Buying a wedding dress in one of the fashion capitals of the world isn’t as expensive or difficult as you’d think, all because of one Drexel University student’s visionary bridal fashion company.
Weilei Yu, a business and engineering pre-junior in the LeBow College of Business, created his startup, Sposae, when he was just 16 years old. Now, more than six years later, his discount and customizable bridal and bridesmaid dresses can be found online and in the flagship store in Milan, Italy.
The low-priced, high-quality wedding dresses run in the $1,000- $2,000 range. There is also an outlet collection of the previous season’s wedding dresses that run from $200 to $600. And as if that wasn’t enough, each formal gown can be personalized by color, corset details, train length and more. By combining Italian high quality and fashion ideals with innovative production process and customer experience, Yu offers the best deal for customers who may be already stressed about wedding prices.
“The company was created with the core belief that the wedding day should be a special day, both for the couple and the guests,” Yu said. “We want to help them accomplish their dream for a perfect day. Our motto is ‘elegance without sacrifice,’ and this is why our main attitude is not toward exclusivity, but open to mostly any budget.”
As a budding entrepreneur, Yu got his start in the fashion business by helping a cousin set up a website to sell clothing online, but he soon realized he wanted something of his own. Yu was looking for a product that would be low volume and high margin—more manageable for a startup—until he came across a wedding dress manufacturer’s website.
Intrigued, he researched and found that the production cost for bridal dresses was actually lower than he had imagined. By creating contracts with Chinese manufacturers, Yu could provide affordable and fashionable wedding dresses for his Italian customers, which shaped the brand’s ethos and name.
“The idea of ‘Sposae’ came from the Latin word ‘Sponsa-ae,’ which means bride to be, or fiancée,” Yu said. “However the pronunciation of that Latin word wasn’t very fluid, so we combined it with the current modern Italian word for bride ‘Sposa’ and it became ‘Sposae,’ which is pronounced (spɔ-zæ). The fusion between the tradition and innovation is reflected perfectly by our logo.”
Yu has experienced success with the clients from the very beginning: his first customer paid for a dress upfront and was so pleased with her custom-made design that she ordered several more to sell to her future bridal party.
Encouraged by customer response, Yu strengthened the e-commerce site he started in 2009 and later opened a 1,800-square-foot shop in Milan in 2012 to test the market and the company’s offers. He expanded into bridesmaid and evening gowns, menswear and accessories. By the fall of 2013, he opened a 7,500-square-foot flagship store in the Milan area and closed the first one—he didn’t need any testing anymore.
Yu’s brother currently manages the daily operations of the flagship shop, while Yu manages the company remotely from Philadelphia. He even used one of his six-month cooperative education (co-op) opportunities to work for himself through Drexel’s Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship’s co-op program that pays students to work on their own companies.
“During my six months in Italy managing the new store, the climate was quite tense and stressful,” Yu said. “I was very lucky that thanks to the ‘Entrepreneurship Co-op,’ I had great advisors like Mark P. Loschiavo and Terri Zobel from the Baiada Institute, and Charles Sacco from the Close School,” he said.
His classes and professors, especially Mazhar Islam, PhD, an assistant professor in the LeBow College of Business, also helped him apply his skills and knowledge to his company since his freshman year.
“What we learn in classes are all very good foundations because I can relate them to the real world scenarios,” Yu said. “But because they are meant for studies they tend to be a simplified version. The hardest part of running a company is that you don’t have all the numbers and scenarios handed to you and there are no set frameworks.”
Yu has experienced troubles firsthand. He opened his flagship store during the middle of the European crisis, which hit Italy hard, and had to layoff an employee. Nowadays, he holds weekly conference calls with a small but dedicated team he trained to thrive without his physical presence.
The company’s five and 10-year plans are already set in motion. The goal is to further expand Sposae in Italy, then to the major fashion capitals in Europe—Paris, London and Berlin—before going global. However, Yu still wants to work for other companies right after college to gain more experience to run Sposae.
“Managing a company is absolutely an amazing experience, whether it becomes a very successful one or not,” he said “You have the chance to take an idea from its ‘infancy’ phase to a feasible business model.”