In 1997 Maria Musgrove-Wethy launched The Pantiles Bride boutique in Tunbridge Wells. As she celebrates its 20th birthday, she reflects on where it all began, and what’s in store for the bridal industry…

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You’re celebrating your 20th birthday – what made you decide to start the business in 1997?

In 1989 I got married in the Caribbean and on the way home a US outlet store was selling wedding gowns at $100, and with an exchange rate of almost $2 to the pound it was a shame to say no! I invested $600, bought a suitcase and my business plan was scribbled on the back of the menu card on the BA flight home! At the time I was travelling the world for an international training company and wanted a business closer to home as my biological clock was ticking. My first foray into bridal was in 1990 hiring gowns from our oast house in Lamberhurst.

Why did you decide on Tunbridge Wells as a location for the shop?

In the seven years I had been hiring gowns I had seen six bridal shops open and close in Tunbridge Wells and in 1996 one shop selling my favourite designers was closing down so I thought ‘it’s now or never’. In the 90s recession there was a surfeit of shops on both the High Street and The Pantiles.  I opted for the pedestrianised Pantiles as I preferred its genteel Georgian charm. Twenty years on The Pantiles is at its prime and with its café society brides are charmed by the whole vibe here and with its easy access by train from London we often find them visiting again even after they’re married.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced since you started the business?

Finding the right calibre of staff – particularly qualified seamstresses. My current team and I have 50 years’ experience in bridal. Our fitting and alterations service is in-house which sets us apart from other bridal boutiques and
provides a truly luxe service to every bride.  We look after our bride from  the moment she orders her gown to when she collects it.

What’s a typical day at work like for you?

Busy and never boring. One minute I can be updating social media, the next I’m reassuring a bride with a ‘wedding dress wobble’ and then sourcing a gown for an overseas bride who needs it shipped in a month when the lead time is usually three times that! That’s as well as taking bridal consultations as I believe that the only way to keep The Pantiles Bride at the number one spot is by helping brides find their dream dress and giving the ultimate personal service.

What’s your favourite part of your job?

After the wedding when a bride sends us photos and tells us how amazing she felt on her day and then says that she’ll be telling her newly engaged friends to come and visit us. Over half of our brides are from personal recommendations and when a new bride says: “my friend bought from you and she says not to go anywhere else” I really know we’re doing a great job.

How do you decide which designers to stock?

Quality and reliability are our key criteria along with an ability to move with the times. We listen to our brides, and if they aren’t loving what we’ve selected then we need to change. Our bestselling designer is our new label Jesus Peiro from Barcelona. Our aim is to have a good mix of styles and when a bride says: “you’ve got the best selection anywhere and I wish I’d come here first” we know we’ve got it right.

Where do you think the wedding dress market is going to go in the future?

How long have you got? As a committee member of the Retail Bridalwear Association (a prestigious trade association with just over 100 members) this is a subject which is often hotly debated by our member shops. Competition has never been as fierce from other retailers, internet sellers, pre-loved gown shops, US giant David’s Bridal and outlet shops springing up in major cities. To quote retail guru Mary Portas: “To survive on the high street, shops must prioritise experience and ethics”. It will be survival of the fittest and for me that means those suppliers and shops that embrace service and what the customer experience really means for a once in a lifetime luxury purchase of a wedding gown.

How have wedding dress trends changed over the years, and do you have a favourite style?

1987 was heavily influenced by Princess Diana’s gown and in the 90s the ‘meringue’ (Four Weddings and a Funeral has a lot to answer for) was still in vogue. The millennium saw strapless, separates and colour coming through. Vintage has now given way to boho as relaxed festival weddings and more informal venues such as barns and village halls are becoming increasingly popular.
My heart is still in a classic silk gown with a high bateau neckline with the contemporary twist of a low back or a glamorous beaded belt detail or even a traditional bow and sash all complemented by a cathedral length tulle veil with lace edging. Gorgeous and timeless!

What are some of the big dress trends you’ve seen emerging for 2017?

A swing away from strapless, structured and all over lace and a trend towards simpler, softer styles with interesting backs and sleeves. Oh and the bow is back in a big way!

Can you share a piece of advice for anyone looking for a wedding dress?
Have your venue booked, come and visit in the season in which you’re getting married (a year before) and the fewer people you bring with you the easier your choice will be. Buying your gown is the ultimate shopping experience and you want to be with people who really know you and want the best for you.

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