BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Most people people in the beauty business fight age, but Madeline Leake just reached her platinum birthday and isn’t afraid for people to know.
“Most people hide how old they are. I’ve got no problem with people knowing I’m 75 and I’m still here getting it done.”
Leake owns the The Colony Shop and Bridal Loft at 720 Avenue G, a specialty shop filled with glamour worn in ivy, gray, tan, blue and even burgundy and other celebratory fringe colors. The shoppe just passed its 45th anniversary and Leake is still looking to the future.
Upon entry to the store front, a worker from Floors, Decor and More Abbey Carpets was seen vacuuming freshly laid gray, black, and white carpet in the window displays. Leake’s husband, Chuck, was just putting away painting supplies after applying a new coat of matching paint on the trim. A new window display that would soon be reset by Leake and Bonnie Howard who had stopped in to give a hand that day.
Howard, recently retired from The Bookmark just west down the street said she was just in to give Madeline a hand for the day. Howard’s retirement is full of planned time for travel and grandchildren, an ambition for most business people who look forward to making those memories after serving customers for most of their life.
When asked when enough will be enough, Leake just smiles and after a brief moment replies as anyone, any age who goes to work, but doesn’t really go to work.
“I love it as much as I ever did.”
Leake, was selling on the road for the Minnesota Woolen brand and started thinking about doing her own business.
Leake started looking for a building in 1971 and said there were no spaces available on 6th, 7th or 8th streets. So she stopped into the Merle Norman store where her shop is currently located. The owner there said she “hadn’t heard of anything” but would keep her mind.
“I didn’t know what rent would be so I came in here. The very next morning, she called me and said, ‘Well I knew I was closing but I wanted to notify the landlord first’. And this was the size I wanted. I didn’t want big, I wanted small.”
Then we started putting together money and who really helped us was Harold Mohrfeld, Tom’s dad and he was a VP at Fort Madison Bank & Trust and he hooked us up with the Small Business Association So we went to Des Moines and they said they would do it with a participating loan from a bank so they did that for us.
So with a loan of $10,000 she set out on her own providing brides and grooms with all their clothing.
“To begin with we rented. We rented the downstairs and they rented the upstairs to someone else. Two or three years later we bought the building and in ’85 we put the bridal upstairs and then we had the whole building and we could do whatever we wanted.”
Madeline said sticking with a couple very reliable suppliers has made her journey easier.
“I’ve always carried Morilee bridal and bridesmaids. I picked up other lines, but I’ve never let go of them. If they say a dress is available you know that dress will be there in 6 to 7 days.”
She also has stuck with Elise men’s and women’s fashions.
Trends in the business have come full circle as now Leake says ivory color is back and she’s selling more of that than any other color. But she says weddings are not the church-filled congregational events they once were.
“Data now shows that 65 percent of weddings now are not in churches and destination weddings are popular.
“When you have weddings outside a lot of brides don’t even want trains anymore. So the dresses have changed a lot.”
Leake also said she has just recently started using social media and boosts to help advertise her products, especially prior to shows. She uses bridal shows to make contacts with perspective brides.
“These younger brides, even 30s and 40s aren’t reading papers, they are doing this with their thumbs and so we’ve just started using that. I really don’t understand it but I’ve got some people that help with it.”
With regards to the current business climate, Madeline had sage advice for those looking to start a business.
“Start small because you have a bigger hand in it and you can control it better,” Leake said.
“We definitely need to get younger people involved. I think it’s important for Fort Madison people to shop locally. And we’re not unique in that. Towns all over are competing with the Internet and big boxes.”
She did say she thinks Fort Madison’s downtown is in need of another restaurant that stays open all day serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. And efforts like that help protect the business districts of smaller towns.
“Back when we first opened and we there weren’t any locations available, we didn’t have to deal with the Wal-Marts and Targets so that’s how people did their shopping…in districts just like this.”
Madeline and Chuck have three sons Rob of Fort Madison, Joe of Burlington and Vern, of Corona Del Mar in California.