Before Covid hit, Christine Callahan and Samantha Brody, founders of Ella & Oak, a company specializing in plus size bridal wear, opened their first pop-up showroom on West 29th Street in Manhattan. Word of mouth spread quickly. The boutique store that featured designers ranging from sizes 12 to 32 was full. One-to-one hour appointments were filled weeks in advance. Partnerships with other businesses were offered. Designers approached them rather than the other way around. The company had sales of more than $ 20,000 in its first month.

“We did better than expected,” said Callahan, 36, from her home in Charleston, South Carolina. “We thought we had finally helped solve a problem in the industry: plus size women who had little options and were ignored for a long time, especially in the bridal area, finally had a place where patterns made by designers fit that they understood. ”

Then came the pandemic.

“We closed the showroom and watched the world collapse,” Callahan said. “Brides still contacted us about appointments and we couldn’t take them. That was heartbreaking. Then the weddings stopped. “

In mid-May, Ella & Oak was in trouble. Fundraising has been canceled. Their business model based on customers shopping in-store no longer existed, followed by the realization that Covid was not going to go away.

“As a startup, we had to show evidence that our business model worked,” said Callahan, who, along with Brody, 34, used their savings and friends and family money to start the company. “Covid canceled our donation plans and our ideas of what the business was like.”

The summer brought more bad news. Four in-store pop-up events planned for the spring on the east coast have been canceled. Custom-made products could no longer be made. The money was running out.

“We met with our advisors in late June and decided that our only mission to keep our mission alive – to help plus size women feel beautiful and confident on their special day – was to focus on ours Focus on private label and wholesale, ”Callahan said. “We didn’t have the capital to do marketing, but we were lucky because we didn’t have any employees, W-2, or even a lease. Maintaining the label gave us an opportunity to move forward. But we’d have to let go of the store. “

That also meant letting go of a business partner.

“I’ve worked directly with brides and reimagined the plus size bridal experience,” said Brody. “When they decided to just do retail, my focus or expertise, which is e-commerce and consumers, wasn’t required.”

Brody left in June and found a full-time position as a brand developer for a liquor startup in September. “We put our hearts and souls into the business,” she said. “It was hard to see that it would work. But I understood the need to do it. “

Callahan, refusing to give up the brand, stayed in South Carolina looking for manufacturers. She also organized meetings with retailers, stores, and boutiques.

“It’s been hard, not a lot of wholesalers are in plus size, and not many stores are looking to invest right now, especially in plus size bridal,” she said. “Oversized women were forgotten again. They are the first thing to be cut. The loft is getting rid of its plus-size department to save money. that’s not fair. It became even more important to develop this label further. “

Callahan had to get a full-time job, and in November she became Director of Operations at Geyser Group, a real estate investment company. “It’s the first time I’ve been 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 aren’t alone in the sea of ​​wedding shops closing. Designers in particular have been forced to eat a diet of determination, desire, and drive.

Prior to the coronavirus, 38-year-old Rebecca Schoneveld, who owns Rebecca Schoneveld Designs, had a Brooklyn store with 16 employees. She ran two 4,000 square meter studios. Within a few months she was forced to close her business, keep only two employees, find a smaller studio in Irvington, New York that was only 800 square feet, cease production and work from home.

“I started my brand on Etsy in Brooklyn in 2010,” said Schoneveld, who lives in Pleasantville, New York. “I didn’t mean to close. I would survive if I did anything.

“Making clothes was my joy,” she added. “I’ve spent the year thinking about making beautiful, one-of-a-kind clothes from scrap materials and focusing on targeting a high-end customer and making personal contacts with my customers.”

Schoneveld’s husband looked after her two children, including the Zoom kindergarten, during the day and gave her space to work. The result was a new collection, a partnership with Kleinfeld Bridal and a new store expected to open in Irvington in June.

“I feel like I survived a fire,” she said. “I packed the parts that I loved most and used them to rebuild them. I feel clarity that I haven’t had in a long time and that is more related to my business. I have regained my love of 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 from a huge Chicago bridal market,” said Ergen-Jennings, 40, who lives in Milwaukee. “The stores were finally paying attention to me. I had 10 new ones in a row to add to my collection. I wanted to hire more people for my team. It should be a huge year of growth. Then the floor fell out and I crawled, juggled the virtual school, took care of everything, and tried to keep my business from ending. The thought of it made me sick. “

For a while she couldn’t find her visual voice.

“I’ve filled out pending orders for brides who were still getting married, but I haven’t come up with anything new,” she said. “The stress of keeping the business alive has ruined all creativity. I was just trying to survive. But in the last few months I’ve been inspired. I get new fabrics and get ideas. These new pieces are really personal. That was missing before. “

Ella & Oak’s Callahan also had problems and losses. “You’re marrying your co-founder,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to lose Sam. We risked our entire lives to do this. It’s hard to do this alone. It’s hard to know that our business and business is no longer paramount. “

She misses working with the brides. “Some of our favorite memories were meeting and getting to know these women,” Callahan said. “I can no longer connect with them like I did before.”

She sees hope on the horizon now.

“There was renewed excitement with the advancement of a private label,” she said. “Bridal is coming back. We now have 14 dresses, sash accessories and bridal t-shirts. More items are in the pipeline, and we’re starting CoEdition, an oversized retail company for women. Being back in the game feels powerful and exciting. ” [The New York Times]


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