Charitable Shopping

Alright, say you got real intimate with other brides' bazoombas at Kleinfeld's and escaped the clutches of an emaciated, three-story-tall bridezilla at Priscilla of Boston.  Where do you go for a respite from high-pressure and high-priced bridal boutiques?  If you are Miss Haute Cocoa, you'd head to the Bridal Garden in Manhattan or the Vows Bridal Outlet in Newton, MA.  You'll hear more about Vows (where Mrs. Toucan found her second dress!) in my next post, but first let's finish off our New York Sampler with the Bridal Garden.

The Bridal Garden describes itself as "New York's only non-profit bridal boutique." Yeah, you read that right: non-profit.  If you're like me, you're probably feeling a little violated by numerous vendors reaching into your pockets with their sticky little fingers.  Well, no coffer-lining here.  All of the Bridal Garden's proceeds go to benefit education for New York City children!  In fact, according to its website, the boutique "opened its doors in 1998 as part of the fundraising for Sheltering Arms Children's Services."  Currently, its proceeds benefit students at the Brooklyn Charter School in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Now, what will be truly mindblowing for the capitalist scrooges out there is that being charitable toward NYC schoolchildren somehow also allows you to save money on a designer wedding gown.  Although the boutique is quite cozy (real-estate-speak for cramped like a phonebooth), it has a good selection of sample and gently-worn gowns, ranging from unlabeled designers to Vera Wang, sorted by style and size.  They also have veils, tiaras, and some jewelry.  Bring a friend to help you peruse the stock -- the racks are crammed with all types of silhouettes, sizes, and price levels, so invite someone who is not only patient but discerning. Since the boutique relies on donations from designers, other bridal stores, and brides, the selection is vast but unpredictable, and you have a chance of getting gowns in non-sample sizes. One bride (who came all the way from Japan!) walked out with an amazing deal on a simple Vera dress that perfectly fit her size-2 frame.

Like Kleinfeld's, but unlike Vows, dresses are sold as is; repair and cleaning not included. Some of the gowns (particularly ones with delicate embellishment) were in worse shape than others. I really liked a Monique Lhuillier gown, but as you can maybe see in the picture (taken illicitly, btw -- no cameras allowed), the beautiful beading was a little disheveled, some of the lace was torn, and the sash hung on by a thread. I was able to negotiate the dress down another $500 from the Bridal Garden's original price (around $2000), but ultimately I wasn't prepared to spend over $1500 on a gown that, while lovely, was so sad and broken. Like a little Miss Havisham.
Let me mention that many of the gowns I tried on were in exquisite condition and were also more affordable than the Monique above.  This very lovely label-less gown, for example, was in perfect shape, was under $1000 (if I recall correctly), and I could have worn it that very day.
And here, courtesy of our very talented photographer, Leigh Miller, is a breathtaking picture of a bride looking absolutely stunning in her Bridal Garden purchase.
Aside from benefiting a good cause, I also enjoyed the vibe at the boutique.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, I suppose, if you are feeling a bit lonely lately), the sales consultant didn't hover or try to cop a feel. Appointments are required, so it wasn't too crowded.  The dressing rooms, while small, were clean and well lit.  I didn't find a dress there that day, but I definitely enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to other brides looking for a good bargain and an even better cause. And if you were inspired by Mrs. Tulip's enlightening post about charitable ways of unloading your wedding goods, you can also donate your gown to the Bridal Garden after your wedding. You'll even get a tax deduction, so you can stick it to both the IRS and the big bridal emporiums. Swwweeeet!

Have you been to the Bridal Garden?  Did you buy your gown there, through Brides Against Cancer, or another similar charitable organization?  Are you curious whether I'm always headless?


Say Yes to the Sample Dress?

Welcome to the third installment of the adventures of Miss Haute Cocoa (Hot Cocoa's label-loving, bargain-hunting alter ego).  If you've followed our penny-pinching protagonist's adventures thus far, you know that she's looked into direct-from-manufacturer gowns and designer sample sales.  Next, follow our intrepid shopper as she goes into the dark vortex of the wedding industrial complex: Kleinfeld Bridal.

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I know what you're thinking: Miss Haute Cocoa is not the Kleinfeld type.  She could care less about the "Kleinfeld experience" -- the pink silk kimono; the botoxed, black-clad consultants; the fancy mirrors and rococo furnishings.  All she wants is an affordable, well-made gown.  Of course you're right.  That's why she showed up on no ordinary day, but rather for Kleinfeld's monthly sample sale, which her friend had heard about via the Knot.

