Local shopping: Dreaming of Wedding Dress Shopping in Charleston

It’s no secret that Charleston is pretty good at hosting weddings. So much so, people travel from all over the world just to ensure that their special day is as charming as they’ve always dreamed of.

Growing up in Charleston, I always imagined a backdrop of grand oaks and one of the many rivers behind me when I recite my vows, but I am no longer that same little girl. I’ve traveled the world, met my future husband and have experienced many things that have altered my style and way of thinking. Now that I’m engaged, and my dreams are leaving Pinterest boards and becoming a reality, I’ve begun to identify locations, other than my hometown, that could play host to our wedding ceremony.

But what has surprised me during these beginning stages of planning are the activities surrounding my wedding that I do, in fact, want to happen here. The biggest surprise: wedding dress shopping!

During those daydreams of horse-drawn carriages across cobblestone streets taking me to a historic church, I never imagined I’d be wearing a dress I found here. I thought, certainly, for the “best dress” I’d have to travel to New York, or even Paris.

But retail in Charleston has expanded impressively over the last two decades or so. One sector that has seen a lot of growth is the bridal market, partly due to Charleston becoming a top wedding destination.

As a student of fashion at The University of South Carolina, I learned a variety of ways retailers merchandise their stores: they could produce the product themselves, source locally or use a more global approach.

Here in Charleston, our bridal salons cover the spectrum. Emily Kotarski is a local, bespoke wedding dress designer. She completely customizes one-of-a-kind gowns for her brides in 10 simple steps. If you are interested in reconstructing an heirloom gown, altering a gown you bought at a traditional store or creating a custom look for one of the many other bridal events you’ll be attending, then she can do all of that too. She designs her products and they are handmade, produced here in the United States. She offers her own niche approach to choosing a bridal gown.

Madison Row South, the product of a recent merger between Southern Protocol Bridal and Madison Row, has the advantage of having over 15 years of local experience in the bridal market. And if there’s one thing they understand after all these years, it’s the Southern bride. They determine trends based on what locals want.

“Our brides influence our buying habits,” says co-owner Michelle Miller. She says, “We are always listening to what our brides are looking for or hoping to see.” Madison Row South even carries Southern designers and styles. This local approach to sourcing their gowns allows brides to be influenced by Charleston…its weather, its style, its entire personality.

Lovely Bride has a much different approach to Charleston’s bridal market. First things first, it’s a franchise, which means the business naturally takes a much larger outlook on things, such as trends. In 2016, after the chain had opened in six locations, Fashionista.com dubbed it “The Bridal Chain for Cool Girls.”

In the fashion world, “cool girl” doesn’t typically translate into “Southern style,” and if you took one glance at their website you’d see that the traditional Southern bride is probably not their target market. In lieu of ball gowns and extensive embellishments, you’ll find much more understated silhouettes, simpler fabrics and unexpected accessories…like leather jackets. It’s clear that the brides of their New York City, Los Angeles and Miami stores have influenced their comprehensive approach to sourcing products.

With thousands of happy brides between the three boutiques, it’s clear that there is no right or wrong way to merchandise a shop as long as customers resonate with the products. Owners can choose to produce the product themselves, source locally or use a more global approach. And brides, no matter where they’re from, or what their style may be, can revel in knowing that if they choose Charleston as their location to shop for a wedding gown, they’re bound to find the one they’ve always dreamed of.

Former Miss South Carolina USA, Megan Pinckney, is a digital content producer, a world-traveler and a supporter of the arts. Follow her journey on instagram @shadesofpinck