“Whatever you do, don’t peek.”
Second-grader Emsley Owens waits patiently, hands covering her eyes. Her mom Cassandra and grandparents Craig and Debbie Steffen look on as Anne Ricchio, co-owner of Holy Family Catholic Bookstore in Pleasant Prairie, stands behind Owens and turns her gently toward the mirror.
It’s time for the big reveal.
“OK. Open your eyes.” Owens’ hands drop, and a look of delight spreads across her face as she takes in her reflection. Beaming back at her from the mirror is a little girl wearing a delicately beautiful white dress with an embroidered tulle bodice and full organza skirt.
“What do you like about this one?” asks Ricchio, as she bends down to meet Owens’ gaze in the mirror. “What are your thoughts? Thumbs up or thumbs down?”
The months leading up to Easter season — and the First Communions that tend to come with it — are especially busy for Ricchio and her husband, Wes, who have owned the store on Old Green Bay Road for more than 20 years. Along with their inventory of First Communion dresses, the Ricchios offer a unique service to families: personalized fittings.
“The little girls just love it,” says Wes Ricchio, a banker by day who can be found in the store on weekends assisting at the register and manning the back office. “Anne makes them feel like princesses.”
It all started about four years ago when Boston Store closed down, said Wes. “We couldn’t refer people to Boston Store anymore because they were gone, and it was like — what do we do?” he said. “We found a manufacturer in the United States, Lito, that offers a wide range of First Communion dresses, very high-quality. And we basically said, ‘All right, we’re going to do this.’”
“It all fell into place, and each year it gets bigger and bigger,” said Anne Ricchio.
At first, Ricchio drove all around southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois distributing flyers advertising the dresses and fittings, but word of mouth and pristine Google reviews have come to do the job for her. Cassandra Owens heard about the service from another mom at Emsley’s school.
“It’s just the experience, for her to have that, and making it a really special occasion being that it is her First Communion and it’s a really special time,” said Owens. “She’s worked so hard already — she did her First Reconciliation a couple (of) weeks ago, and we’re ready for the next milestone.”
Owens is, in fact, the final of seven fittings scheduled for a Saturday in early March. Each girl arrives at the store, located in a historic former church and town hall, to find a hand-lettered sign welcoming her. She can select as many dresses as she wants to try on, and with Ricchio’s assistance, she and her family find just the right one.
The dress Owens is wearing includes a flower pinned to the waist. “You can take the pin and you can wear it for your First Communion, you can wear it for your confirmation, you can put it in the bouquet on your wedding day if you want,” advises Ricchio. This dress gets two thumbs up from Owens, but they decide to try on a few more, just in case.
Dress season kicks off each year for the Ricchios, parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Kenosha, with a fashion show at nearby St. Therese Catholic Church. First Communicants from last year model about a dozen of the current year’s dresses, and little girls have a chance to rate their favorites. Wes Ricchio emcees the show. “Every year, the girls ask, ‘Can I be a model next year?’” he said.
For Anne, the fittings are a cherished way to connect with customers and help prepare little girls for one of the biggest days of their lives. Shopping for a First Communion dress can be overwhelming for moms, she acknowledges. “It’s such a big occasion, and moms don’t have many big occasions to buy dresses for their daughters. You don’t always know what you’re looking for and you don’t know how they’re supposed to fit,” she said. “The first year, it was a learning experience for me. Now, I’m in my fourth year, and you just get a much better idea of what works for the girls. And it’s so fun.”
So what’s the trend in First Communion dresses this year? Ricchio said that she notices girls opting for the “classic” look lately. Laser-cut flower details are also a big hit, she said. “They love to feel things.” And a perennial indicator of popularity is what Ricchio calls “the twirl factor” — what Owens shows off with this next dress as she spins around in the fitting area, the tea-length tulle skirt billowing beneath her hands.
“Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow,” said Ricchio. “That’s the look I want on your face. Are you happy?”
Owens nods. “I like when I spin.”
This is it: the perfect dress. Now, it’s time for a veil. Owens and her mom join Ricchio back on the sales floor, where they peruse the headpiece options. Owens needs something with a little less volume — First Communicants hold candles at her parish, and the fire hazard is foremost in her mom’s mind. Ricchio finds the perfect one — not too full and not too long, but with flower and sparkle details that match the waistband of her dress.
Like the girls before her today, Owens leaves with a bag of goodies that includes cookies home-baked by Ricchio.
“You’re going to be beautiful for Jesus,” Ricchio tells her. “Perfect dress, perfect girl — that’s what Jesus is going to be thinking.”
Appointments for fittings at Holy Family Catholic Bookstore can be made online at holyfamilycatholicbookstore.com or by calling 262-697-0333.