Started by first-time entrepreneurs Jo Cowan and Claire Chapman, Belle Bridal sells discounted new designer gowns from its own showroom in north London.
A posh frock here will normally set a wedding belle back from £500 upwards to £1,300, a saving of around 50 per cent on store prices.
“Most brides want their own dress that isn’t second hand. We source nationwide from samples, once-worn model dresses and excess retail stock,” Cowan 36 explains.
Belle Bridal’s Wedding Dresses
“There’s no waiting for our dresses, they’re ready to take away immediately or within days as we have a seamstress nearby to do alterations.” She and Chapman, 34, started the firm two years ago when the recession had just kicked in and they felt the value was going to become more important to customers. Since then their turnover has doubled year on year to £42,000, while overall wedding costs have also continued to rise with the latest estimates varying between £11,000 and £21,000. Although the sisters’ instinct was right about the potential of a business model based on affordability, turning that into a viable business has only been possible by them exploiting every resource they had to keep down costs.
Supplier contacts and the first £800 of stock were provided by their mother Vivienne Cowan who has her own shop Berkshire Brides.“Jo and I always wanted to run a business together, but the idea came from my mother’s one and the inquiries she was getting,” says Chapman.“There was a secondary market among both customers who wanted something special, affordable, not second-hand and suppliers who were looking for an outlet for dresses used on catwalks or photo shoots and excess stock. Belle Bridal brings the two together.”Cowan converted the top floor of her house into the showroom and office and their two husbands added their expertise in accountancy and computing. They have also joined trade body the Federation of Small Businesses. “As a new, small company we felt having backup in place was important. The FSB has been a great source of advice on the essential basics, such as finding a good insurer.”
Some of Belle Bridal’s stock is bought outright, other items are taken a sale-or-return basis.“We carry about 150 dresses in every style and size. The stock changes every three months and with demand. Lace is always popular but never more so than since the Royal Wedding,” continues Cowan.“Personal service is one of our strengths, we’ve the time to talk through options with customers who seem to like the idea of going to a showroom in someone’s home. It’s all less stressful. As there is only one bride in the showroom at a time, they have our undivided attention for two hours and can try on as many dresses as they like.”
Wedding Dresses and Accessories
The business’s main focus is wedding dresses, along with accessories, not full range bridal wear. Customers are usually in their 20s and 30s and one area of growth is coming from brides who need to cover up for religious reasons – and are often having two weddings – one traditional and one British. “Our seamstress enables us to offer adaptations, so we make headwear, or a jacket or shrug to go with a dress they have chosen,” says Chapman.” Times are flexible, so we also offer evening appointments. Sometimes our customers live further away than the London area, so they start by being in contact via the website, then visit, perhaps bring a photograph of what they have in mind and make a day of it.”
Both Cowan, a former TV producer who handles the management side, and Chapman, who deals with the marketing and exhibiting Belle Bridal at wedding shows, have young children and share the childcare.“The more we go on, the more different sales opportunities open up and new markets appear,” observes Cowan. “We are now even seeing customers who though they might be able to afford the full retail price, choose not too if they can find an alternative bargain.”