Closing leaves some brides in tears

An Arbutus company's demise means hundreds are in the lurch.

July 15, 2005|By Tricia Bishop and Rhasheema A. Sweeting | Tricia Bishop and Rhasheema A. Sweeting,SUN STAFF

Meghan Murray couldn't believe what she was reading.

Scanning the posts on an Internet forum this week, the 27-year-old Bethesda woman came across one that said the shop from which she had ordered her wedding gown - the perfect gown - was going out of business and was unable to fill outstanding orders.

"I was just, like, horrified," Murray said. With her wedding two months away, the last thing she thought she'd have to deal with was finding another dress, particularly after she'd paid for this one and been promised it would be ready next month. "I broke into tears. I think I went into shock."

Hundreds of people were left in a lurch this week when mail-order distributor Discount Bridal Service Inc., in Arbutus, announced it was closing its doors after three decades in business - along with its affiliated shops in Maryland: Martin's Bridal and Formal Shop Inc., Bridal Connection Ltd. and Perfect Fit Tuxedo.

Internet shopping and big-box discounters have transformed many retail sectors in recent years, including air travel, books and automobiles. But when those forces prompt closures and bankruptcies in the bridal industry, customers and their families are sometimes moved to tears. It's a drama that has played out across the nation and overseas in recent years. About 7,000 bridal shops are in operation today, down an estimated 40 percent from a decade ago, said people involved in the industry.

Last fall, WeddingStores Inc. of Altoona, Pa., and its Kaufman's Wedding World stores shut down - though a judge ordered them to reopen for four days so brides could retrieve merchandise. About that time, Labella Bridal and Formal Shop of Baltimore filed for bankruptcy. In May, the Manassas Bridal Shoppe in Virginia went out of business, sending apology letters to its customers along with contact information for seamstresses and distributors with dresses.

"With all these businesses going out of business and not telling people, the girls don't know who to trust," said Jacqueline Ruffin, who opened Jacqueline's Bridal and Tuxedo shop where Labella used to be. Her first customers were women left hanging by Labella.

Discount Bridal Service, the Baltimore County business whose closure is causing the latest anxieties, has been a transforming force in the industry.

Besides its three affiliated stores, DBS formed a national network of dealers who earned commission by selling gowns directly to brides at deep discounts.

In a statement, Constance M. Hare, an attorney for DBS, said the businesses had suffered "financial losses for a number of years" and "determined that Chapter 7 bankruptcies for these four companies was the most viable option." The company ceased operations July 2 and plans to petition for bankruptcy protection in federal court by the end of next week.

Yesterday, the Maryland attorney general's office had received nine complaints about the DBS closing. Dress designers and manufacturers are getting dozens of calls from customers demanding dresses. Tomorrow morning, some customers intend to gather at the company's headquarters on Sulphur Spring Road to insist they get their money or their dresses.

Hare said yesterday that it is unlikely the owners, Sandra and Leonard Leibowitz, will appear at the store, although that hasn't deterred the brides.

"When shops do go out of business like this, it does cause hysteria," said Stanley Goldstein, a representative who markets designers' dresses to shops in the Northeast. "It winds up on TV; it winds up in the Internet; it winds up in the newspapers; and it sends brides into an absolute craze."

Goldstein has been in this business for a half-century and has known and worked with the Leibowitzes for nearly 40 years. The couple - he is in his early 70s, and she is in her mid-60s - declined to be interviewed.

"I talked to Sandy last week. She was crying; I was crying," Goldstein said in a phone interview from his home in Florida yesterday. "I hate to see this. You feel like your world is collapsing."

The Leibowitzes opened Martin's, their first shop, in 1970, adding the mail-order distribution business known as Discount Bridal Service in 1984 and the other shops in the past few years. But competition from the Internet, where gowns can even be found half-price on eBay, hurt their dealer-distribution business, Goldstein said.

"The Internet killed them," Goldstein said.

"That's a pretty fair statement," said Hare, the attorney.

The owners have done what they can to minimize the damage, Hare said.

"They're both devastated by having to do this," she said. "Every action that's been taken in these last few weeks has been to protect the brides. They're doing the best that they can."

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