As Massachusetts shops and restaurants gradually reopened to customers last week, Leslie DeAngelo was ready.
The owner of Vows Bridal salon in Watertown had spent the previous three months frantically trying to get dresses to brides who had placed orders months earlier. She had hundreds of gowns stashed throughout her showroom, waiting to be picked up, but wedding postponements had been coming fast and furious. So she was eager to reopen her 10,000-square-foot boutique, making accommodations like limiting the number of customers, doing temperature checks, and steam-cleaning the dresses to keep staff and customers safe.
Sure enough, the phone began ringing off the hook once she opened on Tuesday of last week. The callers, however, kept asking if the fitting rooms were open, and they were. The next day, she got a ring from the Watertown Health Department, which told her to shut down operations. She suspects her competitors tipped them off.
“We did everything right. We had such a great two days,” selling a dress to every bride-to-be who visited the store last Wednesday, DeAngelo said with a sigh. “Our fitting rooms aren’t even fitting rooms, they’re rooms."
As the state’s retail sector has taken baby steps toward recovery, a subset of specialty retailers still find themselves on the sidelines. Massachusetts’ Phase 2 reopening guidelines restrict the use of dressing rooms at clothing stores, causing many in the bridal and designer fashion industries to throw a fit — instead of offering one. They question the distinction between letting someone into a hair salon for a cut versus a bridal salon for a fitting and say the state isn’t accounting for the niche-like way their shops do business.
“Our business model is completely based on service and assisting people,” said Dan Maxwell, of the Maxwell & Co. boutique in Falmouth. “We don’t sell clothes, we sell our opinion of fit and style. We’re being told we can’t do any of those things . . . I can’t give them an opinion if I can’t have them try things on."
Maxwell, who has been in business for 36 years, has seen his sales plummet 90 percent since the pandemic shutdowns started. High-end menswear can’t be sold without measurements and tailoring, he said, and he could keep his environment safe by limiting the number of customers in his store.
Instead, he’s been sending his staff to customers’ homes for fittings, but he’s worried he’s putting them at risk. In some cases, he’s had customers who, upon learning about the no-fitting-room policy, walk outside to the sidewalk to try things on.
“The entire process is making us do something that’s less healthy than controlling it in our own environment,” he said.
The no-fitting-room policy is having ripple effects throughout the fashion industry. If shoppers aren’t allowed to try on suits at Ferragamo and Versace at Copley Place, that means they’re not visiting Kim Pham’s tailor shop in the mall for alterations. Pham, who owns Kim’s Fashion Design, said her sales have slowed to a trickle over the past three months, and she has spent her downtime making masks for hospital workers.
“The last three months, it’s been very difficult,” Pham said, adding that she had been hoping the reopenings would bring her business back, allowing her to pay rent and support her daughter and sick husband.
According to Governor Charlie Baker’s office, the Reopening Advisory Board “consulted with public health experts, medical professionals, and representatives from a wide range of industries” to make its recommendations. Baker’s office did not respond to specific questions about fitting-room policies.
Many specialty retailers point out that other nearby states have different policies.
New York allows fitting rooms to be used ifthey are “equipped with appropriate cleaning and hygiene supplies"; that state recommends disinfecting the rooms after each use.
In Connecticut, “any clothes tried on by a customer must either be quarantined for 48 hours or thoroughly steam cleaned prior to returning to the floor.”
New Hampshire has halted the "sampling of food and personal hygiene products” but has not placed restrictions on clothing.
Rhode Island’s restrictions are similarly mum on clothing, while specifying that retailers cannot allow "sampling or application of personal goods (i.e., makeup, perfume, lotion).”
“Many of these orders haven’t appeared to be science-based decisions,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. "So haircuts are fine, nail salons and swimming pools are opening soon, yet you still can’t go to buy a bridal dress or a suit and have it fitted and altered by a tailor in a by-appointment-only environment. These decisions are simply driving consumers to take their important dollars to open sellers in any one of our border states.”
And time is ticking away.
“The issue really is the fact that bridal is lumped in with retail, when we are more of a service industry,” said Cristen Rosinski, owner of Aliber’s Bridal salon in Greenfield, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
“We don’t carry the same type of garments that most retailers do with a full run of sizes,” she said. “We’re a special-order industry that relies on customers ordering about a year in advance of their events, and it takes about six to nine months for their orders to come in, and another two months for alterations.”
She said bridal boutiques are different from stores that have fitting rooms and racks of merchandise touched by the masses. She brings each dress to the client from a stockroom and can use a steamer to clean the garment after it has been tried on. Even the try-on process is different with gowns, she added, with women stepping into the dresses instead of pulling them on over their faces.
The restrictions mean that women who have already bought dresses aren’t allowed to come in for fittings, Rosinski said. And every day they’re unable to do fittings means less time for alterations to ensure they’re offering the full service they promised.
“Right now, we’d be working with brides who are getting married in August, September, and October,” she said. “We’re running short on time on working with brides who already own their dress. They’re not even allowed to try it on.”
Rosinski said she fears that compressed timeline will push customers to go to other states to buy gowns.
“The state is forcing our customer base to go out of state to make their selections," she said, "and they’re running short on time and they need to make a decision.”