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Wedding Boutiques Thrive; Dress Chains Do Not

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Last year, seemingly out of the blue, scores of Alfred Angelo wedding dress stores closed. Brides-to-be, including those who bought their gowns at the store in Boardman, were left without a gown to wear on their big day. In some cases, the dresses were locked in the boutique, in sight but untouchable.

More than a year later, local bridal boutiques see the closing of the 60-store chain as a boost to their businesses.

“You can’t do what we do being a huge company,” says Lori Dubasik, owner of Evaline’s Bridal in Warren. “This is a very intimate purchase and you don’t want to run your company where your style consultants are rushed or feel pressured. Boutiques are doing far better than the big-box stores are and I think that will continue.”

Another chain wedding store with a presence here, David’s Bridal, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November, which has scared away some brides from wanting to buy their wedding dress at the store, says Stephanie Farr, store manager at Stephanie Leigh Bridal in Girard.

“It’s only helped local business and small business because people feel comfort in working with someone who is owning the store instead of just a big-box store,” she says.

At Treasured Moments in Boardman, owner Sara Ludt agrees that as big-box stores struggle, smaller wedding boutiques are prospering.

“Normally, chain stores work for other industries, but for bridal it doesn’t because they want a more intimate or one-on-one experience,” she says. “Some people have come in here and said they didn’t know if they wanted to get a dress [at David’s Bridal] because, ‘What if they screw me over?’ ”

Thirty-three years ago, Toula Kostoglou opened her store, Toula’s Bridal, in Canfield and says she gets to personally know each bride who buys a dress since she is the one who helps customers try on dresses, buy their dresses and then she does the alterations.

Like many bridal stores, Toula’s Bridal also sells accessories, dresses for the mother of the bride, bridesmaids and flower girl, and also offers formal and prom dresses.

Many of Kostoglou’s customers travel from Cleveland and Pittsburgh to visit her store. “We have lines they don’t carry,” she says. “We like to sell lines that aren’t in every other store.”

Among her most popular lines are Pronovias from Spain and Eddy K from Italy, noting that she stocks some 3,000 dresses.

“We carry such a large selection that if a bride wants to get married tomorrow, we have it,” she says.

Over the years, she has seen many women buy their wedding dress and then return when it’s time to find her mother-of-the-bride dress for her own daughter’s wedding, Kostoglou says.

Similarly, Dubasik has seen generations of brides shop at her store, which has been open more than 70 years. In the past, customers would come into her store 12 to 18 months before their weddings, but now more customers are coming only six months in advance to find a dress.

“Buy your dress as soon as you can, but don’t buy your dress until you know it’s the dress,” the owner of Evaline’s Bridal says.

Dresses at the Warren boutique range in price from $1,100 to $8,000, Dubasik says.

According to The Knot, the 2017 national average spent on a wedding dress was $1,509.

“Today’s brides want to put their money into their gowns because they’ve watched ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ and they see the budgets that those gowns come out to be,” Dubasik says. “It doesn’t matter whether you spend $500 or $5,000. You have to love it.”

Dubasik and the other boutique owners say they have an advantage over the chain stores because they handpick their offerings from around the world so they can offer dresses not sold at most bridal boutiques.

“What’s nice about us is I could go to New York and pick up any line that I want where Alfred Angelo is limited to what that company can sell,” she says. “We try to pick up things that aren’t everywhere.”

Among the more popular lines at Evaline’s Bridal are Eve of Milady from New York City and Leah Da Gloria from Australia.

A popular style of dress that Ludt of Treasured Moments is seeing more customers buy are bohemian-style dresses.

Sara Ludt, owner of Treasured Moments Bridal and Formal, stands next to a bohemian-styled dress, which she says is currently popular among brides.

“More of a flowy-boho look is in,” she says. “One thing that has been more popular are the rose gold accents and not necessarily a white or ivory wedding dress anymore. We get a lot of girls who look at blush wedding dresses.”

With the help of websites such as Pinterest, most women know what dress style they like before entering a dress store. But there are still some who come into the store and don’t have any idea what they like.

When this happens, Ludt says they help the soon-to-be-bride by having her try on a dress in each style, such as a ball gown, fit and flare, mermaid and A-line available in strap and strapless styles.

Over the past few years, it has become more common for some brides to buy a few dresses: one for the wedding ceremony, one for the reception and one for the after-party. In 2016, Brides magazine reported that 7% of brides buy three dresses to wear on their wedding day.

No matter how many dresses are bought, however, alterations are most likely needed.

“These dresses are made for women over six feet tall,” Ludt says. “We’ve had people come in who are getting married next weekend and need a dress now. So we do rush alterations and they get a dress off the rack, but generally we say six to eight weeks.”

Stephanie Leigh’s Farr says she’s seen brides as many as 10 times, but notes the average is three: the first appointment, an alteration and then for the final fitting before the wedding.

When women come in for the final fitting, Farr says, it is more popular now to bring an entourage with her, such as her mother and her bridesmaids for a champagne toast to celebrate her choice of dress.

“For the first appointment, I say bring a small crowd because a small, intimate group doesn’t overwhelm the bride,” she says. “Once you say yes, then bring everyone with you.”

When it comes to bridal accessories, Saundra Farr, owner of Stephanie Leigh, says it’s popular for brides to wear cathedral-length veils for the ceremony and then change into a shorter veil or crystal headpiece worn on the side of her head for the reception.

Headpieces can run between $75 and $200, and veils can run from under $100 up to $500, if the beading or lace on the veil is elaborate.

Long-sleeved dresses neutral in color, such as shades of silver, taupe, beige, navy blue and black, are often worn by the mother of the bride to accent the bridesmaids dresses, but not clash, Saundra Farr says.

Kostoglou of Toula’s Bridal agrees that the mother-of-the-bride dress should complement the bridesmaid dresses, but be a different color. This year, she is seeing the purchase of many burgundy and plum bridesmaid dresses, with a vast majority being floor length. “I’ve done more plum colors than any other year,” she says.

When it comes to wedding dresses, Kostoglou says the dresses aren’t as heavily beaded as they once were and a majority of the dresses are ivory, not white.

“A lot of the brides are looking for something that’s beautiful, but it’s comfortable to wear all day,” she says. “Some of them used to be so heavy they would put so many beads on them, you could barely lift them.”

Even though certain dress styles trend each year, Dubasik says it’s important to offer a variety for brides, because each woman envisions herself differently on her wedding day.

“There are brides that love tulle. There are brides that love mikado, the fabric that’s very crisp, and there’s brides that want nothing, just plain,” she says.

No matter where a woman shops for her wedding dress, “Don’t feel pressured and make sure they are invested in your vision,” Dubasik says. “It is the dress of all dresses.”

Pictured: Evaline’s Bridal owner Lori Dubasik helps brides find “the dress of all dresses.”

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.