to-do Cheney family, as well as details about an astonishing number of other customers. She’s now dressing the daughters of some women she dressed in earlier years.

When one of those mothers telephoned recently, Keen said, "I said, ‘I remember you, you’re the tall, thin blonde. She said, ‘Well, I’m blonde.’ ’’

Keen cited several changes that have taken place in the bridal dress business through the decades. Brides are older and often professional women with the means to pay for their own dress, although budget negotiations between younger brides and their mothers are still commonplace. Dresses with sleeves and high collars have been almost totally replaced by strapless models.

Then there’s the impact of reality TV’s "Say Yes To The Dress," in which brides, often accompanied by large groups of friends, try to find the perfect dress.

"They think they need everyone’s opinion," Keen said. "It’s too much!"

Keen’s daughter, Tonya Lorenz, who works in the shop, said her mother has an uncanny knack for finding the right dress for brides, often picking out the dress they eventually will buy based on a telephone conversation. Even more important, she said, are her mother’s "people skills" – a combination of warmth and directness.

Of course, it also takes good business sense to survive three decades. Keen stays abreast of the fast-changing bridal fashions and has some of the only dresses available locally from hot labels such as Maggie Sottero and Casablanca. As bridal shops have closed in small western Kansas towns, Keen has noticed more of her business coming from that area.

Keen admits to being a "worrier" but says her job is also a lot of fun. Her other daughter and granddaughter, Tammy and Amanda Shelden, have worked in the shop with her as well.

On most visits by customers, conversations about dresses take up only about a third of the time. The brides-to-be spend the rest of the time talking about how they met their grooms, who will cater their wedding, where they will honeymoon and so on.

Reni contributes her own stories as well, like the fact that she never had a wedding dress to call her own.

"I eloped!" she said.

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