A TRI-STATE FRANCHISE AIMS TO MODERNIZE THE BRIDAL INDUSTRY – ONE CHIFFON AND SILK GOWN AT A TIME
BY ERIK SCHONING PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE
Anyone who’s ever been in a wedding party knows the myriad stresses that are often associated with bridesmaid dresses, from expense to finding a universally flattering fit. Bella Bridesmaids, a network of boutiques dedicated solely to the women standing next to the bride, launched in the early 2000s to eliminate that stress, its goal to pair a bespoke in store shopping experience with a luxurious roster of gowns designed to be worn again and again.
Today there are more than 50 Bella locations across the country. Top performers include the usual suspects: Chicago, NYC, and Jersey’s very own Freehold store, run by sisters in law Samira and Kyle Bocchino. In fact, the Freehold store is fourth in the country in sales and has consistently stood at the top since 2018. And like many success stories, it boasts unconventional origins.
“I used to be a designer working in New York,” Samira Bocchino said. “I came back home to Jersey and went into the retail sector, where I climbed the ladder quickly. When I was planning my own wedding in 2015, I had no idea where to go for bridesmaid dresses and didn’t want to go to a chain store. I wanted something more luxurious and beautiful. So I said to my future sister-in-law, ‘Hey, where do you go for bridesmaid dresses?’ And she responded, ‘Oh, there’s this really cool place. It’s called Bella Bridesmaids.’”
Bocchino went to a Bella in north Jersey, talked to the manager, and when she came home, she told her fiance she was going to quit her job and open up a franchise in Freehold. In a lighting-quick turnaround Bocchino visited the store in April of 2015, sent in an application in May, and signed a contract in June she and her sister-in-law launched what would become a top store in the country.
One of Bella’s founding tenets is to end the stereotype of the “ugly” bridesmaid dress, and today its showrooms are stocked with a sweeping inventory of trendy, luxury dresses. The process begins with a consultation between the bride and staff to choose a specific dress and/or color. Then, when it’s time for the bridesmaids to obtain their dresses, they are able to visit any Bella in the country, not just the store where the account was created. It’s a kind of hybrid model, offering the best in personalized small-scale shopping with the convenience of a larger operation.
“The real benefit of this concept, and we’re really one of the only business models for bridesmaids out there like this, is that even if the bride has bridesmaids all over the country, they can visit any Bella,” Bocchino said. “We would pull up that bride’s selection via our virtual showroom, and we would be able to show the brides maid exactly what that bride wants her to choose from, even if they’re not in the same state.”
In an era of online dress shopping, Bocchino sees this model as a way for brides-to-be and bridesmaids to avoid the facelessness of online shopping, while enjoying the inventory and convenience of a digital platform. As she pointed out, if there are any last-minute issues, no website is going to be there for someone. It’s common practice in the Freehold store for the team to receive calls the day before a wedding with a demand for a last-minute alteration or repair, and Bocchino and her team are always able to respond.
The wedding industry is a massive business; even recent pandemic-related drops in the marriage rate haven’t taken the wind out of its sails. For a long time, this bred a focus on disposable dresses that would never garner a second wear once the ceremony ended. But the trends are changing, and Bella’s commitment to high-quality, well-designed products have positioned the company well to meet the needs of today’s discerning clients.
“Trends come and go, but what I’m hearing more now than ever before is sustainability,” Bocchino said. “Brides are really conscious about picking dresses that girls want to rewear. It’s something that’s embedded in me as a buyer, that we have to pick dresses that are not disposable. This is why we stock dresses in our store that feel more like beautiful evening gowns, something they can wear to an engagement party or gala. We choose the brands that we sell with that at the top of our minds.”
For all the joy weddings bring, the stresses are undeniable. Every day in the Freehold, Florham Park, and NYC stores is an event: bridesmaids coming in to pick up dresses, brides picking out styles, clients calling with last-minute requests. Everyone wants their wedding to be a success, and that’s what Bocchino loves the most about her business: being there to make it happen. That, she said, is why Bella has been able to thrive in an era of online shopping; there is no replacement for that personal touch.
“People are really starting to value again that experience you get when you’re actually working with someone to make a purchase, someone who actually cares,” Bocchino said. “When girls come in, for us it’s all about establishing a relationship with them. At all the Bella locations, for the people who own them and work in them, we genuinely enjoy what we do. (In fact, two of Freehold’s former stylists recently purchased the North Jersey store in Florham Park.) We care about our clients. We want everyone to look and feel beautiful.”
5 W Main Street, Suite 201, Freehold
732.308.2314 / bellabridesmaids.com