Brides bond over shared dress mess

More than two weeks after the sudden closure of a south Charlotte bridal store left dozens dressless, some brides are starting to be reunited with their gowns.

Alyse Woodward, the founder of a blog to connect brides with their missing dresses (gownjustice.blogspot.com), is among the first.

La Bella Sposa, at N.C. 51 and Carmel Road, closed June 7, weeks after the owners' lawyer said he told them to stop accepting orders because of financial difficulties.

Woodward, 22, met with another area bride – who was sold Woodward's already-worn dress as a new gown – for the first time Tuesday at Woodward's family home in Waxhaw.

“What a strange way for these girls to meet,” said Cindy de Julien, Woodward's mom.

Woodward said she had signed an agreement with La Bella Sposa owner Shannon Starcher to lend the $4,200 dress she wore in her August wedding to another client who wanted the same dress, de Julien said. In a written contract with the shop, Woodward, who has appeared on the cover of Carolina Bride magazine, said she wanted the dress returned cleaned and preserved after the wedding, de Julien said.

When the shop closed, Woodward and her mother went searching for the dress.

After talking with a former shop employee, Woodward tracked down Ballantyne-area newlywed Stephanie (Bacon) Shuford, 28. Shuford wore the dress for her June 6 wedding and was on her honeymoon in Hawaii when she learned the gown, which she said also paid about $4,000 for, was used.

When the brides met Tuesday, they shared their appreciation for the gown's beading. They also pointed out the residue of a lipstick stain left from Woodward's wedding and examined where the fabric had worn in some places – things that made clear to Shuford the dress was not new.

“I wouldn't have thought my dress was actually someone else's dress,” Shuford said. “It was a shock to me.”

Woodward has decided to let Shuford keep the dress – for that bride's memories. “I'm kind of glad that I found out who got it,” she said. “At least I can put it out of my mind that it's not still at the store.”

La Bella Sposa owners Shannon and Brian Starcher of Waxhaw opened their bridal shop in Matthews at least four years ago and moved to Carmel Road about two years ago.

The couple, who have four children ages 7 and younger, have not returned multiple phone calls at both their home and cell phone numbers since the shop's closing. Rick Mitchell, a longtime Charlotte bankruptcy attorney, said the couple are staying out of town and he has advised them not to talk with anyone about the case.

At least two other brides have reported this week that they have leads on who has their missing dresses.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are investigating Woodward's case and others, said Detective Andy Curlee of the department's fraud unit. The unit has taken about two dozen calls from La Bella Sposa customers, he said.

Curlee hasn't yet talked with Shuford, who returned from her honeymoon Sunday.

Meanwhile, there are about 30 dresses – including bridesmaid or other special-occasion gowns – left at the shop with names on them, Mitchell said. His staff is contacting customers and hopes to get them to the rightful owners within a week, he said.

In Union County, two civil lawsuits have been filed against the Starchers seeking damages for lost dresses. A court date has been set for July 15 in both cases.

Joanne and Gary Mills of Indian Trail are suing for more than $5,200 for a wedding dress, jacket and veil they took to the shop on March 10 to be preserved, according to court records.

Thomas, Susan and Elizabeth Hackney of Wilson are seeking more than $4,900 for a wedding dress and six bridesmaid dresses ordered at La Bella Sposa but never received, according to court documents.

Records show a tax lien against La Bella Sposa this year. According to court records, the U.S. Department of Treasury was granted what it wanted last month. The amount owed was listed as $1,838.

As of Tuesday, there were no bankruptcy protection filings on record for the business or its owners.