Online shopping blogs were littered with complaints that calls to Ranieri from brides and their concerned parents were rarely returned. Many eventually gave up and barged into the store in person. “We had mothers who waited in the waiting room for Mary Helen to come to work,” says Williams-Waheed. One ex-employee even claims that in a pinch, sample gowns would be taken off the floor, spruced up, given new linings, altered down to the appropriate size, and presented to waiting brides as new. Ranieri emphatically denies this. “There’s no way I could spruce up a sample and pawn that off on a customer,” she says. “They were out in the open. They were filthy dirty. If you try to clean a silk dress, it makes rings. And half the time, they weren’t the right size. Not to say that I wouldn’t have thought of that — the pressure of a customer, when she’s crying, or the mom is freaked out. You want to go pull that dress. But in the end, I couldn’t have pulled it off.”
Operating a ritzy boutique takes cash — Ranieri says rent for Suky’s Ardmore location, where the store operated from 1985 to early 2009, was $32,500 a month — but purveyors of bridal couture in and around the city, including some who worked at Suky, insist there should have been enough revenue to sustain the business. Most bridal salons require a 50 percent deposit when a gown is ordered, but Ranieri “made it a 60 percent deposit,” says Williams-Waheed. “And the store has to make some money — so if we’d buy a dress for $1,000, we’d sell it for $2,500 retail. So when you give us a 60 percent deposit, your dress is really paid for.” During her 10 years at the store, she says, business was certainly brisk enough.
And even through all the malicious gossip on blogs and over manicures about deteriorating service and delayed gowns, Ranieri had one thing on her side: that name, that powerful, infallible name. As long as it remained, no amount of damage, it seemed, could keep brides away.
IN CONVERSATION, MARY Helen Ranieri is rather a delight, someone it would be fun to go shopping or to lunch with. But in the end, she just didn’t seem to get Suky, what it truly meant to people. “Suky was an iconic store that was a little bit beyond a normal bridal shop,” she says, a tad incredulously. “People had an expectation in their minds of the way they should have been treated. And I think in the case of Suky, it might have been a little bit elevated.” I point out that during the time Suky herself ran the store, it built its reputation on a certain pearl-necklace manner of customer service, one many say was missing in its later incarnation. “Well, I tried to do the very best I could,” she says. “My heart was always there. I tried not to hurt anybody, and if people did get hurt, I had to look at it like, ‘This is business. We all tried.’”