Designer Kirstie Kelly and two bridal consultants help Kathy Russo try… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)
Leah Brown was happy to oblige when her friend Kathy Russo asked for help in picking out a wedding dress.
But she started having second thoughts when she found out where they would be shopping: Costco.
"I said, 'Yo, what? Are you kidding me?' " Brown recalled. "Where are you going to try them on — in the patio furniture section?"
But Brown's doubts evaporated as she watched Los Angeles designer Kirstie Kelly and a team of bridal consultants fawn and fret over Russo as she tried on wedding gowns at Costco's Los Feliz store Thursday.
After trying on just two, Russo had found the one: a $700 satin trumpet gown with a ruched bodice and draped skirt. She'll pay extra to have it customized with rhinestones and embellished cap sleeves.
"I like the story behind getting my dress from Costco," said Russo, 46, a movie costumer. "I think it's kind of funny."
Along with giant wheels of cheese and jumbo packs of toilet paper, Costco Wholesale Corp. is now hawking designer wedding dresses. But don't worry — you don't have to buy them in bulk, and you won't find them near the casket display.
The discount warehouse club is the latest major retailer to break into the wedding gown business, joining mall staples J.Crew Group Inc., Ann Taylor, White House Black Market and Urban Outfitters Inc. that have launched bridal collections.
The Costco line features six dresses designed by Kelly, who said she was selling the gowns for 40% less than they would normally retail for. They range in price from $700 for the dress Russo selected to $1,400 for a satin hand-beaded gown with a sweetheart neckline and detachable jeweled cap sleeves.
At the Los Feliz store, customers pushing loaded shopping carts gawked as they passed the bridal salon, which was set up by the cash registers next to 6-foot-high stacks of Hershey's chocolate bars, buckets of licorice and bags of Kirkland Signature Trail Mix.
For retailers, introducing wedding collections is a way to add a new product niche with little risk — many only carry bridalwear online; Costco is selling its dresses at temporary four-day trunk shows one store at a time starting in California.
And with brides-to-be strapped for time and increasingly pitching in for their own weddings, the stores say they're making the all-important dress selection process more convenient, casual and cut-rate.
Although wedding gowns and Costco seem like an odd match, Chief Executive Jim Sinegal said the company has carried a variety of high-end fashion items, including Coach handbags, and recently sold a $259,000 diamond in one of its stores. The Issaquah, Wash., chain's wedding line also includes engagement rings, invitations, floral centerpieces and honeymoon vacation packages.
"That's what Costco is all about — the Waterford crystal next to the tires and mayonnaise," Sinegal said. "When we're doing the best job is when we have those products that the customer doesn't expect."
The trunk shows have been attracting not just brides on budgets but stylish shoppers such as Antonia Jones, an actress and film student from Studio City who arrived for her bridal appointment at Costco wearing navy Christian Louboutin pumps and toting a Fendi handbag.
"With the economy the way it is, you want to have a beautiful dress for your wedding day, but you wear it one day, and it's not cost-effective," she said.
Of buying a dress at Costco, she said: "I tongue-in-cheek make fun of it, but everyone wants to save money now. I don't think people would know, and you know what, I don't think it's a bad thing."
Others are more skeptical.
Although the bridal dresses sold at Costco are designer gowns, Maro Ghoukassian, owner of Caprice Bridal Boutique in Glendale, said it would be like if someone "bought Ferragamo shoes and then saw that Payless was selling them."
But Kelly said she didn't think teaming with Costco would hurt her brand, adding that she designed the gowns for "the realistic brides" who were fashion-forward but didn't want to blow all their money on a dress.
"It's our cost-couture answer," she said.
The average wedding costs $26,984 in the U.S. and $33,745 in Los Angeles, according to a 2010 study by wedding websites TheKnot and WeddingChannel. The study found that brides on average spend $1,099 on the dress ($1,312 in Los Angeles).
That's led to a burgeoning wedding industry among major retailers, many of whom are rapidly expanding their bridal lines — including opening standalone wedding shops. Even elite fashion designers are thinking more mainstream: Fashion designer Vera Wang recently began selling a line of affordable wedding dresses at bridalwear giant David's Bridal.