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I prefer 0-6, which is heavy on the rose; Lunn explains the majority is leaning toward 0-7, a subtler floral mix. "My favorite fragrance isn’t there," he says. "But this isn’t for me. It’s about, what do we think is right for her?"
Two years ago, David’s Bridal’s signature fragrance could have been called L'Eau du Vinyl, since the scent of clear plastic garment bags filled the store. Today, however, the dresses sit on the racks uncovered so they are easy to see and covet. It’s a little thing, really, but it represents a big shift in the way David’s Bridal is doing business.
To put it indelicately, if you thought you were too good for David’s Bridal, you’re not alone. "David’s Bridal’s reputation used to be that it was the Walmart of bridal," says CEO Pamela B. Wallack, sitting in a nondescript conference room at the retailer’s Conshohocken, Pennsylvania headquarters. The offices do not by any means compare to those of a glossy startup, although the company sure is acting like one. "We’ve changed that internally and externally."
Wallack is the mastermind behind David’s Bridal’s ongoing transformation. The retail veteran began her career in the 1980s in Laura Ashley's bridal division, during a moment when puffed sleeves and high-collared lace were de rigueur. After nearly a decade at the company, Wallack was then recruited by Disney to help build its retail business. She did stints at several other retailers, including Coach, where she started the same day as Reed Krakoff.
"David’s Bridal’s reputation used to be that it was the Walmart of bridal. We’ve changed that internally and externally."
Most recently, Wallack spent almost 10 years at Gap, Inc., where she was president of Gap Kids, Baby Gap, and Gap Maternity. In 2011, she was tasked by then-CEO Glenn Murphy with establishing Gap’s Global Creative Center in New York. She might be most famous for dismissing creative director Patrick Robinson, but her legacy is the "colored denim period," that short blip when Gap’s comparable store sales were up for 18 months in a row. (A recent Fast Company profile of current Gap CEO Art Peck detailed his own obsession with that golden hour.)
In late 2012, Wallack got a call from Paul Pressler, a partner at New York-based private equity firm Clayton, Dubliner & Rice, which had just acquired David’s Bridal for $1.05 billion from another private equity firm, Leonard Green & Partners. Pressler and Wallack had a past: They first worked together at Disney, when he was president of the retail division, and then at Gap. (Pressler succeeded Mickey Drexler as CEO and president in 2002, and was replaced by Glenn Murphy in 2007.)
"Paul asked me to do a lap of the store and just tell him what I thought," she says. "So I did. It felt like it was just waiting for someone to shine it up a little bit. How do you take this 60-year-old business and make it relevant again? There’s amazing value for the money, but it wasn’t as relevant as it needed to be."
Wallack joined David’s Bridal in May 2013. She and Pressler briskly recruited a powerful team, primarily made up of former colleagues. Those hires included executive vice president of stores, Cynthia Harriss—another exec from the Disney and Gap years—and executive vice president of design, merchandising, and product, Ann Acierno, whom Wallack first worked with at Laura Ashley. Wallack also wooed Lunn, who had taken a year off after a decade-long run at Urban Outfitters, Inc. Lunn held several roles at the company, including overseeing Anthropologie’s visual identity as its executive creative director. More importantly to David’s, though, Lunn played a major role in the development of BHLDN, Urban's bridal concept.
It was a savvy move on Wallack’s part. What Lunn created at BHLDN was an antidote to David’s Bridal’s staid presence. For years, brides who wanted to spend less than $2,000 on a dress had few options in terms of style and aesthetic. Today, there are more choices, from J.Crew to Stone Fox Bride, which offer fashion-driven, anti-frou-frou gowns. Resale sites like Nearly Newlywed have also ruffled the business. Today, brides can easily buy a secondhand, four-figure dress for half the original price.
For Wallack and her team, the challenge was to transform David’s Bridal into a store where brides who were excited to shop at BHLDN and J.Crew would be comfortable considering them as well.
What Lunn created at BHLDN was an antidote to David’s Bridal’s staid presence.