(Oh dear, writing in third (fourth?) person is giving me a personality disorder.)  Unlike the annual blowout sale that was featured on the TLC show, the monthly sale requires an appointment.  Remember that they will charge you $50 if you fail to show up, so set your alarm clock.  My friend and I had the earliest appointment that day (10 o'clock), and it looked as though 10-15 other brides were there at the same time. Of course, we spent some time in the lobby planning our "Running of the Brides" type strategy: "You kick the redhead in the shin, and I'll take out the blonde."

Ha ha ha.  Snort snort.  No worries -- no brides were harmed in the making of this blog post. But there was definitely some scoping out of the other brides, trying to anticipate their style, and guessing whether I'd have to go all Shaolin master over a discounted Amsale. It turned out that all that strategizing was for naught, since there wasn't anything on the racks I loved. But I am glad we went, since our consultant let me try on some full-priced gowns (even though we technically were restricted to gowns on the sample racks and from the Lazaro trunk show that was going on at the time), and I was able to at least get a sense of what the "Kleinfeld experience" was like in person.

Here's what I learned. First of all, Kleinfeld has a sample sale at the end of almost every month. You can get on their mailing list either by contacting them directly or by subscribing to the NY/NJ/CT version of the Knot.  The stock varies month-to-month -- they basically go through the gowns at the end of each month to see which ones are a bit worse for wear, not selling well, or are being retired by the designer. When we went, there were about four racks of discounted gowns, by a variety of designers, including Amsale, Badgely Mischka, and Romona Keveza.  The gowns were sorted by price and ranged from under $500 to over $3000.  And while Kleinfeld is usually a closed-rack boutique (I made that term up, but you know what I mean), you are welcome to browse through the sample sale racks and pull as many dresses as you'd like to try on.

I also learned that the Kleinfeld consultants take themselves super seriously. They were no joke, and I loved it. I was all set to try on dresses in my strapless bra, when my consultant gave me the "bitch, please" look and pulled the regulation Kleinfeld corset out of her drawer and stuck me in it. (Yes, hundreds of other brides have already put their bare hoohaas in that thing, but it's best not to overthink it.) This is what the corset sort of looked like:
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The consultant then did what I now call the "Kleinfeld maneuver" -- she molded the dress to the corset, such that even someone as mammarily challenged as myself looked awesomely well endowed and fitted in an oversized sample gown. Sexy.

A negative: As they openly flaunt on their show, Kleinfeld is all about the hard sell. My friend found a dress that she sort of liked, and consultant came back minutes later to tell us that another bride had "just called" and was coming in to buy that exact dress at 11 am, so she'd better decide whether she wants it now. Oh, the manufactured pressure! I mean, seriously?! No bride showed up at 11. Or 12 for that matter. My dog lies better than that.

See?  She really does.  Imaginary bridal nemeses aside, as with all sample sales, you do have to go ready to buy.  The gown won't be there the next day.  So if you (like me) are the kind to agonize over the simplest decisions, this is probably not the best venue for you.  Also, all the dresses we saw were standard sample sizes (8 and 10).  It's possible they might have had some cancellations that are in smaller or larger sizes, but we didn't see them.  So if you aren't sample sized, you might find the selection quite limited.  Bottom line: We didn't have any luck that day, but it's worth checking it out if you are in the area and can get an appointment.

In my next post, I review the Bridal Garden, "New York's only non-profit bridal boutique."  In the meantime, tell us about your experience at Kleinfeld or at a similar bridal emporium.  Did you purchase your dress at one of Kleinfeld's sample sales?  Are you a secret fan of "Say Yes to the Dress"?  Do you tremble at the thought of running into Elise, the militant manager, roll your eyes at Claudia, the drama queen, or puzzle over the introduction of Randy, the poor-man's Tim Gunn?


A Melissa Sweet at a sample sale would be as sweet?

It took me 5 minutes to figure out how to get into Priscilla of Boston, and I should have taken that as an omen that no good was going to come out of my first sample sale experience.
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Priscilla's flagship salon in Boston is a huge presence on Boylston St. Literally. There is a GIANT picture of a bride giving you the stink eye from its 3-story-high panorama windows. Very bridezilla attacks. Anyway, I thought getting there would be easy. Alas, I get to the building, am standing under bridezilla, and find myself totally puzzled. The whole first floor of the building is taken up by Fidelity Insurance. It turns out that the Priscilla entrance is off on a side street.  Me stoopid.

