One woman's wedding wisdom

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One woman's wedding wisdom

On a long, wide, busy road leading to Ehwa Womans University, clusters of large signs for glossy bridal shops and wedding photograph studios fight to catch the eyes of passers-by.

Among the many window displays adorned with golden sprinkles and fluttering ribbons is a modest shop with a stand-out English name: Eros. Newcomers may mistake the shop for a lingerie retailer. But this is the neighborhood's oldest bridal shop, known among the wedding photographers as the only place in town where you get dresses with designs that doesn't rely on trends.

The shop is run by a veteran tailor, Sung Geum-ja. Clad in a tight, perfectly-ironed red suit, Ms. Sung presents a striking figure as the shopowner of Eros and the goddess who fixes dazzling beauty and rapture for her young brides. Ms. Sung recently turned 60, but as far as the other bridal shopowners in the neighborhood know, she is 52. When she moved into this neighborhood 10 years ago, she decided it wouldn't be a disadvantage for a bridal shopowner to chip off a few years. "I quickly change the subject when the conversation becomes age-related," she says. "Once people start asking me things like when I got married, when I had my first son and all that, they all seem to know that I am lying."

Reared as a devout Christian, Ms. Sung had originally thought of drawing on scripture to get a decent name for her shop. When her friends suggested the name "Eros" over a dinner, she felt rather uneasy, but soon agreed that it suits the modern image of a wedding shop near a university zone. "Who lives without love? Come on, you can't live on rice alone," she says, breaking into an abrupt, child-like laugh. "I like it."

Back in the '80s, during the heyday of the Ahyeon-dong bridal shops, some 130 wedding-to-be places lined the broad street. But during economic slowdowns in recent years, many shops closed down or moved to places that offered cheaper rent. Now there are only about 80 bridal shops in Ahyeon-dong. The recovery from the economic crisis of a few years ago spurred a rise in fancy, posh bridal boutiques in Gangnam, southern Seoul. As a result, the size of the bridal market has tripled; but the older Ahyeon-dong tailors with traditional sewing skills are still straining to survive.

"She is very persistent in her style," says Mun Seung-hyun, who photographs brides in a shop across the street. "Even when it puts her in financial risk."

Ms. Sung, however, blames her persistence on the changing tastes of the modern brides. "With the same material and the same design, they still choose shops south of the river over north of the river." She tells of luxurious wedding ceremonies she has been to which "weren't worth the money." Then, after gulping down a large glass of cold water, she changes her tone to that of a concerned mother. "It's also the grooms' fault," she says. "They're like robots. They won't say a thing once they enter a bridal shop."

A mother with two grown-up sons and a young daughter in-law, Ms. Sung grouses that many brides nowadays have lost "a sense of brideness." "In the past, girls preferred to be left alone in the dressing room, asking the assistants to stand outside," she says. "But now I only get one or two of those a year."

Twenty years ago, when Ms. Sung opened her first wedding shop, down the road in Hapjeong-dong, no brides dared to try on a wedding gown without a girdle or a thin slip underneath. It was part of the etiquette at a bridal shop. "Now the girls show up in tiny thongs, and strip away their bras even without the curtains closed," she says, clucking her tongue.

Ms. Sung, having measured and pinned brides' bodily contours all her life, says she can tell the bride's physical condition just by hearing the way she breathes. One time, a young bride came in with her mother in-law, breathing heavily and hesitant to make her selections. "Then she picked up one loose dress and was about to say something to me near the fitting room," Ms. Sung explains. "So I whispered in her ear, 'Darling, you don't need to say a thing.'" The young bride turned out to be three-months pregnant.

There were other perplexing moments. One time, a meticulous client brought a magazine clipping of a celebrity wedding and asked Ms. Sung to duplicate a design in the photograph: a beaded pattern around the waist. Sung disagreed, saying it would make the bride's shoulders look bigger. But the woman insisted, which eventually led Sung and her assistants to do extra work over many nights. After trying on the tailored dress, however, the bride agreed that the beads didn't suit the dress at all, and asked Ms. Sung a few days before the wedding to remove them entirely.

"It's simple," she says. "Think of bridal gowns as you would plastic surgery. If you don't look like the actress in that photo, wearing the dress she wore won't make you look like her either." The eloquent bridal expert adds another tip for brides-to-be: Don't invite to your wedding the type of girlfriend who will arrive at the last minute and say something like, "Hey, what's wrong with your makeup?"

Ms. Sung recently made a wedding dress for her daughter in-law, and has started selling her designs through the LG Home Shopping channel. "I go to my high school reunions, and none of my girlfriends have business cards like mine," she says, proferring the card, which is decorated with a photo of rose bouquets and a fluttering pink letter that says "Weddings." "I do some intensive labor here, but the day I stop working is the day I die."

by Park Soo-mee

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