In a Social Distancing Climate, Traditional Bridal Shopping Is Going Virtual - Fashionista

The process of buying a wedding dress wasn't built for social distancing. It typically takes between six and 12 months and involves close, in-person contact with stylists, sales associates and tailors; fittings sessions with multiple family and bridal party members; in some cases, there's travel. 

As non-essential stores temporarily close and new supply chain concerns emerge — and, more importantly, people stay home — bridal brands and retailers are thinking outside of the box to provide their clients with the personalized customer service service expected, just not actually in person.

"We wanted to make sure our brides knew we were sensitive to this really difficult time for them," says Lanie List, founder of multi-brand retailer Lovely Bride, which has temporarily closed all 18 stores across the U.S. due to the Covid-19 crisis.

On March 18, one day before California Governor Gavin Newsom issued the first state-wide shelter-in-place order, Lovely Bride test-launched a virtual styling program in New York City and Washington D.C. "Overwhelmingly, brides have been very excited and very thankful that we're continuing," List says. The remote sessions, which are done over work conference call-turned-screentime happy hour favorite Zoom, are now available with Lovely Bride's in-store stylists. To schedule, you choose your city, then pick a time from there. 

List credits a tech revamp Lovely Bride underwent two years ago, which included adding the ability to filter through the full dress inventory specific to each city — now, that allows for nimble implementation of virtual styling. 

Using the website, brides first create a "wishlist" and then book a 45-minute virtual appointment. Lovely Bride's styling teams spent the weeks leading up to the store closures compiling what List estimates to be over a thousand photos and videos, originally captured for social media, and organizing them into folders by dress styles. Now, stylists are armed with "robust" visual dress examples, shot at different angles and on a range of body shapes, plus the expertise to walk clients through the self-measurement process. After the top choice is determined, Lovely Bride will ship a sample to the bride to fit at home.

Looks from the Lovely Bride photo archive to show during virtual styling appointments.

Looks from the Lovely Bride photo archive to show during virtual styling appointments.

Brideside was one of the early digital disruptors in the slow-to-evolve bridesmaid dress shopping space when it was founded in 2014. Since then, the Chicago-based retailer expanded to brick-and-mortar showrooms in its hometown, N.Y.C., Boston and Charlotte. With those temporarily shuttered, on March 18 Brideside rolled out by-appointment virtual styling over group-friendly Google Hangouts. In a quick 72 hours, Brideside developed physical "kits," made up of inclusive of color swatch sets and a set of dresses, for stylists to set up their own shelter-at-home showrooms and hold virtual appointments. 

"We have quite a lot of digital infrastructure and tools already in place to help women design their wedding vision with Brideside, so all those tools are even more helpful now," says co-founder Nicole Staple. The ability to create custom digital moodboards, which display multiple bridesmaid dress styles alongside real wedding imagery and the bride's gown, easily convert into the virtual styling format. Plus, a Brideside proprietary algorithmic measuring tool — combined with stylists' product knowledge — helps predict accuracy of fit in a remote situation. 

In terms of tangible tools, soft measuring tapes and complimentary color swatches are mailed to clients ahead of their appointments (if they're booked five days in advance). Once favorites are selected, bridal parties can utilize the popular at-home try-on program. Brideside also holds visual styling appointments for wedding gowns, which the retailer introduced in October 2019, but that process is still in the nascent stages.

The virtual showroom concept has always been part of the value proposition for direct-to-consumer wedding and bridesmaid dress brand Azazie. "In the social distancing landscape right now, this type of thing becomes even more important," says CMO Ranu Coleman. "We have seen an uptick in customers using our [virtual] showroom." 

The Azazie virtual showroom interface.

The Azazie virtual showroom interface.

The way it works: A bride will invite members of her wedding party to gather in the virtual showroom housed on the website to view and discuss options via live-chat. Upon filtering options, the group can order samples to be shipped to their homes for try-ons — $15 per bridal gown and $10 per bridesmaid dress, with a maximum of three. They get free shipping both ways.

With social distancing practices in order, at-home try-on may be the only way for brides to fit and assess samples right now. So direct-to-consumer brand Floravere re-introduced its enhanced Bridal Box experience — which was previously phased out with the introduction of showrooms and pop-ups, now temporarily closed. (A portion of the proceeds from the $35-per-sample fee will go to Feeding America's efforts during the Covid-19 crisis.)

Cool-girl designer Danielle Frankel (she created Zoë Kravitz's straight fire bridal biker shorts ensemble) has also joined the socially-distanced bridal boom. Clients can email atelier@daniellefrankelstudio.com to request five gowns to fit at home and schedule a Zoom styling appointment with the designer herself. She also plans on launching e-commerce for her bridal collection, so clients can purchase pieces directly.

A look from the Danielle Frankel Fall 2020 collection.

A look from the Danielle Frankel Fall 2020 collection.

It's not just start-ups and industry disrupters adapting their processes to be more digitally-savvy.  

In 2019, New York-based legacy brand Amsale invested in tech advancements and infrastructure, which put the luxury bridal house in an advanced position to serve clients in this uncertain landscape, especially with the temporary closures of its Madison Avenue flagship and brick-and-mortar retail partners. Earlier this year, it launched a virtual "Try It On" function, created with Silicon Valley-based Forma app. Users upload a photo of themselves to virtually fit up to 150 styles in the Little White Dress and bridesmaids collections. (Its Nouvelle Amsale and the main Amsale lines are next.) The images are downloadable to easily share with friends, family and on social media. Stores carrying Amsale collections can also incorporate the app into their remote sales efforts, as part of the Partner Retailer Program, which compensates retailers regardless of where the final sale is made. Just last week, one salon found success with the tool while conducting a virtual trunk show, says Amsale CEO Neil Brown: "The clients could see the dresses [over their phones] and photos were uploaded. The store closed the sale online."

