Say “I do” to the bridesmaid dress – then send it back, says BridesMadeJackie Gill - February 11, 2020
It’s two weeks before the big day – your wedding.
The heavy lifting’s all done. The vows are written. The venue’s booked. The food’s been ordered. The photographer’s ready to go. The flowers are arranged. And your bridesmaid dresses are on their way.
That is, until you receive the bad news: your bridesmaid dresses aren’t arriving. At all.
So what do you do? If you’re like one bride in the Northwest Territories, you call BridesMade, says CEO and co-founder Mallory McKewen. In fact, that’s exactly what happened to one of the company’s earliest customers just over two years ago.
“The bride had ordered dresses from elsewhere, a competitor of some sort who had much more of a track record than we did,” McKewen remembers. Then, two weeks before the couple were set to say “I do,” they got word that delivery wasn’t possible to such a remote location.
That’s when the bride took a leap of faith. “She tried us kind of like a last-minute hope,” says McKewen – and she was lucky. “The good thing about being a rental company is we carry a lot of inventory, so there’s usually something kicking around.”
Needless to say, the bridesmaids got their dresses in time. And while McKewen recommends more lead-time on dresses (say about six months), days like this are part of doing business as a growing bridesmaid dress rental company.
Being a bridesmaid ain’t easy
The idea behind BridesMade is simple: try on a dress, rent it, pay less, wear it once and return it. No fuss, no muss.
That’s exactly why McKewen and eight other women are using the service right now, as bridesmaids in an upcoming wedding for a friend in Toronto.
“We’re kind of a tighter bridal party than a lot would be, but we’re spread in a radius of about five hours,” she says. “If BridesMade didn’t exist, we would trying to find a weekend when all ten of us [are available], where we would all go into Toronto, and we’d run around from store to store.”
Sounds like a fun day to some – an excuse to hang out with friends, she says. “But ultimately you’re just running around and parking a whole bunch of vehicles, trying to find something that everybody likes.”
“You wear it for the wedding, it looks good in pictures, and then it hangs in your closet forever.”
– Mallory McKewen, CEO and co-founder, BridesMade
McKewen, who’s based in Kitchener-Waterloo, and her friends are lucky that they live so close, she says. Many modern bridal parties are far more spread out geographically, making days like this practically impossible to accomplish.
Then there’s no guarantee that any of those stores will have a style that works for everyone, or the right sizes to try on. And if you want to order in your size, it’ll be another few months before the right dress comes in. Even then, you have to wait for alterations if the size doesn’t fit perfectly.
The final price tag? “The price hovers around $250 to $300 usually for the dress, and then anywhere from $30 to $80 for alterations,” McKewen says.
“Most bridesmaid dresses are made very cheaply. The companies know they’ll only be worn once.”
– Mallory McKewen
And once the wedding’s over, often so is the dress, she adds. “You wear it for the wedding, it looks good in pictures, and then it hangs in your closet forever because you feel like a jerk to throw it away,” she says. “But you’re never going to wear it again.”
Why buy when you can rent?
BridesMade was purpose-built to address those issues.
It starts with a home try-on kit. For $20, BridesMade will ship a box with six different dresses, along with colour swatches and a return label, to your door. Love the dress, and that money becomes a deposit on an rental that starts at only $85.
“Almost all of our bridal parties go through the home try-on about six months before the wedding,” McKewen says.
For bridal parties that are spread out around the country (or the world), or that just don’t have a lot of free time to spend shopping, it’s as easy as trying on the dresses, figuring out the size and sending the package back.
With dresses specifically designed for rentals, there’s no need to worry about sizing and alterations, either. Their Infinity line, for example, comes in two lengths and two sizes – 00-12 and 14-20 – and with a stretchy jersey knit fabric and more than 25 ways of styling its straps and ties, it’s versatile enough to fit any body type.
“We want to make sure nothing goes out that we wouldn’t want in our own weddings,”
– Mallory McKewen
“And they’re built to last,” McKewen adds – which means fewer dresses in the landfill.
“Most bridesmaid dresses are made very cheaply. The companies know they’ll only be worn once,” she says. With BridesMade’s fashion line, “In terms of the stitching, the seams and areas where there’s the most difference in sizes, they’re built to last as much as possible. We put elastic in areas that need like more give, so no one’s busting seams and zippers.”
