San Fernando’s main drag runs just three blocks. Shops and restaurants line the road, with a bank on one corner and a J.C. Penney down the way. On warm afternoons, merchants stand in their doorways and watch the people walk by.
It could be like any small city, but something is unusual here. So many storefront windows display long white gowns. So many signs along San Fernando Road advertise tuxedo rentals.
Fifteen bridal shops are crowded into this short stretch of businesses.
“San Fernando is known for it,” said Maria Ruiz, a manager at one of the stores. “There’s a bridal shop every couple of feet.”
And on a Tuesday afternoon, Susana Guerrero has driven through traffic from Los Angeles because she knows there will be many wedding dresses to choose from in San Fernando. She’s getting married soon and wants a flowing gown, with peach-colored dresses for her 10 bridesmaids.
Guerrero finds what she’s looking for at the third shop she visits.
“We went to Sussy’s and another place, but this place is the best,” the 19-year-old said. “I have a beautiful dress.”
It’s no accident that so many bridal shops landed in such close proximity, and in this small town.
San Fernando’s population is 80% Hispanic. Another 300,000 Hispanics live in neighboring Valley communities, according to census estimates. That makes for good business in the business of marriage.
“In our communities, you have the very traditional weddings, large weddings with the complete setup for the bride and groom,” said Raul Ruiz, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge. “It’s part of our culture. You’re looking at an institution that has existed in our culture for many generations.”
The tiendas de bodas in San Fernando cater almost exclusively to this market. Spanish-language signs hang in their windows. Spanish radio plays over their intercoms. Some shopkeepers say 90% of their customers are Hispanic. Others put that figure closer to 99%.
“Hispanic people,” Maria Ruiz said, “get married a lot.”
San Fernando’s cluster of matrimonial merchants is not entirely unique. A similar glut exists near the Civic Center, in a part of the city where Hispanic businesses abound. But in this town of 20,000 on the northern edge of the Valley, the bridal shops conspicuously outnumber other types of businesses. There are also 10 or so jewelers sandwiched into the main drag, prominently displaying engagement and wedding rings.
City officials are concerned about this imbalance. They are trying to lure more retail businesses and more shoppers to the area.
“It’s not a case where we’d like to see fewer bridal shops, we’d just like to see more of other stores,” City Administrator Donald Penman said. “We would like to encourage more variety just because more variety will bring more people in.”
The first bridal shops arrived in San Fernando more than 10 years ago. Their number has increased steadily since then, with five opening in the last three years.
Several of the stores are large and crisply air-conditioned. Their well-lit showrooms are inhabited by grandly dressed mannequins and a handful of salespeople. Other places are small and darker inside, with just one person behind the counter.
On recent afternoons, business was conducted in a reserved manner. Saleswomen fitted bridesmaids for their dresses. Other women looked quietly through pictures of dress styles. The merchandise tended toward traditional styles. High-fashion black wedding dresses don’t sell in San Fernando.
Competition between the shops is rigorous. Some store owners said they cruise the boulevard to check out others’ prices. One saleswoman claimed to have the cheapest tuxedo rentals in town, but down the street another store advertised a lower price.
When it comes to wedding gowns, though, San Fernando’s shops are known for custom-making their dresses. It’s hard to cut costs on such handiwork and prices run pretty much the same from place to place--generally $400 and up.
So, the shops must resort to other tactics to win customers.
At Eva’s Brideswear, Eva Mazon boasts of a keen eye for design and the use of lace and beads on her gowns. Maria Ruiz, at Americana Formals, says her shop is small and not at all “intimidating” like the larger stores.
And at Bridals, etc., Sandra Lara is quick with a smile and some friendly words of advice for her customers.
“We try to be nice, to help them and say that we’ll have their dress done on time,” said Lara, whose family owns the shop. “The customer service is very important.”
The tab for a traditional Hispanic wedding can run as high as $14,000, even among low-income families, said Abel Amaya, director of El Centro Chicano, student and community service group at USC. The wedding parties for such celebrations are usually large, so a big chunk of that money goes toward clothing.
“They’ll usually have at least eight bridesmaids and that’s $1,700 for their dresses,” Lara said. “With the tuxedos, it’s $2,000. The wedding gown can be another $600 to $3,000.”
The bridal shops also sell invitations, engraved napkins and matchbooks and the countless additional accessories that go with a wedding.
Last year, San Fernando’s 15 shops reported almost $600,000 in revenue, according to city records. That’s an average of less than $40,000 each, but shop owners say it doesn’t cost much to stay in their business. Most stores employ only a few workers, or are run by family members. Because they custom-make dresses, the shops keep only a few samples in stock.
So, they can survive on only one or two weddings a month and turn a profit when the busiest months--May, June and July--roll around. There is also the occasional windfall: Behind the counter, Mazon keeps a photograph of a wedding she outfitted several years ago. In the picture, the bride and groom are flanked by 60 bridesmaids and ushers.
Mazon doesn’t remember how much she made on that job, but she figures it has to be a local record.
To some extent, large and lavish weddings came into vogue in general during the last five years, industry experts say. The wedding industry recorded $23 billion in sales last year. As for the Hispanic penchant for grandiose matrimony, Amaya cites the influence of the Catholic church.
“There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance to Catholicism,” he said.
Some Hispanic leaders are disturbed by the amount of money their community is spending on weddings (as well as funerals and quinceneras --the lavish coming-of-age party traditionally thrown for girls on their 15th birthday), and they are trying to convince Hispanics to cut back on such celebrations.
“Those are three things within the Latino culture for which people will spend money that they don’t even have,” Amaya said. “I wish we would spend that much money when the son or daughter says, ‘I want to go to college.’ ”
But CSUN’s Ruiz argues that weddings and other family-oriented celebrations are vital to the life of the Hispanic community.
“I think what keeps our poorer families going is a sense of family, culture and traditions,” he said. “Our communities are suffering incredible traumas from loss of jobs and immigration problems. Definitely the celebrations are important.
“Sometimes, that’s all the people have.”
Even Amaya concedes that the tug of tradition is hard to resist. He has a daughter who is approaching the marrying age.
“I’m wondering if I’m going to accept reality,” he said, “or if I’m going to slap $8,000 or $9,000 out.”
Tradition--that’s what the merchants of San Fernando are counting on. Mazon figures it’s so reliable that she has opened a second shop--a block away from her first.
“The more bridal shops there are, the more people will come here to check prices,” she said. “There are enough customers for everyone.”