Last year, Greek-American Elena Grapsas lost her battle with cancer, but her legacy lives on at Ultimate Bride, one of the top bridal salons in the country.
Greek-American Entrepreneur Elena Grapsas
Greek-American Elena Grapsas did not have a long life, but in that time, she touched the lives of so many people.
Born Elena Karafotias to parents from Sparta, she grew up in Chicago, and attended Holy Trinity Church. No stranger to business, she grew up at her parents’ restaurant, called Shoppers Row.
She loved fashion, and studied Fashion Merchandising & Design at Triton College. A class field trip to Oak Street and Magnificent Mile in Chicago set her course. She was fascinated by the glamour of the boutiques, and told her best friend she’d love to someday buy a business on Oak Street.
Elena transferred to Loyola University and took business classes. Before graduation, she saw an ad for a position at Ultimate Bride. She applied, and was quickly hired as a receptionist. Then-owner and founder, Donna Kelly, saw Elena’s potential and took her under her wing. Elena swiftly rose through the ranks, and was promoted to back office, and then to buyer. She quickly became known for her “keen eye”, and industry-insiders took notice. They would often wait to see what Elena selected as the next trend, and immediately followed. She had a knack for unearthing talent, including the likes of designers Monique Lhuillier and Peter Langner.
In 1997, Donna Kelly was ready to sell the salon — but only to Elena. Elena purchased Ultimate Bride in March 1997. Under her leadership, Ultimate Bride thrived. She hand-picked designers to represent. Peter Langner and Oscar de la Renta are among the first designers she represented.
Elena met Constantine Grapsas through friends. They married in 2002, and have a 12 year-old daughter.
She was a force
Constantine said Elena was a born leader. Her confidence and know-how made her a success.
“When she walked into a room, she had a presence. People took notice. Elena always had a vision for the future; she was always a few steps ahead. She never looked back, only forward. She was a force.”
He said that Elena led Ultimate Bride to consistent growth for 2 decades.
“Elena tweaked the system, and made Ultimate Bride a full-service bridal salon. We have seamstresses, stylists, dresses for mothers-of-the bride, too. She was very hands-on, and people enjoyed working with her. She exuded grace, elegance, and strength in all she did. Elena was very well-respected, in the salon, and in the industry.”
A loving wife and mom, a successful businesswoman, Elena was feeling very blessed — life was good. In 2013, she and her family vacationed in Greece. Back in Chicago, she went for a routine mammogram. That fall, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She wasn’t about to let it slow her down. Elena continued growing her business and caring for her family.
“At Sloan Kettering, Elena participated in a trial. The drug allowed us 2 or 3 periods of remission, but it was so aggressive. The cancer spread quickly.”
Elena lost her battle with cancer on December 9, 2016.
“She was a great wife, one of the best mothers I have ever seen. She was also one of the best business minds I’ve ever encountered. She knew how to balance warmth and strength. She gave us the strength to keep going.”
He said that strength and resolve were attributed to her Spartan roots, of which she was very proud.
Keeping Elena’s legacy alive
Elena had great plans for Ultimate Bride, and she wanted them to be fulfilled. Constantine and the staff at Ultimate Bride are working hard to carry out her wishes, and keep her memory alive. Elena knew what was to come, and groomed staff members to take on various roles. Constantine stepped in to manage the business end.
In early May, he went to “Market” in New York, a gathering of industry buyers to reveal new designs for the season. Constantine said he’d been to Market several times with Elena.
“It was pretty amazing. Salons in major cities were influenced by Elena’s thoughts on designers, up-and-comers. I wasn’t sure what to expect, going without her, for the first time. I didn’t know how people would perceive Ultimate Bride without Elena.”
What he found was an industry that rallied around in support of Constantine, honoring Elena, and the future of Ultimate Bride.
The Bridal Council of New York orchestrated an amazing tribute to Elena. More than a dozen designers have dedicated gowns in Elena’s name, and proclaimed that 10% of all sales of “Elena” gowns would be donated to Sloan Kettering, where she was treated.
“She left her mark on this industry. She is truly missed, but they all want to see her legacy live on. We’ve made it our mission to carry on that legacy, and keep her dream alive.”
Constantine said that now they’ll shift focus from transition to further building the Ultimate Bride brand.
“Elena set the direction. We have an amazing staff here. They’re like family. And they’re all dedicated to growing Ultimate Bride.”
The next generation — daughter Lauren — is now coming into the fold.
“Just as our parents took us into their restaurants and taught us about business and life, we’re doing the same.”
This summer, Lauren will join the team. She loves social media, and she’ll put her passion and expertise to work for Ultimate Bride. She’s a lot like her mom, and is thrilled to be part of the team. Elena’s legacy lives on.
Ultimate Bride is located at 106 E. Oak Street, Chicago. 312.337.6300, website
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