Throughout the 1800s, the San Fernando Mission was home to some of the area's biggest Catholic wedding ceremonies. Brides wore simple dresses, and wedding parties attracted hundreds of people from California and Mexico.
Today, the mission still hosts its share of traditional weddings. But finding a dress has become a much different matter.
A few miles from the mission in the heart of San Fernando, wedding-dress shops, jewelers and photography studios have turned the town mall into a two-block prenuptial haven.
There are no fewer than 14 bridal shops that custom-make dresses for weddings, baptisms and other formal occasions.
"This has been a trend for some time," said Sarah Magana-Withers, economic development manager for the city of San Fernando. "The mission is close. It's a historical site and has that historical significance."
Magnana-Withers, who was married at the mission herself, said the shops like the mission, nearby Mission Park and Saint Ferdinand Church offer a sense of tradition that's sometimes hard to find in Los Angeles.
Few places reflect that tradition as much as San Fernando Mall, where a stroll takes visitors past small shops with names like Brides of San Fernando and Alennis Boutique.
Many signs are written only in Spanish. Inside, many of the dresses are still sewn by hand.
Evangelina Mazon, owner of Eva's Bridal, has been making and selling dresses for 14 years out of the same storefront at San Fernando Road and Brand Boulevard. She said customers are willing to come from other parts of Southern California because of the selection of shops.
Isaac Algaze opened his shop Suburbia eight years ago and initially specialized in wedding dresses. Now he offers garments for any number of occasions, including baptisms and communions. He also makes tuxedos, sells wedding and engagement rings, rents limousines, prints invitations, and even decorates churches and other sites for family celebrations.
A few years ago, he opened a second store, Best Bridal, several doors down from his first location. In the next year, he plans to start baking wedding cakes.
Algaze said repeat business is a big part of his success.
"The girl will come in for a wedding dress and in a few years come back for a baby's baptism, then the communion and so on," he said. "There's a lot of people who want a nice different dress, and if you go to Ventura Boulevard, it's expensive, whereas we can make it much better."
Algaze and his seven employees make the dresses themselves. He said they sell thousands each year, ranging from $350 to $2,000.
Wedding preparation typically takes three to four months and usually involves both families.
"Latinos make the (preparation into) parties," Algaze said. "They work together. The father (of the bride) doesn't pay for everything. A godfather will buy invitations, and the other father the flowers. One family doesn't have to pay for everything."
Many times, sharing the costs translates into bigger ceremonies and more competition among store owners for a share of the business. "It's hard. You can't rest," Algaze said. "You have to give good service."
The cluster of shops has caused the San Fernando Chamber of Commerce to push for the creation of a special area in the city featuring a gazebo for photo sessions and surrounded by jewelry and dress shops.
"Drive by Memory Garden in Brand Park on a Sunday," suggests Joe Sandoval, president of the chamber. "I drove by the other Sunday and saw no less than five groups with photographers."
Mission curator Kevin Feeney said about 120 weddings are held each year at the church. "The (people) come from all over," he said. "They've dropped in here and come back for the atmosphere. It's pretty much the only (traditional mission) in the San Fernando Valley."
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