In 2012 when Clayton, Dubliner & Rice acquired the company, it was reportedly bringing in about $750 million in sales. Wallack would not share figures, but she did try to paint a favorable picture of where the brand currently sits financially, two years after she took over as CEO. In the first quarter of 2014, sales at stores open for at least one year were "positive" with "continued growth" in wedding dresses priced $600-$1500, as well as in the bridesmaid dress category. At the end of last year, the retailer—which offers up to a size 30—invested in more plus-size inventory, adding additional styles to its range in 40 stores. The test was so successful that 50 more stores have added larger sizes this year.
Today, David’s Bridal says that one out of three brides walk down the aisle in a gown from the store. For those on a tight budget, the rate is even higher: David’s Bridal outfits two out of three brides who spend $600 or less on a dress.
The numbers may sound dubious at first, but they make more sense after you think about the wedding market as a whole. There are about 2 million weddings in the US. each year, and that number doesn’t really waver. In 2012, the median cost of a wedding was about $18,086, according to The Knot. Unfortunately, The Knot will not release median numbers from 2013 and 2014, only averages. (Averages are much higher because they don’t take into consideration the fact that fewer people spending way more money at the higher end skews the mean.) The Knot says that the average cost of a wedding dress in 2014 was $1,357, but the median cost was certainly markedly lower.
While there are a good amount of brides willing to pony up $15,000 on a bedazzled Pnina Tornai gown from famed New York City bridal boutique Kleinfeld, most are not. And when it comes to affordable options, the reach of David’s Bridal’s physical stores, combined with the breadth of options both in style and size—the company prides itself on having more than just a sample size for customers to try on in the store—make it the only choice for many brides. They often go to David’s Bridal because there isn’t anywhere else to go.
Wallack’s challenge is to retain that incredible market share while grabbing hold of new opportunities. Right now, consumers see the store as the cheapest option with the biggest range of sizes. Those are both positive attributes, but to please the bride willing to spend between $800 and $1,200, there needs to be more.
Right now, consumers see the store as the cheapest option with the biggest range of sizes.
One way to attract the mid-tier bride is through designer collaborations. Vera Wang is still the most famous bridal designer in the world, and her five-year-old White line at David’s is a marketer’s dream. Even if the bride doesn’t end up choosing a Vera dress (which range from $628 for a short organza style to $1,398 for a tulle ball gown), the name is enough to get her into the store. Truly Zac Posen, which hit sales floors in 2014, offers the red carpet glamour many modern brides are after, says Wallack. Posen’s signature pleats and curvy cuts are now available for around $1,000 in duchess satin.
But the company is also eager to leverage its other brands, which include some of the most famous names in the history of bridal. Designer Oleg Cassini, for instance, was known for dressing Jacqueline Kennedy and Grace Kelly (though not for their weddings). The Cassini bridal collection has a mid-century feel, featuring lace sleeves and off-the-shoulder necklines.
Galina nods to the late ‘60s, with mod swing dresses and swiss-dot chiffon. And then there’s Melissa Sweet, the upscale bridal designer whose line was sold at Priscilla of Boston until the store closed in 2011. Today, Sweet’s high-necked Victorian-bohemian gowns are available exclusively at David’s. "We’ve started putting DNA against every label we have," Wallack says. "We asked ourselves, ‘What is its reason for being? Who is that girl?’"
If it all sounds surprisingly fashion-forward, that’s because it is. Even five years ago, the bridal market as a whole looked quite different. Designers and retailers alike, at all ends of the price spectrum, feared sleeves, short hem lengths, and colors other than stark white. Today, things are different.
That’s not to say that you won’t find plenty of strapless, beaded, taffeta gowns while combing David Bridal’s racks. "I love seeing BHLDN in the marketplace, it’s very focused," Wallack concedes. "What is unique about David’s Bridal is that we can be inclusionary. We don’t have to stay true to any one specific style or customer. We want to appeal to everybody. In bridal, she wants choice." Anyone who has ever watched TLC’s horrific-yet-satisfying reality show Say Yes to the Dress knows that Wallack is right: brides often pick something totally different from what they had envisioned.
When Wallack first hired Acierno, they lined up every single dress in order of price. "We did a complete review of the product assortment and looked for holes in shape, holes in price point," she says. What they found was that 70% of the dresses were strapless. "It was a little bit one-note."
