by Carrie Denny Whitcraft | September 23, 2009 9:18 am
SOMEWHERE AROUND THE beginning of April, Mary Helen Ranieri faced the truth: Suky was going to close. So the owner of the iconic Bryn Mawr bridal boutique began calling brides, trying to reassure them: You’ll still have your Vera, we’ll help you find someone for the alterations. Whatever you need, whatever you want. Another bride, another call, the same litany recited about her Monique, her Romona, her Reem.
As word spread throughout the bridal community, the reaction was swift and unanimous: shock. How could this happen to Suky? The economy, most said, as they shook their heads. So did Ranieri, who pointed to both the recession and discount bridal fashion sites on the Internet. They’d combined to blitzkrieg her business, she said. It was all very sad.
Which it was, but not for those reasons alone. The end of Suky — for most of its retail life better known as Suky Rosan, which for three decades served as shorthand for wedding élan in Philadelphia society — was less about economics than about other, less complex elements. Ignorance. Naïveté. And an almost complete disregard for the hands-on pampering essential to running a high-end bridal business.
When Ranieri bought the business in 2005, she kept the “Suky” but dropped the “Rosan,” and put a period at the end of the name, a stroke of modernity. But while the swooping moniker on the royal purple awning might have been the same, it turns out the store’s legendary status really died with Suky herself. As one employee who worked under both owners put it, “The difference between ‘Suky Rosan’ and ‘Suky dot’ — well, you gotta stop at the dot. Because it’s bullshit after that.”
IN EVERY CITY, there are The Stores — the names that signal luxury, like Lilly Pulitzer in Palm Beach or Bergdorf’s in New York. In Philadelphia, there was Bonwit Teller. And Nan Duskin. And Suky Rosan.
When she debuted her eponymous store at 1038 Lancaster Avenue in 1973, Suky did so for the same reason a lot of other women of her generation went to work: necessity. Her husband, Howard “Reds” Rosan, had become ill, and his ceramic tile business was suffering. She was a grandmother who had never run a business before, but Suky had one big asset: her name. In her younger years, she’d been a fashion model and, later, a fashion-show commentator, and her exquisite taste had become synonymous with chic in the best of 1950s Main Line circles. She had a feel for retail, an eye for fashion, and the realization that no one in Philadelphia was doing high-end bridal. Her store was a success — not simply because brides wanted the crème de la crème of bridal couture that filled Suky Rosan, but because they bought into the fantasy — the belief that there were brides, and there were Suky brides. Through the door lay a dreamy refuge where Suky put out big bowls of colorful gumdrops, a fitting flourish in her bridal candyland.
“What made that store was her personality,” says her eldest son, Jay, a family doctor in Conshohocken. When a bride walked in, the first thing Suky asked was her astrological sign. Suky felt that if a bride wasn’t properly paired up astrologically with her salesgirl, her perfect wedding simply wasn’t going to happen. She had a keen eye for talent: She helped launch Badgley Mischka into bridal celebrity, and in the late ’80s was the first boutique proprietor to carry the gowns of a young Chinese-American designer named Vera Wang. “Suky even sent Vera her best seamstress to help get her going, when she only had six or seven gowns in her first line,” says Pattie Lamantia, Suky’s manager for 25 years. “And we never got her back! But that was Suky’s thing. She had a flair for finding the up-and-coming. She was really the first to make bridal about fashion.”
After Suky’s death in 2003, Jay Rosan wanted to pass her torch to someone who would keep her stylish legacy alive — in the way that Karl Lagerfeld has for Chanel, or Tom Ford did for Gucci and YSL. He was positioning Suky Rosan for sale when he was approached by John B. Canuso, a South Jersey builder. Canuso told Rosan that his daughter, Mary Helen Ranieri, was interested. “I had known him for years,” says Rosan, “and Mary Helen had experience owning another high-end bridal salon. She had a real interest in bridal — which is completely different from other retail in regards to running a store.” He sold his mother’s store and name to Ranieri, then took a step back. “She had to do her own thing,” he says. “You don’t always want to see change occur, but things have to change. She had to do what was best for her, for the store.”
BACK IN 1988, Mary Helen Ranieri was a young woman working in real estate in South Jersey. Pretty, petite and brunette, she was in her mid-20s, renting out retail space at Main Street in Voorhees, a shiny new upscale shopping center her father had built. Nancy Saccomanno, the proprietor of a Main Street lingerie shop, was thinking about trying her hand in the high-end bridal market, and mentioned it to Ranieri one day at lunch. “Mary Helen said she had actually just been thinking the exact same thing,” says Saccomanno. So the pair opened the Bridal Garden in the Main Street complex in 1990; in ’92, they moved the business to its current location, on Route 70 in Marlton.
But by September 2001, their partnership was unraveling in a dispute over finances. Saccomanno sued Ranieri, Ranieri sued her back, and the court sent the case to arbitration. A year and a half later, the case settled, and Ranieri sold her share of the business to Saccomanno. Two years later, Ranieri bought Suky Rosan.
At first , tales of trouble at the “new” Suky were vague, the kinds of rumblings common in the catty world of fashion. But then they began to take clearer shape, as disgruntled brides took to the Internet and elsewhere to air their complaints. Shari, a bride in 2006, tells of long waits after she showed up for her appointments, including the day before her wedding, when she spent a half-hour listening to saleswomen behind a partition “cackling about how much they got people to spend,” and then complaining about the “impatient bride out front” when she dared to ask for help. Another Philadelphia bride who paid extra to make sure her dress arrived in mid-October says she couldn’t get anyone at Suky to call her back when it didn’t come. After her father finally made a threatening phone call, the bride went to pick up her gown, only to be ignored by a receptionist who was chatting on the phone. In tears, she walked into the rear offices and found Ranieri. “Mary Helen didn’t even look at me,” she says. “She just waved at the woman she had been talking to since I got there and said, ‘Get her dress.’”
