Wedding dress customizer Anomalie raises $13M as bridal stores crumble

David’s Bridal once owned 50% of the $36 billion wedding gown market before it filed for bankruptcy last year. Brides were growing sick of the lack of styles and sizes plus high prices at expensive brick & mortar shops. The industry was destined for disruption by software that would replace overhead costs and inflexibility with direct-to-consumer personalization.

That’s why I profiled a new custom wedding dress startup back in 2016 called Anomalie despite little funding or traction. The rise of Instagram meant every bride wanted to look unique on a budget, not pay $5000 for a cookie-cutter $200 dress that happened to be white. Anomalie was willing to embrace software to offer 4 billion design permutations and break the markup cartel by selling gowns starting at $1000.

2.5 years later, Anomalie has begun to prove that cheaper doesn’t have to look cheap and custom doesn’t have to cause a headache. 13% of US brides, 275,000 out of 2.1 million, created an Anomalie account in the last year. With David’s Bridal looking shaky and wedding dresses being a seven-times larger market than bedding and mattresses, investors eagerly proposed to Anomalie. Today the startup announces a $13.6 million Series A led by consumer product VC Goodwater Capital.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of working with brides. Other companies would kill for this customer. She’s so obsessed with every detail of her wedding dress. it’s just a perfect environment to collect data” says Anomalie co-founder and CEO Leslie Voorhees. “Long lead time, high margin, this industry that’s completely f*cked up —  it’s the perfect place to start this mass customization engine beginning with the wedding dress” she tells me, hinting at the startup’s potential to customize other clothing too.

Anomalie is also flexing its tech muscle today with the launch of its new dress sketch visualizer. Choose between a few options on shape, cut, color, pattern, and fabric, and you’ll see an algorithmic sketch of your dream dress appear instantly. Anomalie then pairs you with a squad of its designers to finalize the details, ship swatches, and get you your gown with a 100% refund policy if it’s not right.

The startup’s nest egg will go towards hiring more engineers plus bringing more of production in-house to offer additional features like this. But Voorhees insists that “I don’t think we’ll ever completely automate away the stylists. Customer don’t care about AI or machine learning, but they want to trust us to pull the ideas out of their heads.”

Anomalie co-founder and CEO Leslie Voorhees

Anomalie was woven out of Voorhees’ frustrations picking her own wedding dress. She’d been managing factories and supply chains in Asia for Nike and Apple, and it made no sense why slapping “bridal” on a dress could make it up to ten-times more expensive.

Her investigation uncovered that most brands were outsourcing their manufacturing, so she did an end-run, contacted factories directly, and got her dress made custom for a fraction of the price. So many of her pals demanded help doing the same that the Harvard Business School grad soft-launched Anomalie with her husband Calley Means [Disclosure: who I know from college] in the summer of 2016.

The startup’s gowns now average $1,400. Growth has been swift since weddings are so photographed and shared, with Anomalie reaching an outstanding net promoter score of 91. A friend of mine recently bought her dess through the company and it looked stunning and one-of-a-kind without breaking the bank. And since they’re custom, Anomalie makes inclusivity and advantage by offering larger sizes absent elsewhere

Meanwhile, Anomalie’s incumbent competitors have struggled. Gap and J.Crew abandoned the wedding dress business in the last few years. David’s Bridal emerged from bankruptcy with its 300 retail stores still operating, but it’s slipped to 30 percent US market share. It’s now owned by lenders including Oaktree Capital Group, which is a bad omen given that firm was responsible for driving Toys”R”Us into liquidation instead of keeping it open. No other players have a sizable foot or well-known brand besides super high-end designer Vera Wang.

Anomalie capitalized on David’s troubles by poaching its head of bridal production Angela Ng, who now leads the startup’s Hong Kong team and relieves Voorhees of constant trips to China. It also hired former Sephora VP of digital Marcy Zelmar and former TrueCar VP of engineering Aaron Tavistock. Their goal is to sell more dresses to get Anomalie more data, more factory modularization, and more control over its manufacturing.

Anomalie’s dress visualizer turns a few style selections into a sketch of your potential gown

The new funding round that builds on its $4.5 million seed round was joined by Signia, SoGal Ventures, Lerer Hippeau’s BN Capital Fund, and Fin’s Sam Lessin also includes strategic angels like former Stitch Fix CTO Jeff Barrett and ThirdLove underwear CEO Heidi Zak. At Anomalie’s San Francisco headquarters, mannequins sporting design prototypes stand beside software teams optimizing the new dress visualizer. And when I say the dresses are custom, I mean they can get about as weird as you want. Anomalie is finishing up a dress with lyrics from the couple’s favorite song embroidered in a secret language from their favorite TV show…and it still looks beautiful.

“One of the coolest things about Anomalie is that they’re not just using digital as a distribution strategy, but to also deliver a differentiated product experience” says Goodwater partner Eric Kim. “Anomalie’s sketch-builder is a great expression of this emphasis on product and customer centricity.” Wedding dresses have been largely ignored by startups despite the market being bigger than luggage ($34 billion), or shaving ($21 billion), oral care ($10 billion) and hair loss ($4 billion) combined.

The challenge is that unlike those products, bridal gowns are “a zero failure game. This is like airplane engines and heart rate monitors” Voorhees stresses. Anomalie must maintain perfect quality, times, and customer experience to avoid ruining someone’s big day. “Never messing up a dress or losing a dress — we take this really, really seriously.” She knows a few viral disasters could sink the ship. It also has to stay ahead of fresh entrants like COUTURME, a new Y Combinator startup making custom evening gowns as well as wedding dresses.

Anomalie’s SF headquarters. Photo by Summer Wilson

Anomalie sees global demand for a better experience, and thinks it can apply its data set to wedding dresses for more cultures as well as additional types of clothing. “We are building up a large repository of female measurements and creating tech plus operational processes around ‘mass customization’ that can be applied to other garments” Voorhees reveals. “Our aspirations are around bringing more body inclusivity + customization to women’s fashion, not just bridal.”

And while Anomalie could always find a retail partner to get more exposure, it’s tough for brick & mortar brands to operate online without cannibalizing their sales. “We think the women’s closet of the future contains staples from Stitch Fix, rotating dresses from Rent the Runway, and signature custom garments from Anomalie.”

The Anomalie just needs to educate brides that they can actually have the dress of their dreams, and now it wants to inspire that dream on-site too. Full of ambition and verve, Voorhees concludes, “What’s Pinterest valued at when it’s basically a wedding dress search engine?”