While Wallack and Acierno are both merchants who run on instinct, the decision to diversify also comes from clear customer feedback. "The industry legacy is the strapless gown," Lunn says. "But now, brides have a more personal vision." The majority of David’s Bridal’s buyers are aged 25-34, and have become engaged in the era of Pinterest, opening up their worlds to more than just the traditional princess gown. Modern brides are also more concerned with the wedding as a whole: Does the food taste good? Are people enjoying themselves? "Today, the bride is altruistic," Lunn says. "It is still her big day, but it’s not only about her." He says that the dress has become "a representation of her best self," instead of serving simply as a showpiece.
"The industry legacy is the strapless gown, but now brides have a more personal vision."
Wallack is keen to communicate the value of the dresses. The CEO has visited every one of the company’s factories in Asia, and stresses that the unique partnership with its manufacturer (a "joint venture," as she calls it) means that David’s Bridal can operate more like a vertically-integrated company. "We can produce one item, or we can produce 10,000," she says. This means it’s easier to special-order pieces—or say, add sleeves to a strapless dress—on demand without drastically upping the prices.
When you see, touch, and feel the dresses, the new message of David’s Bridal is clear. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed by the store’s offerings, yet it was impossible not to be. But how long will it take David’s Bridal to teach the Pinterest-loving, fashion-savvy bride that it’s not just a bargain bin of generic $300 dresses?
Good old fashioned advertising is one way. Lunn, whose aesthetic sense can still be felt at both Anthropologie and BHLDN, has hired a slew of impressive photographers— including Patrick Demarchelier and Teen Vogue favorite Jason Kibbler—to bring modernity to David’s public identity. In Lunn’s office, I preview the fall ads, which include a youthful bridesmaid shoot (the maids are all playing with their cell phones), a sophisticated presentation of more traditional looks, and a spread that appeals to the bohemian bride.
It's important to Lunn and VP of creative Fredrik Peterhoff (who followed Lunn from Urban) that the images depict women of different ethnicities and body types. "In the bridal market, there’s not a reflection of who American society really is," Lunn says. For instance, one vignette in the fall campaign features a size 16 model, but it’s not positioned as a plus-size ad. "She embodies everything I love about this brand," he says. "David’s Bridal is inclusive."
Digital imagery is equally important to Lunn, who claims 1.7 out of the 2 million brides who get married each year visit DavidsBridal.com at some point during the process. While most brides still want to try their dresses on in person, the research begins online—plus, bridesmaids dresses drive a major web business. "Digital is my focus for this year," he says. "Our site is less than optimal, and there’s a huge opportunity there."
"In the bridal market, there’s not a reflection of who American society really is."
The in-store experience is a big part of the plan too, which explains Lunn’s fragrance test. (He did, after all, come from Anthropologie, a retailer known for hypnotizing customers into buying peasant blouses and ceramic bowls.) But changes have been subtle and slower on this front. "The pivotal turning point for me at Gap was getting the product right," Wallack says. "We can’t have great stores and really bad product. We can have great product and good stores, and win—the product has to be where you win. We can have a really great experience, but if she doesn’t love the dress, it doesn’t matter."
Lunn’s first tweaks included toning down the fluorescent lights and taking the aforementioned vinyl dress covers out of the equation. He also changed the music, which turned out to be an iterative process. "It went from easy listening to something that was probably too close to college radio," he says. "We got feedback that it wasn’t happy enough. We acted immediately and layered in about 10% more pop. A little more Taylor Swift, a little more of that upbeat mainstream music. Everyone loves it."
It was the right move in terms of appealing to customers, but it also proved to sales associates that this new executive team was going to really, actually listen to them. The most important part of the store experience, however, has little to do with what it looks, smells, or sounds like. "One of the things we’ve found is that the crucial bit is the relationship between the consultant and the bride," Lunn says.
Harriss, who has spent much of the past 18 months visiting stores, has worked hard to hire the right on-the-floor talent and to retain the best performers. She wants to make things easier for the salespeople as well as the customer, improving the online appointment system and adding more training courses that can be watched via in-store iPads. While apparel retailers typically have a high turnover at the sales level, the bridal business can’t operate like that. "Our bride is typically with us for six months, just by the nature of the experience," Harriss says. "We want people who are willing to take that journey with her." After interviewing thousands of sales associates within the David’s Bridal network, the company rewrote job descriptions and created a screening test for new recruits.
