January 20, 2010
A Bridal Affair
Family boutique tradition continues from generation to generation.
All is quiet early on a January morning at a bridal boutique in the San Fernando Valley. Racks of wedding gowns line the walls: eggshell-colored lace, fluffy tulle, shimmering satins, extravagant beading. Spotlights cast a warm glow where brides-to-be will soon stand, gazing at their reflections in a three-way mirror draped with garlands of pink roses. A jazzy female version of “The Way You Look Tonight” plays in the background, setting the mood for Hollywood-style wedding visions.
Lisa Litt, the 42-year-old owner of Lili Bridals and Formals in Tarzana, is flitting about, tucking in trains, pointing out new arrivals to the bridal consultants, preparing pins and clips and checking the schedule of appointments. The day is already looking hectic at this Valley bridal shop, which first opened in 1958 on Crenshaw Boulevard in the heart of what was once a Jewish neighborhood. There was a line out the door when the shop first opened, and the brides have been streaming in ever since.
Throughout the store’s 52-year history, Litt’s family has witnessed many changes in the bridal industry: the entry of China into the field, which significantly reduced the cost of intricate, beaded dresses; the introduction of online sites, such as The Knot, which nudged bridal magazines as the go-to wedding resources; and the proliferation of reality TV shows glamorizing the bridal industry or demonizing it with shows like “Bridezillas.”
“They make selling dresses look like such an easy and fun job, like playing dress-up all day, when it’s not like that at all,” Litt said.
The most recent trend: more reasonably priced gowns, which Litt attributes partly to a reaction to the recession. “In the past year or two, we’ve rarely sold dresses in the $4,000 to $5,000 range; we have many more brides who are looking to buy a dress around $1,500, so we’ve adjusted our stock accordingly.”
Litt is the granddaughter of the boutique’s first proprietress, a Russian Jewish immigrant after whom the store is named. Litt’s father, upon marrying her mother, wanted to bring his in-laws from Milwaukee to Southern California, and as an incentive he offered his mother-in-law, Lili, the opportunity to run her own small shop. With her father’s experience in the New York garment industry and his mother-in-law’s affinity for sewing, the bridal shop was a natural fit.
Litt’s parents, Sol and Ruth, ran the store after Lili died, relocating it from Crenshaw to Sherman Oaks and then to Tarzana, following the Jewish community west as the population shifted. And for Litt, who spent her childhood years polishing the full-length mirrors and tying the bows on the backs of dresses, taking over the family business was also a seamless step.
Litt began working at Lili Bridals and Formals full time after graduating from UCLA in 1990. She had studied communication and sociology, searching for her own career path away from the bridal industry, but when a saleswoman at the shop was diagnosed with cancer, her parents needed her help. It didn’t take Litt long to realize, and accept, her calling in life. “Once you’re in it, it gets in your blood,” Litt said, dashing between a bride who needed to smooth out her curves and a bride who couldn’t decide between two dresses. “In my case, it was already in my blood, literally, but I needed to figure that out for myself.”
Even after years of working alongside her parents and learning the old-fashioned tricks of the trade from their longtime employees, Litt was at first terrified of running the store on her own.
After her father’s death in 2004, Litt took the reigns of Lili Bridals, carrying on the family tradition. Calm and self-assured, Litt seems to have long since conquered her fears.
“Oh! I hear laughter and clapter over there,” Litt exclaimed, rushing over to a bride surrounded by women cheering her decision.
Besides business sense and an eye for fashion — she has a degree in fashion design from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising — succeeding in the bridal store industry requires extreme attention to detail, truckloads of patience and the ability to stay cool under intense pressure, Litt said.
“My dad always said that a bridal store is the hardest retail business there is,” she said. “You’re dealing with manufacturers from all over the world, special orders that take months to be delivered, inflexible timelines, high emotions and high stress. There is very little room for errors.”
Although about one or two brides each year will get her dress delivered and then decide she wants a different one, according to Litt, Lili Bridals has not missed a wedding in more than five decades of business.
The most dramatic episode Litt and her staff could recall took place when her mother was at the shop, located at the time in a Sherman Oaks mall. A woman came into the store and began trying on wedding dresses. Litt’s mother, Ruth, assisted the woman as she gushed about the man she was about to marry. When Ruth asked what the name of the lucky man was, the woman responded, “Jesus. I’m giving myself in marriage to Jesus.” The woman refused to take off the wedding gown, so Ruth ultimately had to call mall security to haul the lady to jail, dress and all.
Many of Lili’s customers return with friends and relatives. A fair number of Lili’s brides are Jewish, partly due to the surrounding neighborhood’s demographics, and partly because of word of mouth, Litt said.
Tamara Schweitzer came to Lili’s after her best friend bought her dress there the year before. A Valley-born New York resident, Schweitzer still has family in Tarzana, and after passing the store many times she says she probably would have checked it out even without her friend’s recommendation. On her third visit to the shop, she finally made a decision: a lace gown by Watters.
“Every time I came to the store, Lisa was there,” said Schweitzer, a magazine journalist in her 20s. “It seemed like she wanted to see the entire process through. She really took a vested interest in my decision and that made a really big impact on my experience there.”
Litt spends six to seven days a week at the shop, a pace she’s maintained for years. That’s the kind of commitment a bridal store demands, she said, which inevitably has taken a toll on her personal life. The woman who spends her days immersed in weddings is not married herself.
“I’m married to the bridal business,” she said. “It takes over your life, and it doesn’t leave you with much energy for anything else.”
Nevertheless, Litt does have a boyfriend, and a dog, and has been a bride as well. At age 23, she got caught up in the wedding craze and was married, very briefly. Now older and wiser, Litt is in no rush to walk down the aisle.
Asked if she’s ever tempted to try on dresses for herself, Litt laughs.
“Once in a while, I’ll look at a dress, but the only reason I’ll ever try one on is to get an idea of what it will look like on our customers. I am able to compartmentalize my personal and my professional life.”
For someone who’s seen thousands of wedding dresses in her lifetime, what is her vision of the ideal dress?
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen it yet.”