Dozens of brides-to-be continued to reel Friday, just days after a south Charlotte bridal shop closed unexpectedly, leaving customers without their dresses and little hope of getting a refund.
Records from the Better Business Bureau, along with interviews and e-mails with brides, their mothers, fathers, fiances or other businesses who did custom work for the shop, show that the business has been struggling financially.
Some customers say they dropped off their gowns for cleaning and preservation, never to see them again, or got already-worn dresses advertised as new, custom-made gowns.
A note on the door at La Bella Sposa, at the corner of N.C. 51 and Carmel Road, said the store closed Saturday. Dozens of brides and bridesmaids were left without prepaid dress orders filled. Some who were contacted by the shop showed up at the store Tuesday and were allowed to pick out other dresses and accessories to help recoup their losses.
Phone calls to Brian and Shannon Starcher, who are listed as the shop's owners, at home and on their cell phones have not been returned this week. The shop's phone had been disconnected by Thursday. No one answered the door at the Starchers' listed home address in Waxhaw Thursday.
Before April, the Better Business Bureau had received two written complaints against La Bella Sposa – one in December 2006 and one in May 2007, Tom Bartholomy, president of the Better Business Bureau of the Southern Piedmont, said.
The 2006 complaint dealt with a customer who said she was unhappy about being asked to pay $165 extra for alterations she didn't think the dress needed, he said. She said she paid the money to get the dress, but didn't get the alterations. Starcher responded to the complaint and her response was forwarded to the customer, he said.
The customer never followed up with the BBB, he said.
The May 2007 complaint involved a customer who said alterations were done wrong and the dress fit poorly on her wedding day, Bartholomy said. Starcher never responded to the complaint, he said.
In April of this year, the BBB received one complaint, this time from a customer who said she paid for a dress that didn't arrive, and 24 similar complaints have been filed so far in June. No complaints were filed in May, Bartholomy said.
The lone April complaint against La Bella Sposa was the first red flag to the Better Business Bureau about the company, Bartholomy said. When a business has at least two unanswered complaints in a month, the BBB will send out a consumer alert, including notices to the media, he said.
La Bella Sposa didn't fit the bureau's requirements for sending out an alert before the shop closed, he said.
Meredith Belser filed her complaint with the Better Business Bureau April 9 – more than a year after she said she ordered a $3,000 wedding dress from La Bella Sposa that didn't arrive when promised.
Belser, 25, said her dress was supposed to be ready in November, but it wasn't. Her delivery date was pushed back several times and phone calls to the store weren't returned, she said. Starcher finally blamed the delay on the manufacturer, Belser said.
When Belser called the dressmaker, she said she was told the dress was made but hadn't been sent because La Bella Sposa hadn't paid for it. When the dressmaker did send it, La Bella Sposa sent it back, Belser said. At the height of the situation, Belser estimates she and her family members called the shop at least 15 times a day.
Belser finally got her dress in April, after filing the complaint. The recent law school graduate plans to get married Aug. 10 in Georgia.
“I felt lucky to get the dress, but now I feel incredibly lucky considering the way this has all turned out,” Belser said. “I kind of feel like the only reason they scrambled and got it to me was because I just became such a pain in their butts. There were definitely points when I wondered, should I just go and buy another dress?”
The situation La Bella Sposa created is unusual for the BBB because the store didn't stock the inventory it sold, Bartholomy said.
Another complaint, filed Wednesday, says the store owes bride-to-be Mary Beth Forrest of Rock Hill $10,360. Her mother, Betsy, ordered her daughter's $5,000 dress, $1,000 veil, $200 shoes and 13 bridesmaids' dresses at $320 each. Mary Beth had the final fitting of her wedding dress last week, the complaint said.
More than four dozen people, most brides missing dresses from the shop, are posting their stories and desperate pleas for help on numerous local Web sites. One of the dress-jilted brides, Alyse Woodward, has created an e-mail account (firstname.lastname@example.org) devoted to the situation in an attempt to connect brides with their dresses.
In recent days brides have been contacting their credit card companies to dispute their bridal charges. Other bridal merchants, meanwhile, are stepping forward with discounts or offers of other help.
Shop owner Shannon Starcher called Woodward last week asking her to sell the $4,200 dress she wore in her August wedding to the shop for a bride who wanted the same dress, said Woodward's mother, Cindy de Julien. Woodward, who was featured on the cover of Carolina Bride Magazine, instead loaned the dress to the shop. In a written contract, Starcher agreed to return the dress, cleaned and preserved, to Woodward after the wedding, de Julien said.
Now with the shop closed and no luck contacting Starcher, Woodward and de Julien are hunting for the dress themselves at area dry cleaners and online.
Jean Smith, a former seamstress for La Bella Sposa, said brides who claim to have been given a used dress when they paid for a new gown are telling the truth.
Smith said a La Bella Sposa customer brought what was supposed to be a new, custom-made gown to her for alterations. The gown had dirt on the bottom, was missing buttons and had a small tear in the slip.
Smith, who had worked for the Starchers for about three years, quit April 5, she said.
Smith said her paycheck bounced several times while she worked there. At least one other employee has reported a similar experience.
“I feel so badly for the brides. Sometimes I just want to cry,” Smith said.
Diane Takata of Charlotte said she was preparing to sue La Bella Sposa when she heard the shop closed.
Takata said she paid more than $1,000 – twice – for her designer wedding dress. She said she paid La Bella Sposa for the dress in January and then had to repay the New York City designer who made it when they wouldn't ship it because the shop had never forwarded the money.
Foreclosure papers were filed May 21 against Brian and Shannon Starcher in Union County, court records show. The case has not been decided. It's not clear whether the foreclosure filing involves the couple's home or another property.
Records show a tax lien against La Bella Sposa this year. According to court records, the U.S. Department of the Treasury was granted what it wanted last month. The amount owed was listed as $1,838.
According to Union County court records, the Starchers bought a $950,000 house on Smarty Jones Road in June 2007 after selling a house on Chilcomb Court for $437,000. Property records also show the couple bought a house on Pawley's Island in 2005 for $252,750.
As of Friday, there were no lawsuits or bankruptcy filings on record for the business or its owners.
The sudden closing of La Bella Sposa is hurting other businesses, too.
Cheryl King, of Cheryl King Couture near Raleigh, has made veils for the shop since it opened five years ago in Matthews. King said the Starchers owe her about $3,000. Shannon Starcher told her last month the couple, who have four children, had discussed filing for bankruptcy, she said.
Because the shop owes her money, King has been holding onto several veils she made for La Bella Sposa customers. Because customer names aren't typically on the shop's orders, King said she has no way of knowing who is supposed to have the veils. She's hoping brides missing their veils will contact her. Staff researchers Maria Wygand and Sara Klemmer contributed.