"One of the things we’ve found is that the crucial bit is the relationship between the consultant and the bride."
Harriss also ensures that every store has the right mix of product for its local clientele. For instance, the Coral Gables, Florida location caters to many international customers. (A majority of the store's sales come from outside of the US, most notably Brazil.) The store’s managers have determined that most of these international clients will spend between two and six days in the States. Because David’s Bridal guarantees alterations and prides itself on the skills of its seamstresses, the team at Coral Gables runs its alternation department differently than most other stores, significantly speeding up a process that usually allows four to six weeks for changes.
I visited two David’s Bridal’s stores while reporting this story: One visit was arranged, the other spontaneous. The first stop, which the company had no knowledge of, was in West Hollywood. I took off my wedding ring before heading in, and was greeted by a woman at the front of the store who was checking in guests for scheduled appointments. I explained that I was just looking—a "walk-in"—and she kindly asked that I notify a sales associate if I wanted to try something on. Hundreds of fingers on white dresses can surely cause damage, one drawback to saying goodbye to plastic bags.
The store was filled with natural light, the way Lunn would have liked it, and the atmosphere was cheery. On the other side of the country, the windows of David's Bridal's New York City location are blocked by banners, but the feeling inside is equally as pleasant. I visited that store for an actual appointment on a busy Saturday afternoon. I brought an unmarried friend with me, and we both were prepared to try on gowns.
I wore a custom dress for my 2011 wedding, so this was my first experience, other than a visit to J.Crew’s bridal store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, trying on a parade of gowns. My friend? Well, she’s in a relationship but not yet engaged. Thankfully, she’s not superstitious.
"Even if the bride doesn’t come to us for her dress, she can come to us for her slip, her veil, her shoes."
We were greeted by store manager Kathleen, a Macy’s vet who joined the team last year, and Jessica, a lovely, top-performing sales associate who treated us like real customers. I wore a short, long-sleeved lace dress to my actual nuptials, so for kicks, I tried on some princess-y gowns, including a White by Vera Wang number (on sale for about $600) with a strapless lace top and full pleated skirt, as well as a massive, duchess satin ball gown from the Truly Zac Posen line ($1,150).
Jessica was quick to notice that my personal style aligned more closely with Melissa Sweet, and found another dress—totally different from the others, with a gently defined waist and bateau neck—that was more comfortable and more "me." I swear I teared up when Jessica added a veil to my friend’s last look. She was also quick to add other accessories (a big growth category for the company) to our ensembles. "Even if the bride doesn’t come to us for her dress, she can come to us for her slip, her veil, her shoes," Wallack says.
Was the experience as luxurious and glamorous as what one might find at a small, intimate boutique? Or say, Kleinfeld? I can’t know for sure. It was certainly in the team’s best interest to cater to us, even on a busy Saturday afternoon, but nonetheless it was lovely.
"When Paul [Pressler] asked me to come, he said we needed to create a Disneyland experience for brides," says Harriss. While I was at the New York location, at least two women said "yes" to the dress, signaled by the ringing of a bell. It’s a cheesy tradition—one that Lunn is on the fence about—but when you experience it in person, it’s easy to understand why they haven’t yet done away with it. Each time the bell rang, the 12,800 square foot store filled with cheers and claps and genuine joy.
"We needed to create a Disneyland experience for brides."
The core of David’s Bridal’s business will always be wedding dresses, but because that market is finite, Wallack and her team are spending a significant amount of time building up other categories and looking for new avenues of growth. The company says it owns approximately 28% of the market share of bridesmaids dresses in the US, but wants more. Wallack hired a new head designer, former Bill Blass creative director Jose Solis, to lead the category, and has introduced silhouettes and colors more in line with J.Crew’s offerings. Every dress is priced under $200, and the brand now offers an online customization tool. Dressing mothers of the bride is important too, as is offering options for prom, quinceañera, and debutante season.
The most exciting area of growth might in fact be the international market. David’s Bridal opened its first store in London in 2013 and plans to open another three in the UK this year. "We would open more if we could find the right locations," Wallack says.
By operating less like a business weighed down by tradition, and more like a burgeoning brand with plenty to give, Wallack and her team have managed to make this dusty name worth a second look. But can David’s Bridal really be everything to every bride? It sure is trying.
Editor: Julia Rubin