High-end bridal is fairly recession-proof, because even when the economy stumbles, brides are loath to give up a gown they’ve been dreaming of since kindergarten, often opting to cut corners on bouquets or save-the-date notes instead. But bad customer service is death in high-end fashion, where pampering and princess-y waiting-upon are de rigueur. Not only did Ranieri fail to address her burgeoning customer-relations issues; she seemed out of her depth in the nuts and bolts of running a business, say some who worked with and for her. She seemed to want all the glamour of running the shop, but none of the responsibility.
One publicist who represented Suky under Ranieri found her “disorganized, spacey, indecisive — just not polished,” and says her client often consulted with her on matters in no way related to public relations, like sales and problem employees. The publicist also claims payments from Ranieri eventually stopped; in the end, she says she only recouped 75 percent of what she was owed — and that was in trade, in the form of cocktail and evening dresses for her and her staff. Another prominent city publicist, who says Ranieri still owes her $18,000, says Ranieri told her if she sued to try and get it, Ranieri would sue her for failing to fulfill their contract. (Ranieri admits to some outstanding debts as a result of Suky’s closing, but says she doesn’t recall any dating back to fatter times. “You know, I love when people want their money back, but they understand that they lose it in the stock market,” she says. “Business is a gamble for everybody. We are risk takers. We take risks just like you do in the stock market — but it’s okay when you say, ‘Oh, I lost my money in the stock market.’ People understand that, they go with that. But when you lose your money in business — I mean, that’s the risk you take.”)
Inside the boutique, some associates say they found themselves working for the anti-Suky. Ranieri lacked the legendary Rosan’s outsize personality, and her staff says she actively avoided being seen out front on the sales floor and aggressively pushed her salespeople to close deals. One says Ranieri insisted that receptionists inquire about prospective brides’ budgets; the biggest spenders got the most experienced helpers, and those on a budget got newbies. While perhaps not an unusual business strategy, it was a far cry from the store namesake’s earnest and enthusiastic astrological pairings and fluffy fussing. “When I think of ‘owner,’ I think of Suky,” says Kye Williams-Waheed, whom Suky hired in 1998 and who left last October to work for a Suky competitor. “Mary Helen wouldn’t be that owner who was out on the floor talking to brides, finding out how they are doing. She didn’t have that love.”
Salesgirls struggled to deal with a constant barrage of brides asking, first nervously and then furiously, where their dresses were. According to several former Suky employees, it was the ugliness that ensued from the ordering of brides’ dresses that may have done the store in for good. Williams-Waheed recalls bridal gowns that were ordered on time but arrived at the store late — because, she speculates, the designers hadn’t yet been paid. Sarah Limbich, who worked as a receptionist at Suky between 2007 and 2008, recounts other occasions when dresses hadn’t even been ordered by the time brides appeared for their fittings. She says she’d go and ask Ranieri — who wouldn’t speak to the distressed brides herself — what to say. “It was awful,” she says. “Every call was a complaint. If someone called just to ask what time the store opened, I jumped for joy.”
Ranieri says the blame for the tardy gowns lies with skyrocketing gas prices. “My vendors are couture; they buy fabrics from Paris and China and London and Barcelona. And they started bulk-shipping the fabrics — they weren’t getting fabrics in as often. So where they used to make one dress and ship it out, they were now waiting to put several dresses in a shipment.” She also says she was ordering brides’ gowns so they would arrive in-store four months before the wedding date, unaware that salesgirls were giving customers other arrival dates.
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.’”
Nationwide, bridal is showing signs of strain. Saks closed 16 of its 18 bridal salons earlier this year due to a downturn in sales. Bridal outfitters Yolanda in Boston and Louise Blum in Houston are reportedly phasing out their businesses. Other boutiques are heavily discounting, offering trunk sales, or promising aggressively faster delivery in order to compete. Yet many of Suky’s peers seem to be weathering the downturn, though with adjustments. “My numbers certainly aren’t what they were in 2006,” says Saccomanno at Marlton’s Bridal Garden. “Girls are buying the $2,500 or $3,000 dresses more commonly, and the $5,000 dresses not as much — but they’re still buying. You adjust your business, you adjust your buying, and you’re fine.”
And at the Wedding Shoppe in Wayne, the boutique she purchased following her exit from Suky just weeks after Ranieri’s arrival, Pattie Lamantia says that while brides are browsing online, they’re not buying online. “They still want to actually shop,” she says. “They want to try on.”
By all measures, Ranieri’s Suky should have made it. But she says her prohibitive overhead precluded her from being nimble enough to adjust Suky’s business model. “So when my inventory was primarily over $3,000, I didn’t have the extra to start bringing in the lower end — the $2,000-to-$3,000 [dresses] — to readjust,” she says. “In hindsight, I should have gone in there and moved the store immediately.”
Last October, Ranieri negotiated a five-year lease for a lovely, though smaller, bi-level space in Haverford Square, where she planned to move Suky — only to back out a few weeks later, according to Charles Czworkowski, a director of the landlord company, S.W. Bajus. (Bajus says it’s still attempting to collect funds from Ranieri to make up for what it spent on construction to revamp the space to her specifications. Ranieri was surprised to hear this, adding that Bajus hasn’t contacted her.) In January, she moved the store from Ardmore back to its original Bryn Mawr location, where, fittingly, it came to die.
On July 2nd, it became official: Suky was gone. But Kye Williams-Waheed sees a silver dress lining. “When I heard the store was closing, I thought, ‘Suky, you must be smiling. You can be happy now that the brides are going to be happy,’” she says. “All she wanted was for her brides to be happy.”
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