In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
As many current and past brides will tell you: The Lovely Bride experience is just — you guessed it — lovely. The bridal retailer's Tribeca flagship is straight out of an indie-cool girlie-girl's dream: a soft pastel palette with a smattering of exposed brick, cheekily themed sitting rooms to try on gowns for your squad (champagne included), racks of wedding dresses that are anything but stuffy and a skylight-covered back nook to conveniently assess your future gown in natural light.
Founded by fashion industry vet Lanie List in 2010, Lovely Bride flipped the traditional bridal landscape on its head by offering fresher, cooler options along with the personalized shopping experience — something that didn't really exist at the time. "This industry hasn't changed in so long because there's David's Bridal and there's thousands of mom-and-pop stores, but there was no cool store that had multiple locations," she explains.
In six years, Lovely Bride quickly expanded to eight locations — including Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Dallas — with four more opening in Chicago, Houston, Miami and Phoenix. And unique to the bridal world, all the outposts — except New York, Miami and Houston — are franchise operations, but not in an Edible Arrangements or UPS Store sense. (More on that in a bit.)
List started her career as a buyer and trend researcher at Target and later became Chief Marketing Officer at Iconix, overseeing a mix of brands including Candies and Badgley Mischka. But a trend-spotter at heart, she couldn't help but notice a glaring opportunity. "After going through the bridal experience myself, I really felt like there was a big lack of bridal designers being represented that were cool, but still accessible," List says. "I started Lovely to bring that to the market."
Most impressively, up until last year, she was still working full-time at Iconix, while running the New York flagship and overseeing the franchises. (I know.) Despite her demanding schedule, List was more than happy to chat with Fashionista about adapting the franchise model for bridal, being the cool kid in the industry and explaining the concept of an "anniversary dress." Read on.
What did you take from your experiences at Target and Iconix to help you build Lovely Bride?
The biggest takeaway from Iconix was just the beauty of the licensing model. We owned our brands, but we didn’t actually manufacture anything. We licensed all of our categories and really ran them as a parent company and were experts in marketing and branding and that's really what I've done with Lovely.
I opened our first shop in the West Village [now in Tribeca] six years ago. It continues to be my shop in New York, but then we got a lot of interest from people around the country saying 'I'd love a Lovely here; can you open a Lovely here?' Or it turned into 'can I open a Lovely?' I do all the marketing, branding and [oversee] all of the direction, but then local operators run the stores.
So how much control do you have over the offerings and the experience in the franchise stores?
We are so so intimately involved. It's funny because I actually started calling it 'a collective,' instead of 'franchising' because people have a preconceived notion of what franchising is. But we really do operate like a collective. We give [franchise owners] parameters on the designers, but within the designer selection, they get to choose what they think works best in their store, which is kind of the best of both worlds. They can't just carry any designer but they also know in Dallas, Texas what's going to be trendy versus New York. So they have their hands in the actual buy. Bridal is so personal. If I open 10 stores myself, I just wouldn't want an employee punching the clock. I want someone who really cares about the brides and no one is going to care about the brides like an owner of their own business is going to care about the bride, so it works really well for us.
There's also an e-commerce component to your business. When did you launch that?
We launched about two years ago. We just felt like we had so many brides coming in and wanting more from us, which is great. They're like, 'I love your brand. I'm sad this is over. What about reception dresses? What about intimate apparel?' That gave us more ideas [to] not only service them on their own wedding day, but [also] maybe their bridesmaids, maybe some stuff for after the wedding. We have a lot of people who buy these white dresses on our site and they call them their 'anniversary dress.' I've never heard of that before, but it's given us this idea to talk to our brides about anniversary dresses. Lo and behold, everyone loves buying a white dress for a date night on their first anniversary.
I don't know. Honestly, I just keep my nose to the grindstone. I'm sure that it does affect us, but I don't know that it affects our particular customer. I think what we do really well is we — and this is part of the model — we want to give you a very cool, casual laid back environment to find a gorgeous dress that's off the beaten path and very unique, but you still want the bridal experience. I actually bought my dress [on sale] off the rack in a store in London. I loved my dress. I loved my sales girl. I loved the shop. But I literally tried it on, bought it and walked out of the store. I was like, 'this isn't long enough. I wanted this to have lasted longer.' It seemed too quick and too easy and too like typical retail.
[Lovely Bride is] a place girls want to be, so I don't know that they're going to want to get their dress online and shipped there in a plastic bag. I think that they want this memory. I get that the world is changing. I get that people like to shop online and that people like convenience, but that doesn't mean that they want that for every single part of their life. This is the only time in your life you get to not only buy a dress, you get an experience. You get something that you can document on your phone. Document it on your blog. Make it something that's engrained in your memory. Don't cheat yourself by getting a discounted dress on a website. That’s my opinion.
You mentioned the evolution of Lovely. Where do you see that going and building on the bridal craze?
We're going to continue to open stores, but we'll only get to a certain number, because we do want to make sure we keep the integrity of the brand and some level of control and we don’t want it to just spiral bigger than what we can manage. Because I like to be intimately involved and have personal relationships with these store owners. So I think what will happen is when we get to a certain amount of stores, we'll really go inward and say, 'what else can we give [our clients] that they want for their wedding occasion?'
This fall, we are launching a new [wedding dress] line that one of our designers is creating for us exclusively called Louvienne. It's a really beautiful, classic, modern line. That's the first time we're doing a private brand, so we'll probably do more of that. [The future lines] might be wedding, might be beyond. That's still in discussion phases. We could easily see going beyond bridal just because we create these great relationships with our brides and we would love to be able to follow them onto the next occasion of their lives.