Something Old, Like New

O range Restoration Labs is not an ordinary dry cleaner. Instead of office attire and cocktail dresses, the racks are full of bridal gowns—satin and chiffon, taffeta and organdy, trimmed with lace and tulle and pearls.

Every wedding dress has its own story, which can be all too evident. The mold spots on one skirt come from a wedding at the beach. Filthy hems are often the result of weddings held in barns and wineries. Torn lace? That probably happened when the groom stepped on the bride’s long train. Cake and wine and perspiration leave their marks as well.

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But Sally Lorensen Conant knows how to fix them. She and her husband, Rogers Conant, have been in the preservation, cleaning and restoration business for 29 years, an unlikely second career for an art historian and a banker. In one unfortunate week back in 1990, they both unexpectedly lost their jobs. “[Rogers] had been thinking—I don’t know why—to buy a laundromat,” Sally recalls. So the couple purchased a self-serve laundromat with “a tiny little 18-pound dry cleaning machine” and learned the ropes from its owner. Eventually, the former banker learned to repair the machines, and the art historian took a special interest in wedding dresses. A few years later, when competition forced them to close, they launched Orange Restoration Labs, focusing on the preservation, cleaning and restoration of wedding gowns, mother-of-the-bride and bridesmaid dresses, christening gowns (some of them worn by dozens of babies), vintage clothing and other precious fabric items.

The Conants operate out of both their Orange home and their Derby plant, the former a bright and inviting place to receive brides and discuss plans, the latter a more industrial location where the job gets done, one dress at a time. Sometimes that job entails restoring a vintage gown for an upcoming wedding. Other times, the dress is brought to Sally after it’s been worn so it can be properly cleaned, repaired and preserved to someday be worn again, or at least to be admired. Occasionally, the job also involves a little bit of gentle counseling, as when a mother wants her own dress revived for her daughter to wear, and the daughter is clearly not interested.

Orange Restoration handles a lot of dresses—about 3,000 per year, probably the largest number in New England, Sally suspects. She’s seen almost everything twice, she says, and she knows to be cautious when she comes across a new problem. Stains are hand-treated before the dress goes into the dry-cleaning machine, meaning spots won’t emerge later as the dress ages, a problem some brides discover if their dress is merely dry cleaned. This hand-cleaning process has the added benefit of cutting the time the dress spends in the stressful tumbling of the machine from 20 minutes or more down to three. Vintage dresses face a different set of challenges. They’re often stained by oxidation, dampness and fumes emitted by storage materials or parts of the dress itself, such as padding.

When we arrive at Orange Restoration’s dry cleaning facility, a few miles from the Conants’ home, several gowns are in progress. The plant’s manager, Rocio Lopez, has pinned up layers of one skirt in order to sew a tear in a petticoat. Other workers are spot cleaning a skirt speckled with mold. If it were warmer outside, Sally explains, one of the best remedies would involve simply hanging the treated dress in the sun. Another dress with a dirty hem is suspended over a soaking sink, and nearby a large fan is speeding up the drying of a dress that’s already been treated. Racks and racks of gowns await attention. When they’re nearly good as new, the finishing touch is often packaging them in layers of acid-free tissue inside chemically inert boxes, each with a window that allows the dress to be seen. Prices begin at $185 for cleaning and pressing a non-silk dress and go up from there.

Not all the dresses at Orange Restoration have been brought in by local brides. Some are samples from bridal shops that need freshening up after being tried on over and over. Many others come from clients who are cleaners or bridal shops subcontracting the Conants.

Orange Restoration’s single plant is packed with dresses and bustling with business, but the country’s very largest wedding dress specialists may handle as many as 80,000 dresses every year. Sally knows the larger landscape in part because she’s the executive director of the nonprofit Association of Wedding Gown Specialists, representing hundreds of operations in eight countries, all of whom honor one another’s guarantees. Some wedding dress care labels now recommend them.

As she walks me through the restoration process, I feel a little bit guilty about how poorly I’ve treated my own wedding dress, which leads me to ask about hers. Like the mechanic who drives a beater, she admits she didn’t even save her own gown, which she sewed herself. “The funny thing is, it was brocade, and it could have been done very nicely as opposed to satin. It would have looked great,” she says. But it wouldn’t have fit her daughter, and she claims to be “just as well pleased” not to have it packed away in paper somewhere.

She did, however, manage to rescue her younger son’s christening gown for his daughters to wear. In that case, she’d done “everything wrong.” She’d left it in the garage, where “the exhaust from cars is not good for fabric.” She’d had it dry cleaned only, so formula stains had never fully been removed. She’d stored it in plastic, causing it to be “hideously yellowed” and hung it on a wire hanger, which had left a residue of rust. “Luckily, I was in the business,” she says, “so I actually was able to completely restore it.”

With all these hazards in mind, what should brides do to keep their gowns in good condition? First, “Don’t try to clean a spot yourself,” Sally says. “We have had some sad things where people were doing an emergency—they thought—treatment, and they’ve literally rubbed the finish off the fabric by rubbing too hard.” Second, always use the loops sewn into the side seams to hang the dress. “Don’t just hang them by their shoulders,” she advises. Lace dresses are best not hung up at all because the lace will stretch.

As for the wedding day itself? “I don’t think people should worry about their dresses when they’re at the weddings,” Sally says. “You only have that day one time, and it goes by very quickly, so I would just enjoy the day, and let us worry about the dress…”

Orange Restoration Labs
454 Old Cellar Rd, Orange (map)
Call (800) 950-6482 to make an appointment.
www.gownrestoration.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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