At The Bride-to-Be on a recent Saturday afternoon, Amanda Martahus and Sierra Kennedy were in the middle of “bridal hopping.”
Both women have upcoming weddings, and neither had yet found her dress. So Martahus rounded up three friends and Sierra commandeered her mom, Amy, for a day spent going from bridal shop to bridal shop along Fort Wayne’s Coldwater Road and Coliseum Boulevard – a two-mile stretch with no fewer than five bridal salons.
It’s hard to know whether to call the stretch Tulle Heaven or Indecision Alley. But brides from around the region have certainly taken notice of the plethora of white – not to mention ivory, cream, eggshell and ecru – decorating salon windows.
“People make a big weekend of it,” says Kate Miller, co-owner of The Bride-to-Be, which moved to 7763 Coldwater Road from Broadway last April. “They shop for dresses, and have lunch, and then shop some more at a different store.”
Some shoppers from out of town – they make up about 40 percent of her customers, Miller says – have even been known to book a hotel room for the night to get a jump on Sunday afternoon shopping.
Besides The Bride-to-Be, bridal shops on the hop are One Fine Day at 5310 Coldwater Road, Touma’s Bridal at 4430 Coldwater Road, Wendy’s Bridal around the corner at 507 Coliseum Blvd. E. and David’s Bridal, about a block east in the Northcrest Shopping Center.
“It’s kind of destination shopping. Basically, you go where the dresses are,” says Chris Touma, 29, who manages Touma’s with his brother Gui, 23, for their mother, Samira Touma, a longtime Fort Wayne seamstress and bridal designer.
Chris Touma says Touma’s is one of the older stores on the strip, having moved there from Stellhorn Road around 2000. He says brides routinely travel to Touma’s from southern Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.
Kennedy, 23, on her first day of dress shopping, is case in point.
“I currently live in Defiance (Ohio), and basically, there’s nothing,” says the Defiance College art education student after trying on dresses at The Bride-to-Be. “Fort Wayne has a big selection and a wide price range. It’s good to come here.”
She and Martahus, 24, of Fort Wayne giggled at each other as Martahus, a willowy blonde, looked at herself in the store’s showroom mirror while trying on a stunning ivory gown with a long bodice covered with beads and silvery crystals.
“I know her,” Kennedy says. “We were at David’s Bridal together this morning!”
At the Fort Wayne Bridal Expo on Feb. 24, Kasey Ashley, 21, of Muncie shares Kennedy’s lament at not being able to bridal shop in her hometown.
“Fort Wayne is a lot bigger than Muncie, and there’s a lot to choose from,” she says. “There’s a couple stores, but we don’t have that in Muncie.”
With a wedding date of May 24, 2014, Ashley hadn’t done much dress shopping, but she’s planning a trip to shop the strip to find a strapless, A-line, all-lace gown with a long train.
“We’ll probably go around to all (of) them,” she says of the Fort Wayne stores.
Between appointments, The Bride-to-Be’s Miller says Fort Wayne bridal shops are benefiting from several trends in the wedding industry.
The recession, she says, hit smaller bridal shops hard. With costly inventory and with families cutting back on wedding expenses, some stores have been forced to scale back or even close, she says.
And, the Internet also has changed the bridal game.
Most brides today don’t start shopping at a store, Miller says. Instead, they browse websites for styles they like and then travel only to shops that have the dresses they’d like to try on.
With the price of gas and the generally higher prices of dresses in bigger cities, brides no longer seem as willing to go to Chicago, Indianapolis or Detroit to find the perfect dress, and they come to Fort Wayne’s concentration of stores.
“I think we have a lot of brides looking for a couture look without a couture price tag, and that’s where Fort Wayne shops come in,” Miller says.
Chris Touma says area shops don’t generally compete on price for the same gown – instead they compete based on carrying different designers than other stores.
“Everybody has their special designers,” he says. “The name of the game in bridal is to get exclusivity in your lines.”
Shops also compete based on specialties. His mother excels at custom-made or custom-altered dresses and has a knack for picking “beautiful dresses,” he says. “Her taste is the draw.”
One Fine Day, which opened in September 2011, has made a name for itself by carrying big-name designers that brides are familiar with from watching television shows, including “Say Yes to the Dress.”
Amsale, Kenneth Pool and Lazaro are not often found in Indiana, says owner Autumn Parton, 28, but they’re all at her shop. The store also periodically hosts trunk shows of up-to-the-moment gowns, such as one on March 29 and 30 by Tara Keely, known for the tulle, lace and organza styles currently dominating the market.
“When I was doing my business plan, I had wanted to draw from all over the state of Indiana and Michigan and Ohio, and we did that by being very picky with our designers that we wanted. That was my goal from the start,” says Parton, who grew up in Auburn and shared brides’ frustration when shopping for her own wedding dress a few years back.
“Our bride has an interest in fabric and design … and wants to see what she sees in the magazines,” she says. “She also wants to have a nice experience while shopping with her mom or her friends.”
Chris Touma says he’s noticed a side effect of bridal hopping – having comparison-shopped, more customers seem willing to haggle on price than in the past.
“Sometimes they’ll hop back forth, and there’s a little bidding war that goes on,” he says. “But I believe competition is good. It makes everyone stronger.”
Kennedy, whose wedding isn’t until Sept. 20, 2014, says she’ll likely return for another shop.
She says she didn’t find anything that she liked at one store, but she did find a dress possibility at The Bride-to-Be.
A romantic-looking style called Emerson by WTOO, the strapless gown has all-over diamond-patterned lace.
“We basically found a silhouette I like, and they’re letting me transform it into my dream dress,” she says. “But I still don’t know. I’m afraid to settle on anything yet.”