Atlanta businessmen relaunch decades old bridal business as social enterprise

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

For nearly twenty years, Brides Against Breast Cancer (BABC) has helped women battle breast cancer while also providing brides nationwide with affordable wedding gowns.

The non-profit organization would tour the country with a trove of designer wedding dresses selling them at deeply discounted prices. Women would flock to the events in their cities to find the dress of their dreams and they could feel good knowing that part of the proceeds would be donated to breast cancer charities.

Then in 2015, for the second time in its 18 year history, the organization went bankrupt. It had experienced similar financial challenges five years earlier. It could have been the end of the struggling organization, but Drew Edwards, an Atlanta businessman decided BABC was a viable businesses opportunity.

Edwards, 52, partnered with his friend Rod MacKenzie, 50, to buy the company out of bankruptcy. After a year of legal wrangling, they re-launched the organization in April with the hopes of continuing its mission.

"We had been following the story on Tom's Shoes which has had a huge success with social enterprise," said Edwards. "We wanted to morph BABC from a non-profit to a social enterprise."

BABC now operates as an online store, a bridal boutique in Chamblee (3308 LaVenture Drive, Atlanta) and will host about three dozen dress sale events around the country each year including four in metro Atlanta. At least 10 percent of profits will be donated locally to the Georgia Breast Cancer Coalition and nationally to Living Beyond Breast Cancer.

It may seem an odd turn for two middle-aged men to veer into the wedding dress industry, but for Edwards and MacKenzie, it made sense. MacKenzie has three daughters (enough said!) and Edwards said his wife had purchased her dress from BABC years ago. She attended an event at Le Meridien Atlanta in Perimeter with her girlfriends where she spent $800 on a dress that would have retailed for more than $4,000, he said.

But Edwards and MacKenzie knew they needed a different model for the company.

BABC had sold more than 50,000 dresses since 1997 by producing 200 bridal shows a year in 200 cities which is roughly 15 shows a week with more than 20 people crisscrossing the country each weekend. Their mission to bring wedding dresses to women in every corner of the nation eventually landed the company in financial trouble, said Edwards.

"The idea Rod and I had was to only go to 35 big cities, not 200, and then have a very robust web store experience," he said. Because they had a 2,700 foot space to store more than 1,200 dresses in inventory at any given time, it made sense to also add a retail boutique in the same building, he said.

But the first challenge was to find the dresses. The previous owners of BABC had liquidated all the assets and when the deal finalized, all of the dresses in the inventory had been sold.

Edwards hopped online to let friends know about his new venture and while most people wondered why in the world he would go into the wedding business, one message stood out. A friend had seen a post on a neighborhood app from a woman who wanted to donate her wedding dress to a reputable charity.

The next day, Edwards met her on Buford Highway, about one mile from where the retail store is today. "She gave us our first donation of a dress," he said.

They took it as a sign that they were on the right track and hit the phones for four months to build their inventory.

Dress donations are split equally between individuals and donations from bridal stores. Individuals get a tax donation receipt and bridal stores get to clear out their stock of sample size dresses. Stores for example may have three sizes of a particular style that they use for 3-6 months before it is expired. Then the stores donate the dresses to charities like BABC.

Once they had enough inventory, they turned their attention to the showroom. MacKenzie wanted to create a space where brides could walk into a beautiful showroom and not feel as if they were shopping in a warehouse.

Again MacKenzie hit the phones, calling about 150 bridal salons all around the country asking for advice on designing the best showroom experience. He was surprised by how open they all were, he said.

He took the best tips and began pulling the space together. The showpiece, an X-shaped mirror, is an idea that came from a bridal shop in Denver. BABC also have walls on wheels that can be used to reconfigure the space for events as well as serve as a backdrop for wedding dress photography.

All of the donated dresses are cleaned, inspected and certified. "If anything is torn or damaged, it won't be in our inventory," said MacKenzie. "I have personally looked about 900 (dresses). My daughters find it funny," he said. Any dresses that cannot be certified are given to Rachel's Gift, a McDonough-based organization specializing in baby bereavement.

The retail store has already attracted visitors from Alabama and the Carolinas, said Edwards. Online shoppers have a five-day easy return policy. Inventory is updated in real-time across all of their selling platforms so that women can shop knowing the items are in stock. While prices range from several hundred to the a about $2,000, the average cost of a dress is $600.

Having launched just a few months ago, BABC is not yet profitable but when it is, at least 10 percent of profits will go to two breast cancer organizations, said Edwards. Since the business is Atlanta-based, the local partner is the Georgia Breast Cancer coalition. Nationally, BABC will donate to Living Beyond Breast Cancer. BABC will also host bridal shows each quarter in different parts of metro Atlanta beginning this month.

"Rod and I feel we are the custodians of this organization. We relaunched it and we treat it with kid gloves. Part of the motivation is that it is a social enterprise and we want to have a transparent, good quality organization to get dresses to more than 50,000 women," Edwards said.

Event Preview: 

The Wedding Dress Experience & Bridal Show

Intercontinental Buckhead Hotel, 3315 Peachtree Rd, Atlanta

Sunday, July 16

10 a.m. - 11:30 a.m. (VIP) 12 - 6 p.m.

Cost: $5 - $25