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David’s Bridal is king of the wedding industry. How did it go bankrupt?

Major changes in demographics, taste and culture hit the retailer hard.

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If you are an American woman older than 20, chances are you have found yourself, at least once, in the fluorescent-lit dressing room of a David’s Bridal store.

The experience is practically impossible to avoid. David’s Bridal is the Walmart of weddings, the convenient, low-priced alternative to traditional bridal shops. And, like Walmart, what the retailer lacks in hipness, it more than makes up for in accessibility. David’s Bridal claims to outfit 1 in 3 American brides (and 2 in 3 who spend less than $600). That is a staggering number of gowns, and it doesn’t include quinceañera and prom dresses, mother-of-the-bride outfits, and the half-dozen bridesmaid dresses an American woman could easily end up purchasing in her lifetime.

So it comes as a bit of a shock that David’s Bridal, the nation’s largest wedding retailer, applied for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday. How did this happen?

David’s Bridal owns an incredible market share and is almost a mandatory stop along the road to marriage — even for brides who prefer to shop elsewhere for their gowns. My sister-in-law, for example, purchased her wedding dress at a boutique, but she elected to use David’s for her bridesmaids, who were scattered all over the country. With more than 300 locations, David’s made it easy for each of us, in our respective cities, to try on our dresses (mint green strapless, if you’re wondering), order off the rack and finalize any necessary alterations on site. All for less than $150.

The experience wasn’t glamorous, but it was affordable and efficient — which has been David’s sweet spot for decades. For women who don’t want to deal with the fuss or expense (or snobbishness) of traditional bridal shops, but who do want a traditional wedding with a fancy gown and a bevy of matching bridesmaids, David’s Bridal has been the perfect middle ground.

In the age of Instagram, however, brides suddenly seem to be fleeing the middle ground. Increasingly, they are turning to “customized” weddings that eschew tradition for elements that represent the couple in a more personal way. For many brides, that means a more casual wedding. When analytics company Moody’s downgraded David’s Bridal’s ranking from stable to negative in February, it cited the “casualization” of gowns and bridesmaid dresses as a key factor.

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What exactly is “casualization”? It runs the gamut “from a simple sheath worn during a barefoot ceremony on the beach to a white pantsuit,” said wedding publicist Meghan Ely of the Richmond-based agency OFD Consulting. “It means ballet flats instead of heels, and minimalistic jewelry instead of your grandmother’s pearls. It’s a departure from the big and poofy.”

In other words, no matching mint green bridesmaid dresses.

“The fact is, an informal person may not have the desire to suddenly wear a complicated, traditional white gown,” Ely said. Which was probably always true. The difference is that now brides realize they have a choice.

Brittney Drye, editor of inclusive wedding site Love Inc., agrees that the biggest shift in weddings is that couples feel empowered to not follow traditional rules, especially when it comes to fashion. “I feel we owe this shift a lot to same-sex weddings. The wedding industry is extremely heteronormative, so as more same-sex couples started getting married during the marriage equality movement, they had to come up with their own rules for many traditions and styles. This opened the floodgates to all couples wanting to create a day that was representative of them.”

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The change also almost certainly reflects the fact that couples are marrying at an older age (an average of 33 for men and 31 for women, according to Wedding Wire’s 2018 Newlywed Report). Older couples often pay for their own weddings, which means fewer brides have to get their dress approved by Mom.

That, and the increasing willingness of brides to shop online. In February, a David’s Bridal representative told Business Insider that this new shopping behavior — unimaginable even five years ago — was a key challenge for the brand.

All in all, a tough place for David’s to pivot from, though it has been trying. It brought Zac Posen on board for a capsule collection. It dimmed the fluorescent lights in the dressing rooms. It replaced in-store Muzak with Taylor Swift. It introduced a new category of “casual” dresses that, judging from the retailer’s website, covers all possible interpretations of that word, ranging from “minimalist” to simply “cheap.”

With the Chapter 11 filing, it’s clear these changes haven’t been enough — though it’s also not certain that this is the death knell for the retailer. The company says it is strategically restructuring, and it’s possible that it could return to health. A message from the chief executive, posted Monday on the company’s website, reassures brides that all “300+ stores will continue operating, and all orders and alterations will be delivered as promised. We are, and will continue to be, open for business.”

Personally, I hope so. Though a wedding industry skeptic in general, I appreciate David’s Bridal’s commitment to inclusivity. Not everyone is Kate Middleton, but that’s the image — thin, wealthy, white — the bridal market tends to push. David’s Bridal is more democratic than most bridal brands, unapologetically catering to the American bride with her various shapes, shades and budgets.

And it deserves more credit than it gets for customer service. Recognizing brides’ need for continuity in the sales experience, it actively redesigned the hiring process for associates a few years ago, focusing on retention. The result is a sales team that is both extremely knowledgeable about the product and practiced in dealing with the heightened emotions involved in wedding dress shopping.

I witnessed this when I visited the Springfield, Va., location with a friend a couple of years ago. She was to be married in two weeks and had just picked up her dress, purchased at a local boutique. She hated it. For maybe the second time in the 30 years I’ve known her, my friend was in tears. The sales associate didn’t push a new dress — a leap my friend was willing to take. Instead, she pointed out everything that was beautiful about the current dress. She suggested a $70 accessory that subtly fixed the problem. My friend left smiling, feeling great about her gown and with her budget still intact. All brides should be so lucky.