The sale started at 8 am. I got there around 9:30, and there were a good number of dresses still left on the racks. From my quick survey, it seemed like the gowns were sized 0-12 (more variety than your standard sample sale, which tends to carry only 8s and 10s). There were 3 racks of bridal gowns from Priscilla, Vineyard, and Melissa Sweet, as well as a small rack of bridesmaids dresses. The bridal gowns were priced from around $200 to $3000. The gowns were sold as is; most were in reasonable shape, with some dirty spots or fraying on the trains or holes in the netting, but there were ones marked "unused samples" as well. The consultants, who have a reputation of being snooty, were actually quite helpful. I told them what I was looking for, and they brought me gowns both from the racks and from the piles rejected by other brides. They put the gowns in the dressing room and left me to my own devices -- fine by me, since I am not a big fan of helicopter salespeople.

I picked 5 Melissa Sweet dresses. A simple jersey ruched front gown for $399 seemed like a steal, but I couldn't reason spending that amount on jersey. This pretty empire waist number with beading on the neckline and a tulle overlay was $950; tempting except for an itchy polyester lining. 
Wah? I started to go through my gowns more carefully, and it turned out that other than a $2500 beaded sheath, all the rest of the gowns I'd picked had acetate or polyester linings. What's even weirder is that many of them had generic tags that said "bridal" in cheesy script on one side and Chinese handwriting on the other; all were Made in China. I started to wonder if some of these gowns, while "genuine" in the sense that they were being sold by Priscilla and had Melissa Sweet tags, were not the same gowns that Priscilla would sell at its boutiques on non-sample-sale days? I got even more suspicious when one of the consultants asked the one who was helping me whether the dress I had on was one that was "brought in for the sample sale."

Some of the dresses on the racks had Saks tags, so it's possible that sample sale dresses were "brought in" from other bridal salons. But I also wondered if some of dresses were cheaply made versions "brought in" specifically for the sample sale (the same way that J Crew and Banana Republic outlets sell some merchandise created specifically for the outlet stores)? Either way, I couldn't bring myself to put down over $1500 (factoring in alterations, repair, cleaning) for a few yards of polyester and tulle.  All was not lost, however. Across the street from Priscilla is Anthropologie (my mother ship), where I found the luscious "winter flame" dress on sale for $39! All in all, a very productive (and instructive) shopping trip.

Coming up: Reviews of Kleinfeld's monthly sample sale, the Bridal Garden (NY), Vows Bridal Outlet (MA), Your Dream Dress (ebay), and Dream Bridal LA (CA).  Yes, I shopped at all these places. Some multiple times.  Miss Haute Cocoa is not fooling around.

Did you find a delectable bargain at a sample sale?  Can you explain how luxe bridal salons get away with charging $2000 for 2 yards of polyester?  Do you have nightmares of being chased down and eaten by a 3-story-high underweight, underaged bride?


Bargainphilia and other bridal disorders

My mom, my sister, and I all suffer from the same compulsion: the obsessive need to find a bargain. It took years of support groups and many an intervention, but my bargainphilia is much more in control now. At the very least, I no longer buy junk I don't need simply because it's on sale. But when it comes to things that I need -- or, well, want -- I will stop at nothing to find the lowest price.

Shopping for wedding-related items, and particularly wedding dresses, is not good for a bargainphiliac. And did I forget to mention that although I am a bargain addict, I also happen to be a label whore and a fashion junkie? "A cheap Monique Lhuillier?" I'm sure if I go into a swanky bridal boutique asking for that, the response would be laughter, followed by a "thxkbai" and a swift kick out the door. But here's the thing: I DID find an affordable Monique Lhuillier -- albeit after a lengthy search. To save other bargainphiliacs the trouble, I thought I'd retrace for you the steps of my journey.

I started out by testing out my mom's suggestion to get my wedding gown from China. Having seen a good number of bridal shops in Asia (who knew bubblegum pink came in so many different, equally nauseating, shades?), I was not so convinced this was a good plan. I mean, THIS does not whisper "chic blushing bride" to me; it screams "stick a cake topper on my head, I'm ready to be served!" (This confectionary concoction, btw, is from Julius Bridal, one of a few sites that sell bridal wear direct from Chinese manufacturers.)

My protests muted a bit after I read the bible for all bargain-lovin' brides, Bridal Bargains by Denise and Alan Fields. The Fields point out that many of the brand-name gowns sold in American bridal boutiques are made in China.  In fact -- and I will write more about this in a future post -- an armful of dresses I tried on at the Priscilla of Boston sample sale were as FOB (fresh of the boat, for those of you not hip to my sister's college-age lingo) as, well, me.  Complete with Chinese handwriting on the hangtags!  Anyway, if your eyes aren't blinded by the gaudy awfulness of some of the stuff sold by these manufacturers on their sites, you can actually some gowns that (at least in photos) appear to be quite lovely. Like this Jim Helm-like alencon lace gown below, which Julius Bridal makes for $399.99? Or this lovely dress, which Cinderella Bridal Shop sells on ebay for $199?

