Thursday, April 18, 2024

Energizers: Unbox the Dress helps brides update wedding treasures

The wedding business is reinvigorated after the pandemic pause, making it prime time for Grace Lightner, 32, to build a Winston-Salem business that repurposes vintage wedding dresses. Her vision is to turn thousands of grandmothers’ lace gowns from the 1950s or mother-of-the-bride’s 1980s satin sensations into keepsake heirlooms for contemporary brides.  

Lightner and her mother, Lorraine Stewart, started Unbox the Dress in 2018 to sell sentimentality, but with an online platform and creative process that has been strategically positioned to become a national brand.  

“This business is built on nostalgia and wrapped in sentimentality, but we’ve done a lot of work to do this in a way that is scalable,” says Lightner. That includes intellectual property that encompasses a 250-page production manual, quality standards and customer care training with a goal of never having an unhappy customer.

“Our research told us 70% of married women in the U.S. are storing at least one, if not multiple, wedding dresses — that’s when we realized this could be a national brand, because no one else was owning this concept and there was a universal need.” 

The average bridal gown, regardless of its era, provides 6 to 7 yards of  satin and lace that can be changed into complementary wedding accessories, a rehearsal dinner dress, or the best-selling “getting ready robe.” 

Last year, the average bride spent $1,635 on her wedding dress, while the average cost of weddings topped $28,000, including receptions, according to The Knot online wedding website.  

Co-founders Grace Lightner (left) and Lorraine Stewart (right) specialize in wedding and celebration apparel, but have expanded to add handbags (opposite page) and other accessories. The signature “Getting Ready Robe” is a popular seller, while the clutch purse is made from a 1980s wedding dress. A team member creates patterns surrounded by client dresses.

The duo says a key to success was picking Winston-Salem after a search that included Atlanta; Greenville, South Carolina; and Danville, Virginia. A $50,000 grant in 2020 from the Durham-based NC IDEA entrepreneurs’ support group helped pave the way, complemented by the availability of skilled seamstresses and designers. Such grants require an in-state residency, so Lightner and Stewart moved from North Canton, Ohio, in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

“We considered Charlotte, but the cost of square footage would have meant we had to locate an hour outside of the city versus being in downtown Winston-Salem,” Lightner says. 

The company quickly outgrew a 4,500-square-foot space, relocating last July to a 12,500-square-foot facility near Wake Forest University. 

On any given day, some 400 wedding dresses are moving through the company’s plant. Revenues reached $1 million in 2022 and Unbox the Dress had processed 7,000 customer orders since its inception. Brides from all 50 states have used the service. It typically takes 10 weeks to fill orders.

The company also provides a “Save to Transform” service that provides cleaning and storage for modern brides to hold their wedding gowns until they’re ready to have them remade into an anniversary dress or a christening gown.

In September, Unbox the Dress expanded into the high-end market after some advisory board members suggested the company could charge higher prices, says Stewart. She is the founder and owner of Cleveland-based Rojek Consulting, a 32-year-old marketing firm that lists UPS, GM and other big companies as clients.

“We tried to stratify our pricing to see where customers gravitate and there are people who will pay [premium] for a one-of-a-kind tabletop handbag that’s unlike any other purse a mother of the bride could carry on her daughter’s wedding night,” Stewart says. 

The “luxe” line pricing ranges from $650 to $900 for a couture-quality piece; the heirloom christening gown starts at $800. Across the company’s product offering are options in the $50 range, including bowties, pocket squares, and bouquet wraps. Their customers spend, on average, $550 to $600.

“This is a trust–based business, and we knew we could be the leaders, the experts, in this space,” says Lightner. She is a 2013 graduate of Northwestern University, which is also her mother’s alma mater. 

Early on they decided to grow the company through venture capital. Along with the $50,000 NC IDEA grant, they’ve raised about $1 million from friends, family and First Launch Capital, a Greensboro-based venture fund, and want to raise another $400,000 this year, Lightner said in late January. 

Meanwhile, she’s mulling opening a second production site that would expand their pool of seamstresses, possibly in the Triangle or Asheville. 

“Building a national brand is a bit of a race against time,” Stewart says. “The further out in front we are when we go from 7,000 customers to 15,000, and the more we’ve built the category and are recognized as the leading national and online brand in wedding dress redesign, the more challenging and expensive it is for someone to duplicate.”

The owners also envision expanding into new lines such as commemorative keepsakes of baby blessings. But the main focus is on the wedding niche, which is marked by some interesting trends such as increasingly extended engagement periods. 

“January is a huge bridal month because of newly engaged women and October is the No. 1 month for weddings, so backing up from that, think of all the showers and parties,” Lightner says. About 17% of weddings in the U.S. occurred in October last year, the sixth straight year it has been the most popular month, according to The Knot.

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