In the six years since its founding, downtown-based bridesmaid dressmaker Birdy Grey has grown dramatically by creating an online, affordable approach to dresses, putting it in stark contrast to David’s Bridal, which dominated the market for decades but is now struggling.
Birdy Grey was co-founded by Grace Lee Chen, who serves as its chief executive, and Monica Ashauer, who is its president, after attending weddings as bridesmaids and seeing a need for a company to make shopping for bridesmaid dresses easier.
“The experience was not digital. It was going to these old school, wholesale dress stores getting fitted, having to sign a contract and waiting six months for a dress that you couldn’t return,” said Ashauer. “I think we changed the game.”
Chen came up with the idea of creating the bridesmaid experience that was 100% online for a price of $99, “which was the most you’d want to pay for a dress that you were probably going to wear once and that you couldn’t pick yourself,” said Ashauer.
After six years, the company’s business remains online and is direct-to-consumer. Ashauer attributes its success in part to the company’s “super-easy shopping experience of being able to check out on your phone, which is where most of our customers shop.”
She noted that their primary audience, Millennials and Gen Z-aged women, prefer to shop online and want more “instant gratification in terms of their shopping experience.”
The company used social media to get its reputation off the ground. The co-founders quickly learned that there was an organic word-of-mouth culture in the bridal industry.
“Like all things in the bridal industry, you will not partake in any vendor unless you’ve heard from somebody who has used them first,” said Ashauer. “Of course, we still spend on online marketing, but we’re definitely finding there’s a big viral word-of-mouth component to our business.”
Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association, noted that much of Birdy Grey’s success can be attributed to social influencers.
“Personal style is based on Twitter and Instagram, but it’s really what the influencers are saying is ‘in,’” said Metchek. “If you look at the Birdy styles, they are the same basic kind of look, all Vera Wang holdovers.”
Birdy Grey upended the average price for a bridesmaid dress, which was $165 when they entered the market. The company has also branched into selling other wedding needs, including shoes, bags and other gifts and accessories associated with the big day.
“We’re in economic times where bridesmaids do not want to pay $300 for their dresses and the bride is not paying for them,” said Metchek. “I think this is truly shopping in a different way, the opportunity to go through a bride’s magazine, see the looks they like, things that are thousands of dollars, and go to this website and see something similar for $90.”
The company manufactures the dresses in East Asia and said it is experiencing 25% year-over-year growth.
Birdy Grey launched prior to the pandemic; the pandemic slowed growth but didn’t stifle it. Brides, for the most part, postponed weddings without canceling, meaning bridesmaids still kept ahold of their dresses, said Ashauer.
Not only is the Birdy Grey shopping experience online, but the company’s operations are also largely remote. The company is headquartered downtown and also maintains a New York office. But the company has found that attracting and retaining talent requires it to have work-from-home options.
“We founded the company with the intention that we would have a kind of flexibility in working, which turns out to be a great model because we have a predominantly female team,” said Ashauer. “A lot of us are moms and I feel like having this really flexible work-at-home model was great for attracting and retaining really strong female talent.”
For Birdy Grey, the wedding business is booming, but for industry mainstay, David’s Bridal, the past few years have been very different. The Pennsylvania-based bridal chain, which is the largest bridal retailer in the United States, filed for its second bankruptcy in April and was sold in July to New York-based Cion Investment Corp. The company had previously filed for bankruptcy in 2018. The firm, which was founded in 1950, was initially known for selling affordable wedding attire.
After its bankruptcy announcement, the company’s chief executive, James Marcum, said the firm was “struggling in the post-Covid environment and uncertain economic conditions.”
In the company’s bankruptcy filing it noted that “the demand for formal wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses and related accessories has decreased substantially in the current environment.”
The company said it would lay off more than 9,000 workers but fulfill all customer orders. In October, the company appointed a new chief operating officer and chief financial officer in an effort to turn the company around.
“Think about what David’s Bridal had,” Metchek said. “Lace, trim and beads. They had to have it in stock. It was a very different business model with fittings. (For Birdy Grey) there are no fittings, there’s no tailoring. …This is pretty disposable stuff. It’s something you wear once.”
According to a 2022 wedding survey of 12,000 couples by The Knot, an industry wedding planning site, wedding volume this year is anticipated to return to 2019 (pre-Covid) levels with approximately 2.1 million wedding receptions. And despite the current state of the economy, 70% of couples getting married this year don’t anticipate making changes to their original budgets, although nearly half of couples surveyed acknowledged that rising costs are a top concern.
“I think we are going to continue to scale our top line as well as become a lot more profitable just by doing things smarter with a better team,” said Ashauer.
In addition to incorporating more colors, styles and price points into their line, in the last six months, the company has built out its senior team with chief marketing officer and chief technology officer hires. The firm recruited from direct-to-consumer and fast-growing companies that have models similar to Birdy Grey’s strategy.
“We’ve built what we feel like is a really strong bench,” said Ashauer. “We’re now kind of poised for the next wave of growth, which means scaling our business and building more infrastructure and processes instead of bootstrapping things.”