Windsor Peak Press, which publishes the Fields' guide, has a message board that has many reviews of Julius, Cinderella, as well as other similar manufacturers and their dresses. These reviews were somewhat of a mixed bag.  Some brides just loved their gowns; others were livid about poor fit, glued-on beading, or itchy linings.  Ultimately, I couldn't bring myself to commit to one of these gowns without touching the material or seeing the dress in person. Even though Julius and Cinderella post photos of their actual dresses (instead of pictures outright stolen from American designers), I'd done enough clothing shopping in China to know the truth of the old maxim caveat emptor (flash back to the hot mess that was the "Shanghai cashmere" coat I bought that was neither from Shanghai nor made of cashmere).

So I started running the sample sale circuit instead. More on that in my next post.

Any of you bold and courageous bargain hunters out there dared to order one of these direct-from-Chinese-manufacturer gowns? Tell us about your experience, good or bad.


I like more free stuff

Okay, I know in my free stuff post yesterday I promised only 3 tools, but I'm going to give another -- because the only thing more awesome than free stuff is bonus free stuff! The Pantone Fashion Color Report for Fall 2008 is now available for download off the Pantone website. For those of you who haven't perused this fab little brochure before, it features the key shades that top designers are using for their upcoming collections and thus gives you a sense of what the hot color trends will be in the upcoming months. So if you love the look of a Tiffany blue and brown wedding, but worry whether you can make that popular color scheme fresh, you can look to the Pantone guide for an innovative twist on that palette (or for a new set of colors altogether). Apparently, the sexy new shade for fall is a rich purple. Combine that with taupe or some other neutral, and you've got a fierce and exciting new palette that will be oh so very 2008.

Do you already have a surprising or fun color scheme in mind? Did these tools help you create one? Do you want to colorize my wedding? Are you secretly ashamed (or find it hilarious) that a bunch of smart, sassy, worldly women are spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about whether aubergine complements chartreuse? Tell Miss Hot Cocoa. I won't judge.


Bee! I'm expecting you!

Helloooooooo!  I'm Miss Hot Cocoa, and I'm new around here.  

I'm so excited to be joining the hive!  I have derived so much inspiration from this creative and talented community (I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy . . .). I really hope that I can be a helpful resource for other brides, as Bees past and present have been for me.  In particular, I am an obsessive compulsive web researcher and bargain hunter, and I hope I'll be able to save you some time and money.  I'm also psyched to be Miss Hot Cocoa.  I've been trying to insert the adjective "hot" into my name for a long time, but for some reason it hasn't stuck. Now everyone is going to have to reckon with my hotness!

I kid, I kid.  Actually I chose Hot Cocoa because Mr. Hot Cocoa found it the least objectionable.  ;-)  And it's usually quite frosty here in Boston, so a warm, comforting, marshmellowy drink (especially one that ranges from cheap Swiss Miss to luxe Godiva) seems perfect.

Alright, then.  A little bit about me and Mr. Hot Cocoa.  We are both students; he's in his last year of medical school, and I'm finishing up a J.D./Ph.D. Like Mr. and Miss Cream Puff, we are planning a Jewish-Chinese wedding, only in our case, I bring the Chinese and he brings the Jewish flava . . . for now.  I'm converting to Judaism, and Mr. HC has ambitions to learn more Chinese, so we're hoping to be fully integrated -- Chewish -- before our wedding. We live on the East Coast, but our wedding will be in Los Angeles, where we grew up and met. Well, actually, we kind of met before we grew up. ;-) We started dating in high school. (Picture below is us at Mr. HC's senior prom, circa 1994. A pity they don't make totally rad velvet boleros like that anymore; I can't seem to find anything these days that goes well with a giant wrist corsage.)
Our wedding is not until March, so I'll be around the hive for a while.  I am looking forward to hearing all of your fabulous ideas and sharing with you my research, inspirations, and shenanigans.  As a getting-to-know-you present, I leave you with a favorite Emily Dickinson poem, which seems to have been written especially for the occasion:

Bee! I'm expecting you!
Was saying Yesterday
To Somebody you know
That you were due --

The Frogs got Home last Week --
Are settled, and at work --
Birds, mostly back --
The Clover warm and thick --

You'll get my Letter by
The seventeenth; Reply
Or better, be with me --
Yours, Fly.


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