In April last year, the brand introduced Amsale x You, a line that allows brides to design and customize a wedding dress based off modular elements from archival patterns. Brown points out the interface can also be utilized as a "decision refinement tool," like a digital brainstorm to determine a preferred elements — think bodice style, skirting, straps and sleeves. A digital storyboarding concept is in the works for a summer 2020 debut. 

The Amsale virtual try-on interface.

The Amsale virtual try-on interface.

Brown takes pride Amsale's longtime dedication to customer service, which has evolved along with the tech advancements. Stylists and sales associates are available to communicate with brides, whether direct clients or retailer referrals, via a growing number of channels — phone, live chat, email and video. In early 2020, the company transitioned to a cloud-based phone system, which integrates with a comprehensive CRM customer database. This allowed for an uninterrupted transition to work-from-home for customer service representatives and stylists, who are available at any point along the decision-making process.

At Anomalie, brides have the option to custom-design one-of-a-kind dresses from start to finish while social distancing. "We're feeling good for how we're positioned in this because we have been building this model to serve brides remotely from day one," says co-founder and CEO Leslie Vorhees Means. 

The direct-to-consumer disruptor, which launched in 2016 and has raised $18.1 million in venture capital to date, released its data-powered Dressbuilder app at the end of last year. The predictive design tool gives brides 4 billion design options to create a one-of-a-kind wedding dress. Anomalie stylists are available via phone, text and now Zoom to work with clients on design, to help them take accurate self-measurements and to answer any questions (of which there are many these days, especially regarding dress delivery times).

"Our production model — because our supply chain is vertically integrated — is really paying off for us," says Vorhees Means about Anomalie's longtime relationships with workshops in China, which are open and running. "It's something we worked really hard to invest in and is a testament to all the hard work from our teams over in Asia." Anomalie guarantees that all dresses will be delivered at least a month before the wedding, or brides will receive a refund of 1.5 times the price of the gown.

The Anomalie Dressbuilder from start to finish.

The Anomalie Dressbuilder from start to finish.

Manufacturing in Azazie's factories in China, Vietnam and Cambodia remain "pretty steady right now" and are meeting the brand's nine week production timeline. For Brideside, which carries an in-house line as we as additional brands, "production times remain fairly intact" without delays in the China factory segment of the supply chain, according to List; she is personally in contact with Lovely Bride partner brands identify and problem-solve for any hitches in delivery times and be transparent with clients.

In anticipation of Governor Andrew Cuomo's "PAUSE" order, which closed the New York City atelier and workshops producing the Amsale main collection on March 22, Brown and his staff prioritized shipments for immediate deliveries. (The additional four lines are produced by a family-owned factory in Thailand.) "I relearned how to pack boxes," says Brown. The Amsale team is also working with retailers who have closed to send dresses directly to brides' homes. Of course, on-time deliveries also depend on shipping and freight services remaining uninterrupted.

Along with fielding timing inquiries, customer service and stylists across the board are multitasking, also providing reassurance, support and feedback for wedding planning in such uncertain times. "We're getting a lot of questions from brides, such as, if they should postpone their weddings," says Coleman. 

Ironically, List thinks this one-to-one remote styling approach actually creates a closer and more "authentic" relationship between the stylist and customer.

"Dress shopping has gotten to this point where it's almost like a sport," she says of how fittings have turned into crowded, rowdy and often over-served on Prosecco bridal party events. "It's a nice return to this personal connection that we have with brides — and not these big groups. We've all really enjoyed reconnecting with the brides on an intimate level."

A scene from a virtual styling appointment with Brideside (and also the apartment in which I'd like to shelter-in-place).

A scene from a virtual styling appointment with Brideside (and also the apartment in which I'd like to shelter-in-place).

There's also that chicken-and-egg effect. Are consumer behaviors changing during a crisis? Or are these exacerbating factors highlighting the shopping habits of a new generation of brides? One that is accustomed to gathering relevant data on their own, browsing options and shopping at their own convenience, online.

"We've seen more digital activity for sure. We're doing over 2500 new customer touch points a day via our stylists: phone calls, video calls and text messages," says Staples. She estimates that virtual styling bookings have hit 15 to 20 a day, versus an average of 35 to 40 on a normal day in-store. "But it's brand new," she adds. 

Anomalie just experienced the best three sales weeks in the company's history and signups for Dressbuilder have increased by 25%. Azazie, meanwhile, notes a significant increase in sample at-home try-on orders. Coleman has observed a notable shift in style choices for the current bride, too, which is also influencing the Azazie product development. 

"We're trying to create some more curated bridal collections given the current landscape," she says. Customer feedback and sample requests suggest an interest in more "elegant and subdued" styles, speaking to more intimate weddings. She also notices a stronger emphasis on accessible price points — not only reflecting the current economic climate, but also the millennial bride's perception of value.

"A lot of amazing businesses and concepts came out of recessions and times of uncertainty," says Staples. "So we're just encouraging our team and the industry just to pivot quickly and make bold decisions. So that you emerge from this as an even stronger business than you were before." The quick decision-making and inventive use of technology prove to be learning experiences for brands, too.

"Coming out of all this, I want to continue some of these practices," says List. 

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