Before Covid hit, Christine Callahan and Samantha Brody, founders of Ella & Oak, a company that focuses on bridal fashion for plus-size women, opened their first pop-up showroom on West 29th Street in Manhattan. Word-of-mouth spread quickly. The boutique shop, which showcased designers offering sizes 12-32, was busy. One-on-one hourly appointments were filled weeks in advance. Partnerships with other stores were being offered. Designers started approaching them rather than the other way around. The business had netted more than $20,000 in revenue in their first month.
“We were doing better than expected,” Callahan, 36, said from her home in Charleston, South Carolina. “We thought we had finally helped solve a problem in the industry: that plus-size women who have little options and have long been ignored, especially in bridal, finally had a place to go where samples fit, made by designers who understood them.”
Then came the pandemic.
“We shut down the showroom and watched the world crumble,” Callahan said. “Brides were still contacting us for appointments, and we couldn’t take them. That was heartbreaking. Then weddings stopped.”
By mid-May, Ella & Oak was in trouble. Fundraising was canceled. Their business model based on customers doing in-store shopping became nonexistent, followed by the realization that Covid wasn’t going away.
“As a startup, we needed to show proof points and that our business model worked,” said Callahan, who, along with Brody, 34, had used her savings and money from friends and family to start the business. “Covid canceled our fundraising plans and our ideas of what the business looked like.”
Summer brought more bad news. Four in-store pop-up events planned on the East Coast during the spring were canceled. Custom orders became impossible to fill. Cash ran out.
“We met with our advisers at the end of June and decided the only way to keep our mission alive – helping plus-size women feel beautiful and confident on their special day – was to focus on our private label and wholesale,” Callahan said. “We didn’t have the capital for marketing, but we were lucky because we didn’t have employees or W-2s or even a lease. Keeping the label gave us the option to move forward. But we would have to let go of the store.”
That also meant letting go of a business partner.
“I was working directly with brides and re-imagining the plus-size bridal experience,” Brody said. “When they decided to do only retail, there was no need for my focus or expertise, which is e-commerce and consumer.”
Brody left the business in June, and in September, she found full-time employment as a brand developer for a spirits startup. “We put our heart and soul into the business,” she said. “It was hard to see that go. But I understood the need to do it.”
Callahan, refusing to give up on the brand, stayed put in South Carolina and searched for manufacturers. She also set up meetings with retailers, stores and boutiques.
“It’s been hard, not a lot of wholesalers work with plus-sizes, and not a lot of stores want to invest right now, especially in plus-size bridal,” she said. “Plus-size women have been forgotten about, again. They are the first thing to be cut. The Loft is getting rid of their plus-size division to save money; that’s not fair. It became even more important to move forward with this label.”
Callahan needed to get a full-time job, and in November, she became director of operations for the Geyser Group, a real estate investment company. “It’s the first time I went back to work in two years,” she said. “It’s hard not to get a paycheck. At some point you have to eat.”
Callahan and Brody are not alone in the sea of wedding-focused businesses that are closing. Designers especially have been forced to thrive on a diet of determination, desire and drive.
Before the coronavirus, Rebecca Schoneveld, 38, who owns Rebecca Schoneveld Designs, had a store in Brooklyn with 16 employees. She operated two 4,000-square-foot studios. Within months she was forced to close her shop, retain only two staffers, find a smaller studio in Irvington, New York, which was only 800 square feet, stop production and work from home.
“I started my brand in Brooklyn on Etsy in 2010,” said Schoneveld, who lives in Pleasantville, New York. “I was not going to close. I was going to survive this, even if it was me doing everything.
“Making dresses was my joy,” she added. “I spent the year reflecting and turning my focus to making beautiful, one-of-a-kind dresses out of scrap material, appealing to a higher-end customer, and one-on-one connections with my clients.”
Schoneveld’s husband tended to their two children during the day, including kindergarten Zoom, giving her room to work. The result was a new collection, a partnership with Kleinfeld Bridal and a new store expected to open in June in Irvington.
“I feel like I survived a fire,” she said. “I grabbed the parts I loved the most, and I rebuilt with those. I feel clarity I haven’t had in a long time and more connected to my business. I regained my love for design. I feel personally connected to this new collection.”
Amanda Ergen-Jennings, who owns Love Lives Here Bridal, had a similar experience.
“Before the pandemic I was four days away from a huge bridal market in Chicago,” said Ergen-Jennings, 40, who lives in Milwaukee. “Stores were finally paying attention to me. I had 10 new ones lined up to take my collection. I was looking at hiring more people for my team. It was supposed to be a huge year of growth. Then the bottom fell out, and it was me scrambling, juggling virtual schooling, taking care of everything and trying to keep my business from ending. The thought of doing that made me sick.”
For a while, she was unable to find her visual voice.
“I filled outstanding orders for brides whose wedding were still happening, but I didn’t develop anything new,” she said. “The stress of keeping the business alive wiped out any creativity. I was just trying to survive. But in the past months I’ve been inspired. I’m sourcing new fabrics and getting ideas. These new pieces are really personal. That was lacking before.”
Callahan of Ella & Oak has had struggles and losses, too. “You marry your co-founder,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to lose Sam. We risked our whole lives to do this. It’s hard doing this alone. It’s hard to know our business and the store are no longer front and center.”
She misses working with the brides. “Some of our favorite memories were meeting and getting to know these women,” Callahan said. “I don’t get to connect with them like before.”
She now sees hope on the horizon.
“By moving forward with a private label there’s been a renewed excitement,” she said. “Bridal is coming back. We now have 14 gowns, sash accessories, and bridal T-shirts. Other items are forthcoming, and we are launching with CoEdition, a plus-size women’s retail company. To be back in the game feels empowering and exciting.” [The New York Times]