When shelter-in-place orders began triggering wedding cancellations across the United States, Sara Gabriel knew the accessories business she’d built over two decades might not survive—unless she made quick decisions.
Sales of bridal accessories typically swell in March before the summer wedding season. But not this spring.
“It happened almost overnight. By mid-March, we were losing 10 to 15 percent of our business every day,” says Sara. “I knew our bridal business would drop to zero.”
Denver-based Sara Gabriel Designs offers custom wedding veils, tiaras, and accessories in over 200 bridal salons and department stores across the United States, Canada, Singapore, and South Korea. Her typical bridal season sees about 150 new orders a day. By late March, that number had dwindled to just three.
Her business is still evolving during the pandemic, but Sara shares her COVID-19 journey and tips for surviving during challenging times:
Forecast globally, even if you sell locally
A designer with a background in economics, Sara will celebrate her company’s 20th anniversary this July. She weathered the 2008 recession and could see that the consequences of this pandemic would have an even greater financial impact on the wedding industry.
“Brides don’t usually order gowns and accessories online,” she says. “It’s about the experience. They want to be in the salon with their mother, sister, or girlfriends.”
A self-proclaimed policy nerd, she followed the pandemic from its early stages to anticipate how international trends, travel restrictions, and event cancellations might play out locally. She began to anticipate a long recovery—as late as 2021—when people would feel safe to reschedule weddings.
Know your company’s superpower
As sales plummeted, Sara contemplated the fate of her business and team. She employs 12 staff, including sales reps, artisan makers, and back-office production assistants. Some have been with the company for over 10 years.
Her family took the weekend of March 27 to go camping at Lake Powell and think through next steps. While away, she decided to pivot the business and start sewing masks.
“Sewing was our superpower,” Sara says. “We were already a fabric-based company. And we were already vertically integrated—we had the workspace, seamstress-makers, and sewing machines that could even put bindings on the fabric.”
Develop true relationships with vendors—through sickness and in health
As her husband drove the family back home, Sara contacted her sources to identify high-quality, durable fabrics and arrange overnight delivery. Elastic and trim, essential to mask making, were already in short supply.
“Everything was sold out. But my trim vendor came through for me. It helps that I’ve worked closely with my suppliers since the early days of my business,” she says. “They’ve been with me through the austerity of the last recession to our recent expansion in our new facility. Having those relationships in place were essential for moving this project forward.”
Be creative. But also be quick
When Sara walked into the shop Monday, March 30, the mood was somber. A wedding business isn’t like a restaurant that can generate cash flow fairly quickly after stay-at-home orders are lifted. An average engagement lasts 15 months. Weddings take months to plan and book.
With sales close to zero, they needed a strategy to bridge the company and their jobs through the nonexistent 2020 bridal season. She shared her game plan for keeping the business afloat and avoiding layoffs. The team rallied and quickly shifted into mask-design mode.
The company’s bridal accessories are handcrafted by individual artisans. Unlike custom-made bridal veils and tiaras, these masks needed to be mass-produced, but that didn’t prevent Sara’s team from designing them with care.
“People might wear masks for months to come, even after this pandemic,” she says. “We considered the mask’s shape, how glasses might sit on top, and a style that was complimentary for men and children, not just our usual female client.”
The masks feature an interior pocket to put a personal filter. Bits of wire, sewn into the mask above the nose for structure, were sourced from the shop’s inventory of bridal tiaras.
The team finished prototypes that afternoon. The next day, they were in production.
Amplify your story on social media
The company already had a web presence, so Sara’s husband added a page for what they now called The Mask Project. Her employees took selfies wearing the designs and uploaded their photos. They launched the webpage on Friday, April 3, the same day President Trump highlighted the CDC’s recommendation on wearing face masks.
“We started telling everyone we knew about this—my mom, friends, people from our Denver-area schools, my banker. Anybody,” Sara says.
She had already activated her social media channels, particularly Instagram, to tell her story and reach her community of over 15,000 followers, retail partners, and supporters.
Forty-eight hours later, they had $40,000 in sales. Sara told her staff if they could get everything out the door, the company would have another payroll to get them through May.
Open your heart—and your books
The team now averages 250 masks per day, working six days a week to keep up with the volume and ship orders across the United States.
Sara added transparent pricing so customers could choose the rate they could afford while understanding how each price helped support The Mask Project:
Please consider these guidelines when picking your price:
♥︎$15 pays for the cost of materials used to make your mask
♥︎$33 covers the above PLUS an hour wage for the seamstress who makes it for you
♥︎$51 covers the above PLUS helps keep our small woman-owned business going!
She also added an option so people could donate masks to SCL Health and Craig Hospital. With each sponsorship, her team makes hospital-approved masks for members of their local healthcare community.
Sara opted to forgo an SBA loan and did not apply for the PPP or EIDL.
“I knew it was going to be a longer recovery and some of my customers might have a hard time making it through. I didn’t want to take money knowing that I can’t pay it back.”
“We’ve always run our company with a sense of purpose, so our shift to making masks was aligned to our company’s operations and values,” Sara says. “The 2020 bridal season is over, but we’ll be here when our customers are ready. Our masks will help us get there.”