The Bridal Garden in East Greenwich has been a mainstay in the Rhode Island bridal community for a good amount of time. In fact, Christina Carlson’s—the Bridal Garden’s current owner—ties to the shop go as far back as 2004.
“I interned here in high school,” she recalls. “I just loved everything bridal. Every time I was in CVS with my mom, I would beg her to buy Brides magazine. I’d fold over the pages of all my favorite dresses and flowers.”
Later, once she graduated college, Carlson made her return to the industry working for Pranzi Catering and Events. It was during this time she got the idea to start her own business.
“I loved working for them, but I was at the point where I felt like I could do something myself; I just got the itch at a young age,” she explains. “Then the previous owner of my store was ready to sell. I talked it over with my parents and we all said, ‘You know, there’s never going to be a better time to just take a leap.’ That was a little over ten years ago now. It’s been a wild ride, but a lot of fun.”
While the thought to relocate and freshen things up had been at the back of her mind in recent years, Carlson admits the pandemic gave her the push she needed. Housed in an older building on Main Street, the original store was made up of many small rooms and tight spaces which were less than COVID-friendly. She also was interested in providing more of a tailored experience for incoming brides.
“Because, as much as it’s about the dress, I feel like it’s also about the environment in which they’re trying the dresses on and the connection they form with their salesperson,” she says.
With the end of her lease fast approaching towards the end of last year, Carlson thought it was about time she pursue her vision. She secured the new space in an industrial building off Division street and then spent all of Thanksgiving and Christmas break scouring for new furnishings and working with contractors. She opened her doors on January 1 and have had only a great response since.
“It just feels a lot cleaner and like an environment where brides feel more special in a way,” says Brooke Aurgemma, the Bridal Garden’s Lead Stylist. “The emphasis is on them. ”
In addition to seeing practical upgrades like a parking lot and a more accessible entrance, the new space leans into its gorgeous, industrial chic aesthetic. Brides are first greeted by a check-in table when they walk in before entering a wide open area with crisp white walls with iron detailing. Racks of gowns line the perimeter while dress forms adorned in newer styles dot the center. One corner shows off bridesmaid and mother-of-bride dresses while one wall features a trendy selfie backdrop which Carlson says has been surprising hit with visitors. Two dressing rooms are flanked by a private suite on either side, each outfitted with pretty decor and cozy couches.
“Our old store had the dressing rooms and seating all in one area and it just felt like people were a little bit on top of each other. Here, we wanted them to be separate for a more intimate experience. Especially if a bride comes in with their mom, they want to have that moment with just them,” says Carlson. “And then we only have two dressing rooms because I’ve learned I don’t need to be the kind of store that has a million brides at once. You’re not just another number to us.”
The smaller visitor count helps on multiple fronts, the pandemic, of course, being one of them. Carlson is alway keeping safety and comfort of everyone in mind. On top of cleaning the store and steaming the dresses between visits, she schedules just two appointments at a time—her taking one and Aurgemma taking the other so each bride has the undivided attention of their attendant. As of right now, the store limits guests to four per appointment, but if you have a larger party, you can make your appointment for a Sunday afternoon and have the place to yourselves.
“Either way, they never feel rushed and they’re usually here for a good hour and a half trying on dresses because there’s quite a bit of stuff to try on,” says Carlson.
She also feels as though COVID also allowed her to take a step back and figure out who her brides really are along with what they are looking for. She’s proud of the inventory they’ve curated. As a size-inclusive boutique, the Bridal Garden carries samples ranging from size 0 to 30, and they only carry designers who do not size discriminate. As for prices, the gowns range from $1,000–5,000 with the majority falling between $1,200–2,500. However, they do offer dresses that can be purchased right off the rack at a discounted price.
So, what are current brides gravitating towards this year? Carlson says a classic look.
“I think people are more cognizant now about picking a dress that, if their wedding date or wedding venue had to change because of everything going on, it’s transitional. A little more versatile,” she says. “And I feel like with those classic dresses, you can put them in any setting; they never age and they’re not a trend.”
Aurgemma agrees. “A lot of satin, for sure, and a lot less beading. A lot of off the shoulder, too, which is nice because a lot of off-the-shoulders can be detached for dancing,” she says. “But a lot of the time, they’re trying something that they might not have considered before coming in, and they’re like, ‘Woah I never thought I would want this.’ It’s a cool feeling because you never know until you try it on.”
When booking appointments through the Bridal Garden’s website, the brides are asked to fill out a questionnaire so Carlson and Aurgemma can get a sense of who is coming in. They take a look at their wedding date, venue, style and more to begin putting together a selection of dresses prior to the visit.
“It also helps if we know their wedding date because a lot of girls have a little shorter turn-around time due to COVID. Many dresses usually take about six months to come in, and we’re seeing a lot of new people with June, July and August wedding dates. That’s cutting it really close with the dress arrival date, nevermind factoring in any time they might want for alterations,” Carlson says. “So, if we know that ahead of time, we can call around to the designers and say, ‘Hey what do you have on hand or what’s already in production or what is some way we can bypass the six-month wait time?’ That way, when they walk in the door, we’re prepared with all of that information and we’re not selling them a dress that can’t be delivered within their time frame.”
COVID has affected a lot of things in the wedding industry, and vendors have been given very little guidance by the state (note: the commerce secretary did recently signal that larger guest counts will be allowed in April, but no exact limits or time frames have been established).
“Surprisingly, all of the bridal stores in Rhode Island play very well in the sandbox together. We’re the first to refer people to another store if we don’t have what you’re looking for, which from what I’m told by other states, that doesn’t happen all too often,” Carlson says. “And I’ve heard from other stores that they’re having a little bit of difficulty getting people to commit, even though they know that they’ve found their dress, just because the state hasn’t given them any guidance on if or when these weddings are going to happen. We would love to either get some clarification. Because it’s hard for us to have them buy this dress when they don’t know if their wedding is going to be this fall or next fall. Putting myself in their shoes, I would feel the same way. I would be nervous to commit to something until I had just some assurance that this is going to happen. We all just need a glimmer of hope.”
That being said, she does think it’s important for couples to remember what this is all about at the end of the day.
“You need to celebrate. You need to go through the process. And don’t think there’s any better time than now to start the process. Because [the wedding’s] going to happen eventually. As soon as that press conference happens, the floodgates are going to open and the whole industry is going to be busier than ever. So, for people reading this article, start now. Get ahead of the curve and you’ll feel so much better. We’re all here, eager and ready to help.”