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Formal attire businesses see return of customers

April 25, 2021 GMT

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Business is picking up at Brides & Weddings in Manchester as students gearing up for prom and brides-to-be begin the hunt for the perfect dress.

The past year dealt a devastating blow to businesses selling formal dresses, as COVID-19 forced the temporary closure of retail businesses and prompted the cancellation of events such as dances and weddings. Now, with many government restrictions lifted and more people getting vaccinated, these businesses have reasons for optimism.

“This is an interesting year, and we kind of knew it would be,” said Jill Carpenter, co-owner at Brides & Weddings, which sells bride and prom gowns, as well tuxedos and other formal attire. “It’s been such a hard time for brides and these high-schoolers trying to plan for these super special events. The vibe coming from them is just a little more upbeat. We can all see the light at the end of the tunnel a little bit.”

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Carpenter told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald that in recent weeks, her store has had a steady flow of customers, with many wedding dress shoppers booking appointments on weekends. Prior to the widespread shutdowns last spring, many high school students bought prom dresses in anticipation of dances that were later canceled, she said.

“Some of them are getting new dresses, but some students who graduated last year have friends who are buying their old dresses,” Carpenter said. “I think we are seeing a lot more consigning.”

When events like prom and weddings were canceled last year, many designers slowed down the number of gowns they were making, Carpenter said. Shops such as hers are experiencing a lag in supply as designers work to catch up in time for this year’s events.

“Even our designers, one of them did not make any new 2021 prom dresses for this year,” she said. “It’s not even like we could provide to our customers like we have in the past.”

Although Shelby Duggan only had one year of experience owning a wedding dress store prior to the pandemic, her store had the best sales yet in February, she said.

“Once we reopened in May (2020), I was super busy,” said Duggan, owner of Vintage Chic Bridal Boutique in Dubuque “Girls still wanted to come in and get their dress even if they weren’t having a big ceremony right away.”

In February, she sold about 30 dresses and since then has been booking up with appointments every weekend, she said.

“Even though COVID is happening, I think people still want to get married,” Duggan said. “Love isn’t canceled, and that has stayed true. It is just a little bit different when celebrating, but girls still want that special dress.”

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Mee Xiong, co-owner of Suns Alteration in Dubuque, said her store recently took in about 15 dresses in one week and is trying to keep up with the demand from clients hoping to have prom and wedding dresses altered in time for their springtime event.

“We look forward to prom season and weddings,” she said. “COVID impacted us pretty badly, but it’s going to hopefully end soon so we will hopefully be getting better.”

A lot of last-minute prom dress shoppers have been stopping in at I Do Bridal in Galena, Ill., said co-owner Molly Kieler. But it’s been difficult to meet the demands of so many shoppers with the low amount of inventory the shop has.

“We have been noticing, too, that our (design) companies are having issues with keeping enough in stock,” she said. “That’s a big expense for companies to bring out a whole new line, and when everything was shut down for so long, it’s understandable. The girls for prom have been very open-minded and easy-going and understanding of certain styles they can get. We are also a full-service alteration store, so even if we have a prom dress that’s long and they want to make it short, we can do that with a pretty quick turnaround.”

Kieler said the store recently started booking a lot more wedding appointments as brides from last year start planning again. Her advice for brides planning weddings or students going to homecoming this year — plan ahead.

“If you are planning an upcoming prom or wedding, try to shop early so you get the best selection that you can get,” she said. “Plan ahead this year.”

Last year, Cathy Enabnit, owner of Rumor Prom and Formal in Dubuque, started only accepting clients by appointment. She said she plans to keep doing that even after the pandemic is over.

“Recently, I had eight appointments on a Saturday, and most of them bought (dresses),” she said. “I think I have gathered from a lot of business owners that we would love to continue appointments only. The people that come (to the appointments) are committed.”

Enabnit said she loves helping girls find the perfect prom dress and is happy to be able to offer that service again this year.

“Just the whole girl-meets-gown aspect is magical,” she said. “It gets me choked up, and there are moms that cry. Getting good feedback always really means a lot because I know how busy people are.”