When a sales consultant at a local bridal shop tried to squeeze a sample size 8 wedding dress over Lisa Thompson's size 16 body, then asked her to step in front of a mirror for the entire store to see, Thompson described the experience in one word: awkward.
"To be forced into a dress that's eight sizes too small. ... I looked ridiculous," said the 27-year-old Roseville bride-to-be.
Shopping for the perfect wedding dress is supposed to be a rite of passage for brides, but it can be a frustrating one for those who are full-figured. Some have been so humiliated by the dress-shopping experience that they skip trying on dresses altogether, order a dress online and hope it fits.
Twin Cities retailers say they're making changes so larger-sized brides can have the experience of trying on pretty dresses in a chic location surrounded by mothers and girlfriends. In fact, the metro area has two new salons that cater solely to brides size 14 and up.
The newest is Luxe Bridal Couture, located in Minneapolis' historic Semple Mansion. It claims to be the first plus-size bridal boutique in the Twin Cities, and one of several in the country, to carry high-end couture designs such as James Clifford and Essense of Australia, whose designs are meant to flatter a woman's curves.
At Luxe, brides are greeted with a glass of champagne as they enter spacious dressing rooms decorated with shimmering chandeliers, fainting couches and size 18/20 mannequins donning the latest in bridal fashion.
Thompson went to Luxe on her second attempt to find her dream gown. The look on her face when she emerged from one of the elaborate dressing rooms made it clear she had found the right spot.
"It hits the hips really well, which is what I was concerned about," she said with a half-smile, her head tilted to the side, admiring the way the strapless dress hugged her curves in just the right places.
Owner Shayna Clute said that while working as a wedding planner in western New York, she realized that plus-size brides weren't getting the same level of service that "normal-size" brides were.
"Brides either couldn't get the dresses on, they'd rip -- which would mortify the bride -- or the sales associate would ask a thinner bridesmaid or friend to try on the dress for her," she said. "It was an unpleasant experience even for me, so I can only imagine how they felt -- I can't imagine being ignored."
Plus-size brides don't want to be singled out, either, by being sent to the "women's section" of bridal shops, Clute said. They want the same experience that their average-size friends have experienced for so long, which is why Clute decided to partner with Posh Bridal Couture, which offers dresses in traditional sizes. The two boutiques operate on an appointment-only basis and share the Semple Mansion location, displaying the appropriate dress size for each client.
Time for a bigger bride
If the size of the average American woman is any indication, catering to curvy brides makes sense. The plus-size market is one of the few retail categories that is growing. And about 25 percent of the 2.4 million women nationwide who get married each year are size 14 or larger, according to one retailer for curvy women, www.alwaysforme.com.
The fashion industry is slowly catching on. At Full-Figured Fashion Week in New York last summer, more than 25 designers showed off clothes meant to complement curvy bodies. Target carries a line called Pure Energy Plus, fashion-forward "trend-right" clothing in sizes 14 and up.
David's Bridal, a national chain with four Twin Cities stores, has a collection of gowns in sizes 14 to 26, and like most bridal salons, can order any gown in a larger size for an extra fee.
In Andover, the Glass Slipper Bridal Boutique carries about 80 dresses in sizes 18 to 30 with prices ranging from $350 to $1,700.
After working in a bridal salon for a few months and seeing "so many women frustrated to tears," owner Pat Ferguson saw an opportunity to do something about it.
"There are very few plus-size stores in the whole country for bridal," she said of her decision to open the store last year. "Over half of my customers are from out-of-state. We even had a bride drive from Montana."
Shopping the Web
Frustrated by their lack of options, many altar-bound brides head to the Internet.
"My dress shopping experience was nonexistent. I'd shopped with a plus-size friend for her wedding gown and the experience was so deflating -- both in excitement around the event and her self-esteem -- that I had no desire to go through with it myself," said Sara Bartlett, the author of Bombshell Beauty, a blog about plus-size fashion. "I ordered my dress, sight unseen, off the Internet."
Websites like www.plus sizebridal.com offer dresses in sizes 0 to 32 and all of the plus-sizes are returnable or exchangeable, so the bride never has to step into a store.
For Thompson, however, it's about more than the dress. She was able to share a special moment with her future mother-in-law in a chic boutique, surrounded by gorgeous gowns.
The University of Minnesota veterinary student fell in love with an ivory Jacquelin Exclusive designer dress with a sweetheart neckline, but she'll be back to share the moment with her mom and sister before making a final decision for her June 2013 wedding.
"I was really concerned about falling in love with a dress that wasn't in my size," she said. "I don't even know what sizes the dresses were that I tried on. I didn't have to worry about it, because they all fit."
Aimée Tjader • 612-673-1715