Bespoke Socials – Keilah Stallsmith
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
When Keilah Stallsmith started Bespoke Socials – “I plan micro weddings and elopements for the offbeat and wildly in love” – this past February, she had no idea that a global pandemic was about to change everything. But for someone whose business centers on helping coordinate intimate marriage celebrations of 50 people or less, the timing of it all seems a bit like kismet.
Keilah, a Los Angeles native who currently lives in Waterloo, Iowa, with her husband and daughter, works primarily in the Des Moines and Iowa City areas and plans to expand to Kansas City when her family moves there in the near future.
She began Bespoke Socials by wanting to help vendors book more weekday weddings while also supporting couples with smaller budgets plan their dream wedding. Ultimately, Keilah hopes to steer the wedding industry in a different direction, not by talking people out of big, extravagant events, but simply by making another option available. She strives to push toward sustainability and show couples that there’s an alternative to a cookie-cutter event; she wants to contribute her voice to thinking outside the box.
You established Bespoke Socials as a way to challenge the wedding status quo, particularly the crowd, spectacle and expense. Tell me about the process behind building your business from the ground up.
Oh, that's a long story. I got married in 2014, and it’s funny because for a lot of wedding planners, their story is that they plan their wedding and love it, and then they decide to be a wedding planner – I hated planning my wedding. It was honestly a pretty miserable experience. It caused a lot of family drama. It still somehow turned out to be one of the best days of my life, but it was so hard to get there because you think wedding and you think either the big traditional white wedding or you go to the courthouse; you either do the big wedding or you don’t. I didn't know what laid in between.
We were only planning on 75 people, and all the venues we looked at were for 2- 3- 400 people, and it felt like, I don't want to show up and it looks as if 200 people just didn’t show up to my wedding. It felt like all of the checklists, timelines and guides assumed that you want this big traditional experience. We were pretty offbeat and quirky, and we didn’t want to do dancing at our reception. We played board games and did trivia. Even the 75 people ended up being too much. We cancelled our big wedding after I got super frustrated, and we said immediate family only; meet us in Kansas City in October, we’re going to do something. We don’t know what yet, but we’re getting married in three months. We can’t stand being engaged anymore, we just want to be married to each other.
So, we ended up having 40 people show up, which was still a lot. We didn’t expect that many. It was awesome, and we had a great day. After it was all done, it was kind of like, wow, why was it so hard to just enjoy my time with my family? Why did so much agonizing go into this experience? I don't know.
I have a background in technical theater, and a lot of people really don’t see how that translates to event planning, but you work behind-the-scenes and gather all the talent together. You talk about the purpose of it and what kind of impact you want to leave on the audience, and then you do it live. That’s a lot like weddings. So I kept working in the hospitality industry when I couldn’t find theater work in Iowa. I thought what's really closely related is hospitality, so I worked in catering and did event planning for Wartburg College for a little while. But then I had my daughter. She’s going to be three in December. That kind of turned my whole world upside down. I have a tendency to be a workaholic, but then I have all these responsibilities at home that were equally – and at the time, honestly more – important to me than my job; I had a child. It was really difficult to balance all the passion and excitement for what I do and loving my career with also wanting to honor my responsibilities as a mother. It felt like I constantly had to choose.
So, when my last job ended up being a really terrible fit, I left in a blaze of glory, just kind of like, okay now what?
It was February of this year, and I remember driving down the highway feeling like, I have no idea what the next stage of my life looks like, but my husband had been telling me for a long time, I think you should just work for yourself. You have all these ideas and you get really frustrated with corporate bureaucracy and the politics of it, and you just want to do your work. What if you did that for yourself? Maybe you’d have a better relationship with work. But I didn't know anyone who had started a business, until I started to look around and found that, whoa, I do know quite a few people.
And then I had a career coach who I was working with for about a year who also said, why don’t you just go for it? That was the scariest leap of faith that I’ve ever taken in my life, but so far I’m like, I don’t know why I didn’t do this five years ago. So when I started thinking about what I was going to do, I had worked in events for so long I wondered if I was burnt out on it. I didn't know if I was going to go in a completely different direction when I started my business, and then COVID hit a month later. I thought, well I was thinking about doing events, but now that sounds like an awful way to start, in the middle of a global pandemic, especially seeing how many vendors were struggling.
I remember even reaching out to a couple of vendors who said, yeah, now is not a good time to try to get into the industry and potentially take work away from other people who are struggling to keep their business open. So I thought I’d better take a backseat. Then I saw all these people who were considering celebrating small, and it made me really sad because when they talked about it, because it was like, this is a consolation wedding. This isn’t the real wedding. We’re just going to go to the courthouse and then hopefully celebrate two years later. We’re not going to make a big fuss out of it because we can't have the 200 people, and I was like, I know how to celebrate small. I know how to do that. It seems like, if anything, now is the best time to show people an alternative when the wedding industry has already been kind of turned on its head. So, Bespoke Socials was founded.
What’s the overarching goal of Bespoke Socials?
When I started, I was thinking about just doing weddings in general, so I had actually booked a couple bigger weddings, which is totally fine. I love big weddings. I love going to them. I just think there are so many different ways to celebrate. I found myself wanting to just do small weddings. It was hard to niche down, but it’s my favorite type of celebration, and it allows me to
work with people who have a smaller budget, which is kind of my passion project, too, because people wonder if you can celebrate your marriage for $5,000. Of course you can. You might not have a big traditional wedding, but you can have a beautiful day. It became a huge passion of mine to become another voice in the industry to show another awesome way to celebrate that's maybe kinder to the environment, maybe a little bit easier on families with drama, help represent the underrepresented, because a lot of people don’t feel like they fit into that neat bridal mold. A lot of different types of people get married, even if they haven’t hit their goal weight or don't have endless amounts of money or the support of their family. I just want to help those people.
I saw on your website that you have a professional alter ego, Elena Bespoke. What's the story behind that?
The thinking behind it is that I was still coming off a career that sucked the life out of my family. So I was trying to separate what I do from who I am. I wasn’t ready to tell family and friends about me starting a business yet. It was so scary. I thought I could work without needing to talk to anybody about it until I was more established. I knew if I used my name, which is a very unique name, it would be too easy to find. Eventually people did find me, even with Elena Bespoke, so I did have to come out about what it is. So now I’m thinking of just going with my name, making it simpler, because it’s confusing for a lot of people.
If you had to pick one aspect of your work that you like the most, what would it be?
I get to see the little version of me who was struggling, and I get to help her and show her the way to do it and the way to have a beautiful day. I get to help crazy in love couples just do the damn thing. I’m surrounded by love all day, and I get to work with so many creative people. It’s amazing being surrounded by art all day. Can’t be beat.
What inspires you?
Making things make sense. Making a new place in the world for people who maybe don’t feel like they belong or they don’t feel as comfortable. Showing them that as they are is enough, and we can celebrate that as is.