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A SPECIAL WEDDING SECTION

Where the Planning Can Be as Easy as 1-2-3 : It May Be a Bit Impersonal, but the Gonzo Approach to Making Arrangements Can Save Time and Money

September 10, 1996|TRACY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Irene Martin planned her entire wedding without putting any wear on her tires--or on her psyche.

Next month, she will wed fiance Gene Laugerberg in a grassy lakeside park, one of hundreds of romantic settings pictured in files of Thee Wedding Library. She has chosen a satin beaded gown from One Night Affair, and he will wear a tux from Gary's Tux Shop. The newlyweds will clink champagne glasses purchased from a boutique within the library.

"It can't get any easier than this," Martin says of having made so many arrangements under one 10,000-square-foot roof in Westminster.

The superstore retailing concept has been applied in recent years to everything from pet products to books. Now it's a growing trend in the $18-billion wedding business. When it opens this fall in London, Virgin Bride (as in Virgin Records) will try to woo customers with the promise of attending to every last detail. And while such U.S. chains as David's Bridal Inc. have yet to settle west of Las Vegas, wedding-themed strip malls and referral centers offer similar time and cost savings to Southern California couples.

Indeed, they can hardly justify eloping anymore.

"These stores are certainly a convenience," says Cele Lalli, editor of Modern Bride magazine. "It's particularly attractive to people who have no idea where to go for resources."

At Thee Wedding Library, which also has a smaller location in Orange, clients can drop in without an appointment, pull up a chair and pore over promotional brochures from a wide selection of vendors. They can pop a tape into the VCR to view the work of prospective deejays and videographers. Shelves bulge with albums of sample invitations and photo portfolios. On weekends, bakeries drop off cake samples for tasting.

The listed businesses, which pay $135 a month, can arrange to meet with interested clients at the site. Co-owner Carolyn Campbell says she screens all listed vendors, rejecting anyone without two years' experience or with a history of complaints.

"This place is a great idea," says Maria Skinner, who has set the date with Andrew Sysyn for Nov. 9. "Planning a wedding is overwhelming, and this place makes it so much easier."

The Costa Mesa bride-to-be has picked out her dress (Mom's) and her site (the Four Seasons hotel in Newport Beach), but other details loom. Her short drive to Westminster on a recent weekend yielded reservations for a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, a guest book and a silver-plated cake knife. Sysyn got measured for his tux.

At this pace, they will hit far fewer than the average number of sites--30--visited by Americans marching toward the aisle.

The year-old Wedding Warehouse in Pasadena operates on a referral-only basis, with files of pre-screened information on deejays, caterers, honeymoon destinations and photographers, to name a few. But owner Mark Thomas, who doubles as a deejay-for-hire, hopes to someday open his own superstore in a warehouse adjacent to his current location in a small office building.

Elsewhere on the horizon is Pennsylvania-based David's Bridal, the largest of the megastore chains with 42 sites in 20 states. The company is searching for a site in Southern California.

At David's, a staff consultant walks each customer through the 10,000-square-foot store. Besides reviewing vendor listings, women can try on 200 styles of wedding gowns--ranging in price from $200 to $1,500--shoes, jewelry and headpieces, plus check out a vast selection of dresses for the mother of the bride, bridesmaids and flower girls.

We Do--The Wedding Store has only two sites so far, in Ohio and Georgia, but it is also eyeing the California market. Headed up by Carol Feinberg, formerly with Blockbuster Entertainment, We Do is huge--26,000 square feet--and features 600 gown designs ($300 to $3,000), nearly 100 styles of matching shoes, formal wear for the bridal party, jewelry and lingerie. Each bride is assigned to a wedding consultant who can make referrals to vendors.

But the gonzo approach is not for everyone. Certainly, the one-stop stores cannot match the lavish service and pampering found in small salons. For many brides, selecting a gown is an emotional process, with the average woman trying on 16 styles before finding The One.

"It really depends on what you want," says Lalli. "If you want small, intimate and want to be able to do a lot of customizing, a superstore is not for you."

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