If a zipper does break, or a skirt gets stained or worn, BridesMade’s quality control kicks in. “That quality check process is very important for us because we want to make sure nothing goes out that we wouldn’t want in our own weddings,” says McKewen.
But even the dresses that don’t pass muster serve a purpose. An otherwise perfect full-length gown with a hole near the bottom can easily become a knee-length number. Dresses with minor wear are perfect for the home try-on, even if they’ve been retired from wedding-day circulation.
And, if someone really wants a dress to keep for a fraction of the cost, “Our sell-off dresses are affordable for that budget-conscious kind of bride.”
From pageant stage to wedding party
Before McKewen ever became a bridesmaid herself, she was a competitor on the pageant stage.
An avid horse rider, she was crowned queen of the American Quarter Horse Association in Ontario at 24. In other words, she was the adult that little girls in the horse-riding world looked up to.
It also meant she got to compete on the North American stage – the big leagues. And that particular year, she was the only Canadian in the running. She wanted her dress to reflect her home.
“It was red sequins,” she says. “Red sequins isn’t exactly something I would wear, even on New Year’s Eve.” But it was perfect for those few moments on stage.
Once the lights came up and the pageant was over (unfortunately, McKewen didn’t win), she was left with a $500 dress that would spend the rest of its days tucked away in a closet at her parents’ house.
“I remember being like, ‘Oh my goodness, why did I spend so much on these dresses that I refuse to wear again because there’s no place to wear them again?’” she says.
At the same time, McKewen was working what she calls a “textbook pretty good job” in corporate finance. But after about six months in the business, she felt like she had accomplished everything she wanted to do in that world.
“Why did I spend so much on these dresses that I refuse to wear again?”
– Mallory McKewen
So on her drive into work, she didn’t think about corporate finance. Instead, she challenged herself to think of three ideas a day that could become a business. “I kept this little journal of things that people complain about,” she says.
Her pageant troubles made the list – but the market is so niche and customized that she couldn’t see herself making a big splash. Another item on that list: “I was at that age when people were in a lot of weddings and getting married, so people around me were complaining about bridesmaid dress shopping.”
McKewen put two and two together and signed up for the LaunchPad program at Wilfrid Laurier University, where they incorporated in 2016. “And then I just started surveying,” she says. “I took a bunch of people who were getting married for coffee, and asked them a whole bunch of questions about their planning.”
“It was going to take a while before people truly trusted that they’d fit, without trying them on.”
– Mallory McKewen
That’s where she learned about the pains involved in costs, alterations and shopping. It’s also where she learned that she would need to earn the trust of brides and their bridal parties.
“It was going to take a while before people truly trusted that they’d fit, without trying them on,” McKewen says.
“Then I learned about like the objection of, ‘what if it’s dirty?’ That’s something we really have to handle upfront with customers: one having really good reviews about the quality; and two, upfront talking about how carefully we quality inspect everything.”
The key for McKewen and her company is shifting customer behaviour in an industry that notoriously relies on tradition. “It’s been a real process to find the early adopters,” she says. “Now it’s just a matter of replicating that and finding more people like them.”
Following the fashion
Since the early days when McKewen, co-founder Kaleah Baker and their team were shipping bridesmaid dresses up to the Northwest Territories for that last-minute wedding, they’ve grown quite a bit, she says.
They’ve expanded their designs to include a line of more traditional dresses, along with working on a few patterns of their own.
They’re constantly on the lookout for the next trends in rental dress design, too, McKewen adds.
“[We’re looking at] detachable skirts, so it can be knee-length or floor-length in one dress,” she says – pretty useful when customers need a full-length dress for photos on a hot August day.
And they’re looking into more environmentally-conscious fabrics. “We’ve been considering doing the Infinity style dress in more eco-friendly textiles, but that takes a lot of testing,” she says. “But there’s definitely opportunity to go the more sustainable route.
“There’s a whole blue ocean of opportunity in front of us.”
- Name: BridesMade
- Solution: Affordable bridesmaid dress rentals that take the stress (and cost) out of dress shopping
- Owners: Mallory McKewen
- Headquarters: Kitchener, Ont.
- Founded: 2015
- Contact: [email protected]