Dress Rehearsal

updated 07/24/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1995 01:00AM

Eleven a.m. on a Friday in May, and bridles-to-be from Britain, Japan, California and Queens, N.Y., are converging on a workaday block in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Outside a limestone building on 82nd Street, they emerge from limos, sedans and shuttle buses, clutching pages from bridal magazines and bent on snaring the perfect dress for the most important day of their lives. Determined to leave no gown untried, they have come to Kleinfeld's, the largest bridal shop in the world. The 30,000-square-foot emporium is stocked with 3,000
dresses in silk, satin and Alencon lace—along with the requisite veils, shoes, garters and gloves. Founded in 1941 by Isadore Kleinfeld and owned since 1990 by garment mogul Michel Zelnik, Kleinfeld's is the link between real women and their romantic fantasies.

The moment the security gates clang open, 20 brides pair up with bridal consultants who direct them—along with their mothers, cousins, sisters and friends—to one of the 30 capacious fitting rooms. For many, this is a rite of passage. "I've been here five times in the last three years, helping my cousins pick their dresses," says Giovanna DiPrima, 22,. a third-grade teacher from nearby Westchester County who will marry Anthony Perrotta, an accountant, next June. "I've dreamed all my life of when it would be my turn."

Like DiPrima, many are first-time brides opting for the fairy-princess look. But Kleinfeld's 30 consultants, who pull in nearly $30 million each year selling 24,000 dresses to brides and their attendants, have seen it all: mother-and-daughter gowns, ASAP brides who need extra room in the waist and men shopping for, yes, guy-size dresses. No matter what the situation, tact—and salesmanship—prevail: "Two words we never use," says one consultant, "are 'old maid' and 'elope.' "

In dressing room A is Robin Shargel, a 22-year-old student at Suffolk Community College, who will wed a locker-room manager at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island, N.Y., next spring. Attended by three friends, she is in the capable hands of consultant Laura Argyriou, who herself was a Kleinfeld's bride in 1986. "The most important thing," Argyriou says, "is to listen to the customer. And every bride has got to be the first one you've ever seen." Shargel asks for a sweetheart neckline. "Long sleeves?" asks Argyriou. "Short sleeves? What month is the wedding? Daytime? Nighttime?" Shargel looks dazed. Since her budget is $1,000 or less, Argyriou heads off for the bargain rack (the store's prices go up to $8,500) and returns with seven gowns and a long-line strapless bra. Slipping into a $925 Bianchi silk shantung dress, Shargel gazes into the mirror and looks still more dazed. Argyriou gathers up Shargel's brown hair and attaches a veil. Her friends gasp. "Robin, you look gorgeous," they chime. Shargel is pleased but still uncertain. Argyriou says, "Let's try some more." Five more gowns are sampled, and the giggling begins"You look like a duck!" warn the friends.

Shargel puts the first gown on hold, and Argyriou heads to room No. 8, where Adrienne Auker, a 23-year-old doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology in Fresno, is waiting with mom Jane, who has flown in from Grand Blanc, Mich. After spotting the ideal dress in a bridal magazine, Auker (who will wed a golf-store assistant manager next June) called the British manufacturer, who reported that the $3,800, hand-beaded number could be found only at Kleinfeld's.

Argyriou has the gown waiting for Auker, who says, "I'm scared." She tries it on and looks in the mirror. "They say when you see the right dress, you'll know," she muses. But she is left cold, so Argyriou heads for the racks.

Next door, Sachiko Shibui, 22, an English conversation instructor from Japan, is bravely modeling a demure gown of dotted organza. Her entourage frowns while consultant Renata Valle asks, "Which dress makes you feel special?" The petite Shibui goes back to a trim sheath encrusted with heavy lace. Valle molds the sample size-8 dress onto her size-6 body from the back, anchoring it with clothespins, and Shibui breaks into a grin. (Bona-fide fittings, of course, are more precise: most customers require at least two.)

By 4:30, the pace has slowed only slightly. In room 12, consultant Dena Tucker is conferring with Manhattan-based sportswear designer Nicole Kule, 26, and her mother, Arlene. In preparation for Rule's November wedding to golf sportswear-manufacturer Ken Seiff, the two have scoured Saks Fifth Avenue and Vera Wang. "Nicole wanted to design her own dress, but I insisted she come here," says Arlene. "She's entitled to this experience."

A sophisticated blonde, Kule tells Tucker that she wants something "minimal but with a big skirt." Already she has rejected a $7,000 English shepherdess extravaganza. "It should be simple," she says. "It should be sexy," adds her mother. Tucker brings a pale-beige gown with a tucked bodice. Frowning, Kule says, "It doesn't have the oomph."

"Good," says Tucker. "Tell me about the oomph." As she returns to the racks, Kule slumps, dejected, in her long-line bra. "I knew this was going to be hard," she says. Finally, Tucker brings in a perfectly plain Ulla Maija satin gown. Playing with the bodice, Kule sees possibilities: a different bustline, a lower neck. "I'd like to see it with a headpiece," says her mother. A veil is found, and as Tucker stretches up to bring it over Kule's face, mother and daughter tear up. "What do you think?" Tucker asks. Whispering, Kule says, "I really love this dress."

Exultant, Tucker turns to the small crowd of consultants and mothers gathered around the hall mirror. "We have a bride!" she announces. "We have a Kleinfeld's bride."

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