Making Wedding Dresses — If Not Marriages — Last (Nearly) Forever

By Polina Fishof

wedding dresses

Wedding dresses awaiting preservation treatment at J. Scheer & Company, New York.

When Michelle Dinh of Orange County, Calif., found her dream wedding dress, an ivory silk organza, strapless mermaid gown that cost $10,000, she decided to keep it in pristine condition after her wedding day.

“I knew I had a one-of-a-kind designer couture gown,” says Dinh. “I hope to pass it down to my daughter one day.” So, the saleswoman at the Monique Lhuillier bridal salon in Los Angeles recommended that she use J. Scheer & Company, a wedding-gown preservation business that operates in Los Angeles, Dallas and New York, rather than a local dry-cleaner.

At J. Scheer, wedding gowns are afforded the same treatment that museums lavish on historic garments. Each dress is inspected, repaired and hand cleaned, then delicately folded into an acid-free archival box that is not sealed. Sealing the gown inside the box, as many drycleaners do, creates a risk of mildew and makes inspection of the gown impossible, explains a preservation expert and founder of the company, Jonathan Scheer.

Scheer started his business in 1988 after completing postgraduate studies at the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Analytical Laboratory in Washington. At first, the company specialized in preserving historic textiles and heirlooms for museums. Scheer then began taking orders from brides who wanted to preserve their wedding dresses and had been referred to him by museum professionals with whom he worked.

Scheer soon realized that there was a big demand for wedding gown preservation services and decided to expand his company. In 1995, he opened the Couture and Wedding Gown Preservation divisions in Los Angeles, Dallas and New York City.

“We have been exclusively working with J. Scheer & Company since we opened in 2004,” says Lindsay Mann, a public relations executive with Mark Ingram Bridal Atelier in New York. “They are simply the best at mending and preserving high-end couture pieces.”

While many dry cleaners will clean a wedding dress in less than a week for about $200, J. Scheer charges $495 to $895, as much as a moderately priced new gown. Up to 60 percent of brides choose to preserve their dresses at s wedding gown preservation facilities, according to Jennette Kruszka, director of marketing at Kleinfeld.

Indeed, wedding dress preservation has become a small industry in itself. Of the 2,000 dry cleaning facilities in Manhattan, seven companies, including J. Scheer, specialize in fine-garment and wedding-gown preservation, with some charging as much as $2,000 for the most elaborate garments, sometimes embellished with Swarovski crystals and gems. The preservation process usually takes 3 to 10 weeks.

Scheer says that while everyday suits, shirts and dresses with simple construction can be sent to a local dry cleaner, a delicate piece like a wedding gown requires expert care and attention.

When Dinh brought her dress to the company, it was inspected and tested, and Scheer found that the dress, embroidered with ruffled rosettes, was torn in several places and required mending. To keep the dress from shrinking or being damaged during the cleaning process, the embellishments and attachments were removed. Sometimes this means that different parts of the dress are cleaned separately.

Scheer only uses mild detergents and organic dry solvents to clean wedding gowns. Regular dry cleaners often use less expensive chemicals that can cause damage to delicate gowns.

“They did an excellent job cleaning and repairing my gown,” says Dinh, who paid $795 to have her gown restored and waited nine weeks to get it back.

In some cases, brides seek out the expertise of a restorer even before their wedding day. “Some brides choose to buy their wedding dresses on sample sales,” explains Judith Hart, the preservation consultant at J. Scheer. Although end-of-season sample sales offer brides an opportunity to purchase floor samples of couture wedding gowns at bargain prices, the dresses often need to be repaired, cleaned and fitted before they are ready to wear.

For most brides, wedding dresses and preservation are the items they are least likely to skimp on. The recession did not have a big impact on the $84 billion U.S. wedding industry, according to a survey by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com.

In 2010 less than 31 percent of brides-to-be said the economy had affected their wedding. Those who considered reducing the budget for their nuptials instead turned to reducing their number of guests. The wedding dress, however, remained a No. 1 priority for many brides. And when it comes to price, Kruszka, of Kleinfeld, said that although, in recent years, the majority of her clients had a fixed budget, brides were still willing to pay on average $4,500 for their dresses.

While a typical customer at a wedding gown preservation facility is a bride who has purchased a high-end couture wedding gown, preservation services are also used by brides who have not necessarily spent a lot of money on their dresses.

“These are often brides who understand and appreciate family traditions and family history, and want to conserve their wedding gown in order to be able to pass it on to the next generation,” Scheer says.

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