Just weeks before her June wedding to her high school sweetheart, Kelly Dennis discovered that the Manassas bridal shop that had her wedding dress was out of business, and her dress was gone.
"I was like, 'How can this be happening? Our dresses have to be somewhere,' " said Dennis, 20, who spent two days searching for her wedding gown and her mother's dress. She and her mother found the dresses at the homes of two seamstresses who previously worked for the Bridal Shoppe.
The store's closing last month sent Dennis and other Bridal Shoppe customers into a last-minute frenzy to find gowns, accessories and dresses for bridesmaids. It also left them feeling confused about how an 18-year-old bridal store that seemed so popular and busy could suddenly close.
Owner Michelle Carolla said the decision to close the store was made May 10, about three months after she and her husband, Nick, sold their Haymarket house for $575,000 and put proceeds from the sale into the business.
Carolla said that in the days before the shop closed and the couple declared bankruptcy, she was rushing to finish the orders for bridesmaid dresses. She sent letters to brides and contacted manufacturers. Some brides said they weren't contacted by the Bridal Shoppe. Dennis, for example, said she received a letter about the shop closing but that the letter didn't mention where her dress was.
"I think she made a very honest attempt to get everyone's bridal dress out the door," said Jeanette Fusile, owner of Jeanette's Bride 'N Tux Boutique of Manassas. Fusile said she has worked in the bridal business for three decades and seen many stores come and go.
Michelle and Nick Carolla blame the Internet and cost-cutting brides for helping to bankrupt their business.
"You can basically order on the Internet what you can purchase in a brick-and-mortar store," said Michelle Carolla, who added that she and her former staff of eight employees and three seamstresses spent their last three days at the shop making arrangements so all her customers would receive their merchandise.
Four years ago, the Carollas purchased the Bridal Shoppe from Paula Faraday, who had started it with $3,000 in savings, ultimately building it into a 4,200-square-foot business with $1 million in revenue annually through the sale of gowns, veils and other accessories, plus tuxedo rentals.
"I'm very sad about it," Faraday, 74, now retired in North Carolina, said after she learned of the shop's closing.
When Faraday ran the shop, the Internet didn't pose much competition. Michelle Carolla said the industry has since changed. It was always an expensive venture, as bridal shops must purchase sample dresses twice a year to keep up with fashion trends, she said.
After purchasing the store, Carolla said, she noticed that some brides would come in and whisper about their plans to purchase similar dresses on the Internet. In the past two years, the practice has become more common, she said.
"We would actually see people stand in our hallways and take pen and paper and write down manufacturer, the style number," said Carolla, who was this year's Mrs. District of Columbia in the Mrs. United States beauty pageant. "For the first half of the time we were there, they would be secretive about it, and the second half of the time we were there, they were blatantly obvious about it."
Some Bridal Shoppe customers said they would never dream of purchasing their wedding dresses over the Internet.
"I don't think I would spend that much money on the Internet," said Kelly Wheaton, who is getting married in August.
Wheaton, 26, said that she ordered a veil from the Bridal Shoppe and paid for it but that the store never placed the order with the manufacturer. She later found the veil at the manufacturer with the help of another shop and bought it again.
Former Bridal Shoppe employee Catherine Robinson and seamstress Rosandra Corea said brides sometimes told workers they had purchased their gowns for less on the Internet.
"I knew that the store was not doing the business necessary to sustain it anymore," said Robinson, who said she was nonetheless shocked to be told of the closing only two days beforehand.
Rebecca Moats, who is getting married in September and ordered her and her bridesmaids' dresses from the Bridal Shoppe, said she never looked on the Internet for a dress.
Just days before it closed, Bridal Shoppe employees called her to urge her to order all her bridesmaid dresses, Moats said.
Manufacturers require shops to order all bridesmaid dresses of a wedding party at once, instead of one dress at a time. So if the Bridal Shoppe had accepted the deposit on one bridesmaid dress, Carolla said, she had to take all the deposits to close the order.
"I feel like in my case she kind of hunted me down to get the extra cash," said Moats, 29.
Her fiance, Chip Miller, agreed.
"You had to know on [May 10] you were closing your doors on the 13th," said Miller, 30. "It's just not the hassle you need."
Other shop owners said there is some competition from the Internet. Jean Hartman of Ashburn-based Discount Bridal Service Inc. and By Invitation Only said she tries to take advantage of the Internet by advertising her companies online. Hartman said she helped several Bridal Shoppe customers find seamstresses or manufactures who had their merchandise.
Larger bridal shops don't face much competition from Internet-based vendors.
"If it were that big of an issue, I would think it would impact David's Bridal, and it's not," said Cindi Freeburn, a spokeswoman for Conshohocken, Pa.-based David's Bridal, which operates 240 bridal stores across the nation.
Freeburn said that many shoppers want to examine the lace and the satin of their dress and that they bring their family and friends to look at it -- which they couldn't do on the Internet.
"When you're talking about a purchase, that many women will say that it's something that they have dreamt about ever since they were a little girl, it's hard to fathom," said Freeburn, whose company is giving customers of the Bridal Shoppe who have a receipt a 40 percent discount. "They want to feel like a princess.
"Half the fun is going out there and trying all those dresses on. It's such an experience that it's hard to believe that many people would forgo that."