Boda boom
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 12, 2006

Latino wedding shops thriving in Valley

Yvonne Wingett

Ofelia Martinez bends over a table in the back room of her dress shop and traces the outlines of a Size 8 pattern, perfect for a Latina Cinderella.

The feisty storeowner cocks her head to one side and examines the yards of peach silk, chartreuse and ivory embroidered organza she has chosen for the quinceañera dress that will hang in giant display windows.

"Yes, I think this will work," she says, arching one painted-on eyebrow.
"This is a pattern for a perfect body, but I will make this one a little more generous. For a Latina. You know, we are bigger, with short backs, big hips." At her central Phoenix store, Bridals Ofelia, Martinez is getting ready for the crowds of women shopping for lace-trimmed gowns, mantilla veils and gem-studded accessories as the fall wedding season approaches.

These tiendas de bodas, or bridal boutiques, have gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream public, despite the growth of the Valley's Latino population.

Local business groups do not keep count of these shops, but industry experts estimate that there were just a few in metro Phoenix two decades ago. Today, several dozen formal dress and wedding-related stores have taken over vacant storefronts and new retail suites across the Valley.

The growth of these boutiques, business leaders say, is fueled by cheaper prices, a deeper understanding of traditional Hispanic ceremonies and a community drawn to mom-and-pop businesses.

"It's a huge market," says Aaron Chaira, co-publisher of Weddings and Quinceañeras Magazine, a planning guide for Arizona Hispanics. "In the past three years, we've seen an increase anywhere from eight to 10 new
(wedding-related) stores a year across the Valley. There's always a wedding, there's always a party, there's always a quinceañera."

For every happy occasion

Little girls and grandmas peruse Bridals Ofelia's four brightly painted showrooms filled with racks of gowns and frilly flower-girl dresses. They finger the beads of crystal rosaries. Ooh-and-ahh over tiaras, and cradle silk-flower bouquets imported from Mexico.

With a velvet pincushion strapped to her arm, Martinez lavishes attention on her customers, shaking her head when a dress is too tight, fawning when a dress is just right.

"We have the shoes, we have the gowns, we have the veils, we have the crowns, we have the gloves, we have the jewelry, we have little purses, we have the albums, we have the pillows, the rosaries, the coins," she says, reciting her favorite sales pitch.

"The only thing you need is the groom. Sometimes, if you don't have it, just let me know, and perhaps I can find one for you."

Tiendas de bodas carry the same basic ceremonial items as larger stores:
dresses, shoes and veils. But they also sell all of the accessories used in weddings, baptisms, quinceañeras and other traditional Hispanic ceremonies.

Saleswomen are familiar with the cultural symbolism of the accessories. The wedding lassos represent unifying, life-lasting commitment. The sets of coins used in weddings represent a dowry. Keepsake porcelain dolls represent a 15-year-old's last doll. And stamped in gold with "Mis 15 Años," (My 15
Years) boxed packages of Champagne glasses, invitations, satin pillows, photo albums, guest books and Bibles.

Bridals Ofelia typically charges less than larger stores, Martinez says, and does last-minute alterations for brides who wait until wedding day to try on their gowns. ("No problem," Martinez tells them.)

Customers spend an average of $700 for a five-piece wedding package; $600 for the average six-piece quinceañera package. Martinez estimates that her prices are at least 30 percent lower than wedding superstores.

Most women are repeat customers who walk into the concrete block building with daughters, cousins, nieces, neighbors and colleagues. Martinez scrutinizes their curves, their personalities and fanciful dreams of dresses. Then, she matches them to elegant gowns made of taupe satin crepe, lilac chiffon and plum taffeta.

"They come in here and they feel welcome, they don't feel intimidated because it's too expensive," she says, standing in the entrance of the store, neighbor to a strip club and a panaderia. "It's not fancy. But we try to keep it clean, and the prices lower than everyone else. We treat people like family and they keep coming."

A dream gains ground

Martinez earned a fashion degree as a teenager in San Luis, Sonora, and taught design classes and sewed dresses for "high people" as a young woman.
She gave it up in 1971 when she moved to the United States with her second husband.

She gave up professional sewing, and for 10 years worked in housekeeping at a Phoenix hospital. In 1984, pregnant with her fourth child and nearing the end of her second marriage, she started selling gold jewelry to make extra money.

A couple of years later, she opened a jewelry store in south Phoenix and hung homemade dresses in the windows. To her surprise, the dresses sold quickly, and custom orders started rolling in. She worked the store in the day and sewed at night. In the early 1990s, a Spanish-language TV station gave her a fashion show segment on its Thursday morning shows.

"All of the sudden it got really busy," she says, sitting at a desk cluttered with catalogues. She moved Bridals Ofelia to a bigger southside store, hired four seamstresses and clerks. In 1994, Martinez moved the business to a big block building on McDowell Road just east of 16th Street, and over the years expanded it to a full-service store, renting tuxedos, making floral arrangements and selling formal gowns.

"Sometimes, I come in and say, 'I can't believe I created this,'" she says, sitting under a plaque proclaiming her the 2003 businessman of the year, by a national business association. "I still can't believe it."

All in day's work

These days, Martinez worries about competition. Several dress shops and wedding-related stores have opened nearby.

"I have competition all around me in the last eight years, one there, one there," she says, pointing east and west. "But I'm still busy here."

Martinez sells about 60 dresses a month, mostly manufactured in China.
Nowadays, she only makes a few dozen a year, because labor is too expensive.

"I miss this," she says, waving at five sewing machines and a pink wall adorned with hanging spools of colorful thread. "But I can't survive with this because you can't compete with overseas labor."

She struts to a dressing room where Briana Valencia, 11, is being fitted in an ivory and gold-ribboned gown, which she'll wear in her cousin's quinceañera. The dress bulges in the waist, and is a bit too long. Pins clenched between her teeth, Martinez bends and tacks it up. "It's important she doesn't fall during the ceremony," she tells Briana's aunt, Rosa Renteria, who watches from across the room.

"We went to JCPenney, Macy's, Robinson-May," says Renteria, of Rio Rico, in southern Arizona, who will renew her wedding vows the same day as her daughter's quinceañera. "We couldn't find what we wanted. This was the last place we were going to stop by. They were closed, but the girl saw us outside and opened the door."

Martinez moves into another showroom where Renteria's mom, Carlota Garcia, has found a mother-of-the-bride dress. The women and girls gather around her as she nips and tucks the Champagne-colored dress.

"Take it in here, here and here," Martinez says. "Yes, that's it. I'll get this done for you soon, no problem."