Bend startup tackles the one-size-fits-all wedding dress experience.
Shopping for a wedding dress is a rite-of-passage for brides-to-be. You bring friends or family to a shop, select dresses from the rack and revel in the oohs and aahs as you try on gown after gown. Sometimes there’s champagne. Lots of times there are happy tears.
Yet, while this experience is touted in wedding magazines and portrayed in TV and movies, it’s often a wholly different experience for plus-size brides. Christine Callahan realized this after one of her best friends struggled to find gowns in her size—she’s a size 18 and stores rarely carry higher than a size 12. Instead of a happy experience, for her friend, finding a wedding dress was exceptionally stressful. She ended up having to try on a gown that was way too small and then buying based on that less-than-ideal sample. Fit wasn’t the only thing nagging at Callahan. When shopping for her own wedding dress, she had a difficult time finding something she liked. She also wanted an online alternative, with the ability to order something and try it on at home—much like what Warby Parker offers for glasses.
Callahan wanted to reimagine the entire experience. She launched Bend-based Ella & Oak in January with that mission in mind, providing plus-size brides with designer wedding dresses and a fun, at-home shopping experience to match.
“Most brides feel such anxiety around this experience that they either put it off until it’s too late, or settle on something that isn’t their dream,” Callahan said. “We’re making the experience fun again—for brides of all sizes.” Ella & Oak works with designers to create dresses specifically for plus-size brides. Then to improve on the shopping experience, the company mails customers three dress samples, in size 18 or 24, to try on at home or wherever works for them. When they decide on a dress, they can order it in their size.
“Every woman deserves to have a beautiful wedding dress, regardless of her size,” Callahan said.
Bringing Ella & Oak to life
The first six months of Ella & Oak has been dedicated to building partnerships with individual dress designers, learning more about their customers and fine-tuning the logistics of shipping sample wedding dresses around the country.
Callahan and co-founder Sam Brody, who is located in New York, launched the company with a small number of beta brides to test the service. For example, Ella & Oak hosted a live event last spring for two brides to try on dresses in person. Ella & Oak provided champagne, the location—a room at the Ritz Carleton—and, of course, the wedding gowns.
“The brides were nervous when they got there,” Callahan said. “It’s a high-pressure, anxiety-filled experience for a lot of people.” The company transformed that for these brides, who ended up doing catwalks for their friends and family in stunning dresses and having a great time. The event not only helped the brides with their shopping process, but also provided the cofounders with some key information about how and when their customers shop.
The company has identified target geographies around the U.S. and aims to serve the population of brides that live a few hours from a larger city and multiple bridal boutiques. The cofounders plan to expand their sizing options, including offering the ability to select different sized tops and bottoms.
Pop-ups and partnerships
So far, the startup has received lots of positive feedback and has a waitlist of more than 350 brides. While the company is currently based in Oregon, Callahan is on the road often, with multiple plans for pop-ups and partnerships across the U.S.
The cofounders plan to expand their product line to include rehearsal and bridal shower dresses, accessories and their own private label line of wedding gowns. Down the road, they’d like to incorporate technology with potential augmented reality try-ons and an online dress-building tool.
For now, the company is currently raising money to help scale Ella & Oak’s efforts to serve what Callahan sees as a wildly underserved market.
“We value the dress because we value the bride,” she said. “Women should feel beautiful and confident every day, but especially on one of the most important days of their lives.”