In Detroit, a bridal and dress boutique owner weathers a wedding dry season during the COVID-19 pandemic

All photos by Cybelle Codish. Raeshawn Bumphers, the owner of Pink Poodle Dress Lounge in Detroit.

Helping a bride-to-be find that elusive “perfect dress” requires a special matchmaking ability.

So Raeshawn Bumphers, the owner of Pink Poodle Dress Lounge in Detroit, has conjured up an elegant yet inviting shopping experience to ignite the chemistry.

She carefully curates a lineup of glamorous dresses and bold accessories to sell at her dress and bridal boutique located on Jefferson and Chalmers.

She hopes these dresses, ranging in sizes, styles and prices, will enchant a clientele of women and girls who desire a fairytale moment:

An ivory ball gown for a bride’s dream wedding.

A flirtatious, curve-hugging cocktail dress for a 30-something to dazzle on the dance floor after drinks.

A classic midi-dress for an entrepreneur that doesn’t want to sacrifice femininity in order to command a boardroom.

But these days, the COVID-19 pandemic has sapped the energy out of the dress and bridal business. There was a trickle down effect. When stay-at-home orders shuttered restaurants and bars last year, in-person social occasions halted. There was no need to dress up for parties, date nights, happy hours, and for some, weddings.

Pink Pooddle’s journey began in 2019, when Bumphers, a lifelong Detroiter, opened Pink Poodle Dress Lounge with the help of a Motor City Match grant. Her aunt had owned a bar called Pink Poodle in Milwaukee. Bumphers grew fond of the name’s whimsy and decided to use it for her own business venture.

She imagined her boutique as the neighborhood’s go-to fashion oasis.

“You only see shops like this in the mall and the suburbs,” she said. “I had refused to open my business in another city. It brings me joy and pleasure when young girls that live in this neighborhood walk past my shop to go to the bus stop with their mom and they’re pointing at the dresses.” She remembered being that little girl gazing at beautiful dresses.

Eager dress shoppers from the city, suburbs, and even Texas, have flocked to Pink Poodle, outfitted with girlish charm.

A portrait of Bumphers’ grandmother hangs on the walls, glossed in pastel pink. Shoppers enjoy Motown hits playing from an old-school record player and can sip on pink champagne while resting on vintage furniture. Bumphers, who also works as the boutique’s stylist, is known for her warm, personal touch with her clients during dress appointments.

“They feel like they are at home,” she said.

Since the pandemic hit, Pink Poodle’s business has slowed down. Daily bridal appointments declined because some brides postponed booking wedding venues, and delayed buying dresses. Some brides who did purchase their gowns at Pink Poodle also delayed paying for alterations, another loss of income.

And over the last year, part-time positions for a seamstress and bridal assistant at Pink Poodle were in flux.

“The biggest challenge is keeping staff,” Bumphers said. “It’s just mainly been me.”

With fewer sales, it’s also been difficult to follow dress purchasing requirements. Bumphers said wedding dress designers require shop owners to purchase a certain amount of dresses each season in order to allow them to sell the designers’ clothes at their stores.

A recent 50 percent discount campaign failed to move fall and winter dress inventory off the racks, either. Bumphers gets frustrated watching her dresses sit in the store unclaimed.

“Guess what, I still have 95 percent of my inventory sitting here because the restaurants and venues were closed,” she said. “And we’re getting ready for spring now.”

Yet the pandemic hasn’t totally rattled the business, thanks to a few financial lifelines.

Bumphers received grants from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Michigan Women’s Forward, and community donations via Facebook have helped keep Pink Poodle afloat. She’s used the economic relief for payroll, rent, utilities, and purchasing wedding dresses. Comcast also awarded Bumphers tablets and an iPad that she’ll use for the business.

In the past year, Bumphers has established COVID-safety protocols for in-person bridal appointments, limiting brides to only two guests and requiring masks to be worn inside the shop. Appointments are scheduled about 30 minutes apart to allow for cleaning the boutique and steaming dresses between try-ons. She also aims to buy a vacant property next door to provide more space for the boutique’s alterations department. And she hopes to fill the part-time seamstress and bridal assistant positions this year.

The financial picture is holding steady for now because of the economic relief. Other Black-owned businesses have struggled to survive during the pandemic.

In January 2020, University of Michigan researchers found that fewer than one half of 1 percent of Black business owners reported receiving some form of government aid, compared to 9 percent of their non-Black counterparts. Black-owned businesses were also twice as likely to close during the pandemic because of weaker relationships with banking institutions and barriers to accessing federal COVID-related business loans.

Although Bumphers is still wrestling with some financial uncertainty moving forward, specifically whether or not she’ll still have access to future grants and loans, she won’t let the pandemic rattle her business.

Instead, she counts Pink Poodle’s blessings.

“We’re not on the brink of closing, thank God,” she said.

This article was made possible through a collaborative storytelling effort with the New Economy Initiative, a project by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Eleanore Catolico

Author: Eleanore Catolico

Eleanore Catolico is a freelance journalist based in Detroit who’s covered education, the environment, and the criminal justice system. Follow her on Twitter @e_catolico.

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