Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Kleinfeld's


A good twenty-five years after I made that little girl's purchase of a doll in bridal attire (yesterday's post), I found myself shopping for my own wedding dress. I remember the process as a bit surreal, particularly for me—my friends will all attest to the fact that I am not a natural shopper, and often I will go out of my way to avoid the task. When I do venture into a clothing store, I am one of those customers who rebuffs the advances of overly solicitous salespeople. I prefer that they act like the best staff in the top restaurants, moving invisibly among clients, never intrusive (you shouldn't notice that someone refilled your glass), yet there at the exact moment you need them. I prefer that the salespeople ignore me, basically, and I almost never have an answer for the cashier who asks: "Was anyone helping you today?" No, thank god, I managed to give them all the slip. Of course, shopping for a wedding dress—perhaps the most significant, and likely the most costly garment you will ever wear—means you can expect the opposite: you can expect to be the center of attention in an obvious way, with someone there to both advise and serve you; a someone you couldn't shake off if you wanted, as you've made an appointment with them, and their job is to talk to you, shadow you as you peruse the racks (if there are racks), guess your tastes, size you up, and make suggestions. Although I made a couple of appointments, the one I remember best was the one at the famous NYC institution, Kleinfeld's. When I visited this bridal mecca for the first time, in late 2001, the store was still located in Brooklyn; I remember it took much longer than I thought it would to get there on the subway, my mother gamely in tow. The store is now in Manhattan, which would have been much more convenient for me, but I am actually glad I had the Brooklyn experience. It felt more authentic somehow, joining sixty years' worth of women who had traveled to Bay Ridge since 1941 to become "Kleinfeld brides." Plus, the transit gave my mom and I some additional, valued time together. I was glad she was with me—and I would turn out to be especially glad, since it was on this visit that the magic happened, that I found the dress. OK, yes, I apologize: I did just fall into the land of horrible cliché, but really that is what it was. I remember being skeptical as we were introduced to the "consultant" assigned to me, Renée Pinto; even more so when she added a dress I never would have selected, ever, to the batch in my dressing room. It did not seem to fit at all the style of the others I had pulled from the racks. And yet, sure enough, when I put it on, obedient in a way that was foreign to me, a transformation took place—not just of the dress, but of myself. I remember standing in front of a three-paneled set of mirrors, looking at my mom reflected behind me, and before saying a word, she confirmed what I knew: this was it; I was the image of a bride on her wedding day. As a stubbornly self-aware person (of the "no one knows me better than I do" type), I would never have believed that the person who'd be most responsible for the selection of my wedding dress—the perfect dress for me—was not myself, not my mom, but a woman who'd laid eyes on me only ten minutes earlier. It was spooky, but there you have it. And there I was, standing in that soothing interior of beige, cream, satin, silk, flattering lights, and all variety of white dresses, feeling that I'd been transported into a garden of trailing vines and wild flowers, a romantic country garden, rather than anything pomp and circumstance. The style of the dress captured exactly the spirit of the wedding (and marriage) I hoped to create: free flowing, natural, and poetic. The contract—yes, such dresses come with contracts!—was signed on the spot, and the next couple of times I'd travel to the store, it would be to meet the seamstress in charge of my alterations, who, if I'm not mistaken, was a Turkish woman named Feride. Today, if you go to the Kleinfeld's Web site, you can read promotional copy that suggests that "the magic lies in the hearts of the most professional staff anywhere" and that their bridal consultants possess "listening ears, a keen sense of style, and a vision of perfection" that will lead you to the dress of your dreams, worthy of the significance of a wedding day, should you believe in the power of a garment such as this (which I confess, heading in, I did not). It sounds like bold hype, but, at least based on my experience with Renée, I can say: believe them. Do I have issues with the wedding industry? You bet. With emphasis on the material trappings of the day? Indeed. But even close to eight years later, with the dress sealed in an acid-free box, having been cleaned and a small tear in the hem repaired, I don't regret this particular experience, or the purchase. It was an extravagance, and eventually I will bring myself to part with it by donating the dress to charity so that it can give new life and dreams to another, future bride—but I'll always remember the enchantment I felt when the delicate layers of this one dress, selected by a stranger, swirled around me in a whisper of answered desire.

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