After a somewhat unimpressive experience in getting married, Sebastian Lee decided to enter the wedding industry and shake it up from the inside. The Eternal Bridal co-founder speaks with My Business about disrupting bridal fashion, how exclusive stockist agreements have transformed his business and why retailing isn’t just about ‘sell, sell, sell’.
The lightbulb moment
Like so many small business owners, it was a lightbulb moment of opportunity from a personal experience that drove Sebastian Lee and his wife Lyndell to start their own business.
“We got into the business about seven years ago; it was through our own process of getting married,” Sebastian recalls.
“The process that we went through, and a general feel of what the industry was providing, was not something that we were happy with. We both had a full-time job at that time, and it was something we thought we would start on the side to see where it led to. So the growth of Eternal Bridal is really through our experience as a couple.”
The couple – Sebastian, an architect and Linda, an interior designer – started Eternal Bridal in Melbourne in early 2010, before expanding into Sydney several years later. And they haven’t looked back since.
The Lees did not fear the unknown, or their lack of direct experience in the industry. Instead, they took the view that their respective qualifications and experiences would actually give them a fresh perspective, allowing them to disrupt the status quo.
“A lot of the creativity side that we were taught, obviously that could very easily be translated to design and fashion as well; it’s actually not as different as what most people think,” explains Sebastian.
“We learned through experience, to be honest. Obviously in the first six to 12 months, a lot of it was about exploring and understanding more about the industry and what brides are looking for. But the more we see and the more we interact with brides, it is something we get more in tune with.”
“The process that we went through, and a general feel of what the industry was providing, was not something that we were happy with.”
Gaining credibility by differentiating from competitors
It is this desire to deliver a different level of service that continues to drive the Lees and their team.
“The majority of bridal shops – I should say, a lot of them – are going towards where the masses are going, so we’re talking about a lot of ... products that are made in China. And don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong about it, but it’s just [the industry is] overly saturated in terms of what’s available. We do not want to compare in pricing, because we feel that would actually compromise on the service we provide to our brides as well,” Sebastian says.
“Whilst having great products is important, that is also the absolute requirement to be able to be in the industry. At the end of the day, [a wedding] is a special occasion, so it is about the entire experience that a bride should be feeling when they are going through the process. So I suppose that’s what makes us different and that’s why we were so keen to create something that is different.”
Sebastian adds: “If you look at Eternal Bridal, we are not a [typical] bridal store in a sense that we are not one bridal boutique where we have racks and racks and rows and rows of dresses. We are very selective with the designers that we choose to work with”.
This selective approach to stockists, as well as obtaining exclusive stockist agreements with a range of Australian and international designers, is a major aspect of the disruptive approach to which Sebastian attributes the success of Eternal Bridal.
“In other words, if someone wants a [dress by] Galia Lahav, there’s basically no other places to go except for Eternal Bridal – the same with Hayley Paige; the same with Lazaro and with many others that we work with.
Part of this process of differentiation has also been a questioning of the profit margins typically associated with anything wedding-related.
“When we started, we started with the China-made products as well and the margin is phenomenal – there’s no question about it. But at the end of the day, is that going to provide us a sustainable business? It is not something that we believe,” Sebastian says.
“I think part of our decision to move away from the masses and the China-made products is our acceptance that we basically have much less margin to play with.
“In order to deliver a high quality of product at a price that is generally higher than what most other dresses are worth, this will obviously impact on our margin.”
“It’s not just about getting dresses and putting them on the rack and hoping that they will sell.”
Establishing exclusivity rights
Sebastian says becoming an exclusive stockist of a number of bridal designers was a deliberate choice, which works well not only for his own business, but also for the appeal of these designers.
“We decided to deliberately go where others are not going – to go in the entirely opposite direction, and that’s when we first started to communicate with Lazaro and Hayley Paige, which are two very, very prominent designers based in New York, and basically their products are handmade and designed in New York as well. So there is always the focus on great craftsmanship, and it’s not a product that is mass[-produced],” he says.
