MISSOULA — When COVID-19 surged last spring, proms quickly became one of the first, and the easiest events to write off – and then weddings started getting postponed. For an industry that banks on formal events the cancellations were devastating.
MTN News recently stopped by Rococo Bridal and Formal Wear in Missoula and they say that after many challenging months, they're finally pulling through. Co-owners and sisters Rebecca Wagner and Deborah Stebbins packed up piles of prom dresses in 2020 and relocated their business to a building on South Avenue.
“We had just moved into this location. So, we had depleted our savings to do the remodel on the building. We didn't have any debt, but we had nothing in reserve,” Wagner said.
At the time, taking this financial plunge made sense -- their new building’s “gallery-like” feel and open space better-accommodated prom-goers and bridal parties. But amid their big move proms, weddings, and other formal events were crossed off the calendar left and right.
“Now all of a sudden, events are getting canceled in what should be our peak time of the year,” Wagner said. “We had banked on being able to restore our savings and pay off our credit cards and everything off of our prom and wedding season...that frankly didn't happen."
Wagner says they should have sold around 600 dresses -- prom and bridal included -- by the end of a “normal year”. But you can’t say “yes to the dress” when the dress shop is closed. "We had a month with zero sales and I still had to pay rent, I still had to pay power, I still had invoices due,” Wagner told MTN News.
Rococo eventually reopened shop but by then, day-to-day business couldn't just go back to normal -- the entire operation needed an alteration.
“In the early stages we didn't know how the virus was transmitted, so we were concerned about it coming from dress to dress,” Wagner explained. “So, we were steaming to sterilize the gowns between customers or only scheduling appointments, like, one a day so that the dresses would air out. There was a lot going on behind the scenes.”
Wagner credits the US Small Business Administration Emergency Disaster loan for ultimately keeping the lights on all these months. It is a loan though and the impacts of COVID-19 won’t disappear with a vaccine or some lifted restrictions. But for now, Wagner and her team can focus on doing the thing they love.
“Ironically enough, it’s given me like a fresh start. It's almost like made it fun again, you know, after doing it for 20 years, sometimes you forget that this is somebody's most important dress they’ll ever buy, it's just another sale,” Wagner said. “But now, it's all come back home and I love the business again.
With prom right around the corner and weddings back on the calendar, Wagner says her team can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.
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