A typical episode of TLC’s “Say Yes To The Dress” can offer one the basic sketch of the drama that is buying a wedding dress. Though the details change somewhat episode to episode, the story pretty much always follows the same arc: The bridal party enters, the bride explains her vision, dresses are tried on, fights break out, bitter tears are shed, the right dress is found, the price tag is seen, more bitter tears are shed, the bride says yes to the dress and everyone drinks champagne by minute 30.
It makes for entertaining television, Anomalie Co-founder and CEO Leslie Voorhees told PYMNTS in a recent conversation — but a guide to what it’s actually like for the average person to buy a wedding dress? It is much closer to fantasy than fact. Buying a wedding dress in real life often takes months, many boutique visits, hours of frustration looking through many wrong dresses, interpersonal drama with the bridal party and paying a sum of money that would make a reasonable down payment on a house in some parts of the U.S.
These were all lessons Voorhees learned firsthand a few years ago after getting engaged and trying to buy a dress. She had a basic idea of what she wanted, and quickly found that she couldn’t easily find it in boutiques — and that the prices for dresses that got close were absurdly expensive. It was a time in her life that had many more tears than champagne tastings.
While many similarly frustrated people have simply opted out at this point (said “no” to the dress and eloped on the nearest tropical beach), Voorhees decided that this problem could be fixed with the aid of technology. Anomalie — the digital wedding dress boutique she founded — was her attempt to build a better alternative to the traditional purchasing experience by moving it online, tapping into an artificial intelligence (AI) engine to guide the process, and allowing consumers to custom build and order their ideal wedding dresses for a reasonable price. No bridal boutiques, fittings or fights with one’s future mother-in-law required.
“We are aiming to disrupt this industry because it is really broken, and you can see that with the big-name players like David’s really suffering financially,” she said. “We hear about it anecdotally every day from our brides, in all the stories of tears and frustration. That is why we see wedding dresses as a perfect example of where technology can help the customer, and tap into an industry that is ready to be disrupted by something better.”
Introducing DressBuilder – 4 billion potential dress options. 1 dress for you. pic.twitter.com/6CqXmxSKJq
— Anomalie (@DressAnomalie) December 22, 2019
Building A Better Wedding Dress
The reason most women have such a disheartening time buying a wedding dress, Voorhees told PYMNTS, is actually pretty simple: The process, end to end, wasn’t designed for an average woman.
“The problems and frustrations consistently break down in the same three areas: selection, price and fit. The average American bridal boutique doesn’t actually carry American women’s size[s]. And even an inclusive boutique can’t hold hundreds, thousands and millions of pieces of inventory,” Voorhees said.
The Anomalie experience is built around its DressBuilder technology, an AI-guided technical tool that helps brides design their perfect dresses from the ground up. The tech took 30,000 team hours to build, she noted, programming every individual design detail that makes up a wedding dress.
Brides log in to Anomalie, then move through the dress-building platform by filling out a survey that looks to isolate their preferences. Those questions are presented with visual representations, since not all brides know exactly what a sweetheart neckline or Chantilly lace look like. Once a bride has filled in all the data about her preferences, the DressBuilder compiles a highly detailed sketch of a potential dress, as well as a series of recommendations around fabric, embellishments or dress construction specific to the design. The bride can choose to play with the design to further perfect it — and, therefore, have no shortage of options.
Wedding dresses are, at their core, similar in many regards, Voorhees noted. Unlike many fashion items, they are much less susceptible to “trendiness,” and have a longer design life cycle. Yet, even within that fairly consistent core, there is a stunning number of options and small changes that can make a big difference in how a bride feels about a dress.
“We offer something in the neighborhood of 4 billion permutations [in] dress options, derived from all of these variables, like neckline, silhouette, sleeve length and bodice construction,” she said.
Supporting The Bride
More accurately, it is 4 billion and counting, Voorhees noted, since Anomalie was created around a highly vertical and integrated supply chain, which is critical when making a customized garment offering. A wedding dress is, by nature, an emotional purchase that must be perfect — or as near perfect as humanly possible. The only way to guarantee that when selling wedding dresses online is to directly guarantee every step of the dress-building process.
That vertically integrated supply chain, she said, means Anomalie can “flex and roll in new things we are hearing about from brides as we are hearing about them.” In the last few years, for example, an increasing number of brides have been looking for pops of color in the lining of their white dresses, so the company has been able to roll those in.
That ability to deliver on the front end, due to a vertically integrated supply chain on the back end, is then enhanced by the personal stylists Anomalie offers as support, taking the bride through the construction process once she has finalized her design. At times, that might involve answering questions about materials or constructions. Other times, the stylists simply serve as a friendly ear to the bride.
“Sometimes, they just want to talk to someone who isn’t trying to price gouge them on price for something. That can be a very important part of this process,” she said.
Gouge is certainly something they don’t do. The average cost of a wedding dress on Anomalie runs between $1,000 and $2,000 at an average of $1,600— certainly not inexpensive, but a fraction of what most wedding dresses cost, particularly custom-designed dresses. Voorhees noted that, in the next year, Anomalie hopes to add more price tracking tools to the DressBuilder platform so that customers can understand exactly where the expense points are in their dresses.
This is one of many ambition points for the next year, as Anomalie enters its fourth year in business and looks to take on scale. Over the last three years, she noted, the company has learned a tremendous amount about fit for women’s clothing — because fit-conscious brides have been happy to provide Anomalie with extensive measurements, photographs and tracked sizing data over time. That data has been instrumental in educating its AI for the dress-building process.
However, the company is also aware that fit is an issue in arenas outside wedding dresses.
“No one has really cracked mass customization yet for women, because we are harder to fit. But we’ve developed a lot of patterns in-house for a lot of body types, and there are a lot of cool things to be done in mass customization,” Voorhees said.
For Anomalie, that might mean expansion into bridesmaid’s dresses, or into other types of apparel. There is much that can be done with better-fitting women’s clothing. In the immediate future, though, the company’s first goal is to help all those women who just got engaged during Christmas to build the perfect wedding dress with far fewer crying jags along the way.