Having secured exclusivity rights on these two brands, other designers are following suit, preferring to work with Eternal Bridal rather than its competitors. Sebastian says the business is now in the enviable position of having designers falling over themselves to be stocked in its boutiques.
“On a weekly basis now ... I would receive anywhere between four and five designers who are wanting to work with us exclusively.”
He cautions, however, that becoming an exclusive stockist is not about having a set-and-forget mentality, but about actively forming a long-term partnership with each designer.
“It’s not just about getting dresses and putting them on the rack and hoping that they will sell – we see each of our relationships with [designers] as a partnership, because it’s about understanding what our Australian market requires and what Australian brides like, and whether or not they are happy to work with us to achieve that,” he says.
As well as considering the margins, Sebastian says the business is heavily focused on educating customers about the reasons for price differentiation across the industry.
“We do everything in US dollars … our dresses will not fly in containers, they actually fly first class on a DHL flight, every single one of our pieces,” he says.
“When things are imported into Australia, the thing that brides sometimes do not understand is that there are the local taxes and duties, not to mention the freight [costs] and the currency exchange as well.”
Sebastian says it is also important that customers understand exactly what they are getting for their money.
“For example, all the dresses that we carry, they are all handmade; for every dress, the dressmaker would take 200 to 300 hours working on our dresses, which is why the price is significantly different.”
Even after seven years in business, the Lees are adamant that their personal experience – as well as those that they continue to hear from others – drives their continued determination to focus on delivering a quality experience, not just product, in order to grow their business.
“I don’t think we really ever see our brides as, ‘She’s a customer – what can we sell, what can we sell?’. And I think that’s generally the main struggle that we were so unsatisfied with initially when we went through the process,” Sebastian says.
“It’s actually very common feedback from brides ... that they feel that when they go into a store, everything that they pick, the consultant seems to say, ‘Oh that looks perfect on you’, but we all know that you don’t look [perfect] in every single dress.
“So for us, at the end of the day, sales is important, but it is a lot about educating and ensuring our knowledge and experience in terms of styles, silhouettes, body shape, personality, the quality of workmanship ... all these things. And [if] it is something that the brides understand and value, then inevitably the sale will be made.”
Of course, maintaining healthy cash flow is another important part of being in business. Sebastian admits that he is determined for the business to live within its means.
“We try generally to manage within what we have,” he says.
“We would love to have expanded to Sydney four or five years ago, but physically and feasibly it was just not possible. It is a small business and we do not have investors, so basically with any profit that we have, we invest a big part of it back into the business.”
“Personally, I do feel there is a lot of scope for more businesses to collaborate, and it is something that is more organic because it’s not money or it’s not business-driven.”
According to Sebastian, there is plenty of opportunity for small businesses within the bridal industry to collaborate more effectively, to benefit not only themselves, but also the clients they serve. This perspective is shared by people in many other industries.
“Personally, I do feel there is a lot of scope for more businesses to collaborate, and it is something that is more organic because it’s not money or it’s not business-driven,” says Sebastian.
“It’s an opportunity whereby we are basically having a group of high-profile people in the room that are just generally excited to see what the Australian wedding industry can produce.”
As such, he says Eternal Bridal invests in events such as product launches.
“For us, it is [not just] about a launch for a certain collection, it is also an opportunity for people in the industry to collaborate as well,” he says.
If you have the idea and the passion, do it!
Sebastian says that anyone with a good idea and a willingness to “distance yourself from what the masses are doing” should jump into their business idea and continually strive to innovate.
“I wish that we actually decided to join the industry a lot earlier,” he explains.
“Just looking back at how much we have created and how much we have achieved in a short six or seven years’ time, and in Sydney with our two-year history; it’s not something that we regret, but it could have been nice if we started a lot earlier as well.
“No doubt the experience and the amount of knowledge that we have learned and what we have achieved in the past six or seven years is definitely comparable to other businesses with a much longer history.”
Quick facts about Eternal Bridal
Industry: wedding dress retailer
Customer base: One store each in Sydney and Melbourne, servicing predominantly Australia, but also New Zealand and other international markets.
Number of employees: 12