Pittsburgh-area fiancees flock for bargains, to fight cancer

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Put more than 250 brides-to-be in a ballroom with 1,000 lovely wedding gowns reduced in price by up to 85 percent, and it's a reality show producer's dream, right?

To the contrary. If there were any Bridezillas in the crowd, they were keeping it well under wraps. For this was no ordinary sale.

A two-day "Tour of Gowns" conducted by the Center for Building Hope concluded Sunday at The Fez events complex in Hopewell, Beaver County, with champagne, the sound of bells and smiling fiancees.

"We came in with a vision," said Alyshia Inks of West Mifflin, future maid-of-honor for her friend Natasha Molina of Carrick.

"When we walked in, we immediately saw the one she wanted, but it was taken. We were ready to jump this girl," Ms. Inks joked.

A high percentage of the proceeds from the event -- 71 cents per dollar -- will go toward benefitting people directly impacted by cancer. Contemporary design gowns are donated by former brides as well as boutiques, who donate new, last-season garments.

The nonprofit Center for Building Hope in Sarasota, Fla., collects the gowns, which range in price from $99 to $6,000 and run from size 0 to 30. Three truckloads of dresses were sent to the Pittsburgh area, which was just one stop on the 100-city tour.

"We have seven shows this month, and we could have four shows in one weekend if we wanted," said Michelle Brault, the organization's development director for events. A similar show was conducted concurrently in Houston, Texas.

She said three women walked in with dresses to donate this weekend. Although the Center for Building Hope does collect classic, vintage and retro gowns, the tour couture -- for now -- is contemporary.

The group's website, www.BridesABC.org (for Brides Against Breast Cancer), outlines procedures for would-be donors.

Ms. Brault said she expected to sell around 27 gowns over two days, but 12 were sold at a special VIP preview event Saturday. Judging from the checkout line, it appeared her goal would be exceeded.

For Heather Koch of Etna, who is obtaining a degree in social work, the sale was particularly meaningful. She said her aunt and grandmother are cancer survivors, and that shortly after she signed up for the event back in November, her mother, Mary Lou Busby, was diagnosed as well.

"So this is very special to me," she said, her eyes misting.

Standing in line to pay $750 for a dress of champagne satin with a beaded halter bodice, she received an unexpected bonus. A young woman who won a certificate for $300 off any dress had decided against purchasing that day, and asked if Ms. Koch would like it.

"She's my angel," said Ms. Koch, whose fiance, Todd Lunn of Etna, is a firefighter.

As friends and moms snapped photos with smartphones, the low murmur of the crowd was occasionally punctuated by the sound of event attendants' shouts and ringing dinner bells.

"When they say 'yes' to the dress, we go 'woo-hoo' and clap and ring bells," Ms. Brault said. "It's joyous, it's exciting."

For events planner Angela Corso of Carnegie, her "girls entourage" of friends, sister and mother had fun dressing her in some of the sleeker couture outfits.

How many gowns did she expect to try? "As many as it takes. So far, we're up to four," Ms. Corso said.

"I hope she finds something," said her mother, Shirley Corso, a breast cancer survivor. "It would be great to support the cause and benefit her by finding a beautiful dress."

Although menfolk were few and far between, Whitehall's Jim Mistick and his bride-to-be, Lynda Brenner of New Brighton, searched as a team. They said they met last spring through an online dating service and clicked right away.

"We don't finish each other's sentences, but we do enjoy the same things," Mr. Mistick said. "We have the same sense of humor ..."

And "we each have three cats; who has those?" she added.

They paid $450 for a Ronald Joyce gown. It doesn't fit now, but -- confident that a good seamstress can work the alterations -- Ms. Brenner said she was thrilled with their purchase.

"I was wondering what was taking so long," Mr. Mistick said. "Then she came down the stairs with this folded up in her hands and smiling from ear to ear. I knew something was going on."

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Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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