Brides become anxious over gown firm's woes

Major wholesaler plans to file for bankruptcy, leaving many in a panic

July 13, 2005|By Rhasheema A. Sweeting | Rhasheema A. Sweeting,SUN STAFF

Discount Bridal Service of Arbutus, one of the nation's largest bridal supply wholesalers, plans to file for bankruptcy next week - stirring a flood of anxious e-mails and phone calls from prospective brides and dealers worried about whether gown orders would be filled.

The company's lawyer, Constance M. Hare of Mehlman, Greenblatt & Hare LLC in Baltimore, said Discount Bridal Service will release more information when its Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition is filed by the end of next week.

"It's hard to establish now how large the bankruptcy is in terms of the number of brides affected," said Alan Fields, an expert on the bridal business who runs a Web forum on the subject. He estimates that about 2,000 brides across the country would be affected by the bankruptcy, based on the e-mails and phone calls he's received.

One Texas dealer for Discount Bridal, who has worked with the company for less than a year, said dealers are in the dark.

The company stopped sending bi-weekly updates about merchandise and price changes in May, she said, requesting her name not be disclosed for fear of repercussions.

"It's almost like starting over," said the dealer, who said she has not received a commission check for any of her orders so far. "Now, we're left with nothing."

Fields, the co-author of Bridal Bargains, a book on how to plan a wedding, runs, a Web forum for bridal concerns and issues. The site has been tracking information about Discount Bridal's possible closure since Monday.

Response from bridal dealers and prospective brides has been tremendous, said Fields, who said that he received 200 phone calls and 300 e-mails yesterday.

Fields said he has taken the issue to heart because his book recommends Discount Bridal as a source for merchandise.

Discount Bridal Service opened in the 1970s. In the 1980s, it also opened Martin's Bridal, a retail shop in Arbutus, where the wholesale company has its headquarters.

Discount Bridal works with 500 dealers nationwide and serves as a middleman between manufacturers and dealers to supply gowns and other bridal items.

"They were a unique organization," said Fields, who is based in Boulder, Colo., and has been in the bridal business for 17 years. "There was no other organization like that in the bridal industry."

Other bridal companies are stores that gained national reach through the Internet, such as Bridesave in Texas and Pearl's Place in Louisiana, he said.

At the end of last week, the company sent an e-mail to dealers, saying the company had been experiencing extreme hardships and will be forced to close.

A copy of the e-mail stated that all money for orders placed after June 15 will be left up to the bankruptcy court. Orders after June 27 were never processed and customers and dealers will receive their money back in the mail, the Web notice said.

"We had no desire to keep anyone's money once we knew we couldn't continue in business," states the e-mail sent Monday evening. It is signed by Sandra and Leonard Leibowitz, owners of the company. Attempts to reach them yesterday were unsuccessful.

The company's main Web site is shut down. A phone recording tells callers the company is on "vacation" from July 1 through next Friday. The pink and green awning and signs at the company's headquarters on Sulphur Spring Road in an Arbutus business park remain, but a notice on the door states the company is closed for "renovations" through Friday.

Kim Mahle of Ellicott City, who is to be a bridesmaid in her sister's wedding, said her family ordered five dresses from Martin's Bridal in February. The order, which mostly was paid for by credit card, has been ready since May.

However, Martin's Bridal never paid the manufacturer for the dresses. The family has been unsuccessful in getting the dresses from the company or the manufacturer since May.

"Now we're out of money and out of dresses," Mahle said.

Kyle Brown, membership director for the Bridal Association of America, a Bakersfield, Calif., group that offers assistance in wedding planning, suggested that customers seek some type of recourse now while the company does not have protection under bankruptcy law.

"You don't hear of it happening very often where brides are taken advantage of," Brown said.

In October, a judge ordered Kaufman's Wedding World stores to reopen for four days to allow brides to pick up their gowns and other merchandise after its parent company, WeddingStores Inc. of Altoona, Pa., closed abruptly and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

About 5,000 bridal shops operate across the country, down from a peak of about 8,000 in 1990, experts said. The expansion of major retailers such as Macy's and Internet discounters has consolidated the industry.

Fields said he has tracked about 500 or more bridal company bankruptcies each year. The prospective bankruptcy filing by Discount Bridal, which works with about 50 manufacturers, is the biggest he has seen. "It's been very difficult because of the way the company has failed to communicate," he said.

Fields recommends that brides who placed orders through dealers first contact the dealer to find out if the manufacturer is willing to release the dress.

Brides may be forced to pay the manufacturer again for the dress, however. Others may have to re-order.

Customers of Martin's Bridal who paid for their orders with a credit card should immediately dispute the charge. Those who wrote checks will have to wait and file a claim after the company officially files for bankruptcy next week, Fields said.

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