The Genteel
January 27, 2021



When Helen Sweet was nine years old, she lost her best friend to cancer. And when it came time for Sweet to get married, the realisation of how much she wished her friend was there sparked a brilliant business idea. The Brides’ Project is a bridal boutique in Toronto that donates 100 per cent of their profits to cancer charities. The team of twenty volunteers work together to help facilitate research for cancer, while also offering women a socially conscious and affordable way of buying their wedding gown.

Gowns are brought in by brides, bridal salons and designers, and then resold by The Brides’ Project at approximately half of their original retail value. “We get them everyday,” says Sweet of her stock of dresses. “One of our volunteers picked up about fifty-five dresses yesterday from a salon. They had a flood and got rid of what was damaged, but they wrote off the whole inventory. So we ended up getting the rest of the dresses. And they are in perfect condition.” 

A note attached to a bridal gown
from one bride to another.
Photo by Tara MacInnis

Purchasing previously owned clothing is nothing new. But Sweet does not liken shopping at The Brides’ Project to buying a used pair of denim jeans - she knows it is an emotional purchase, and she and her staff make sure that every bride’s experience is special.

“It’s a very valuable gift, and I think it’s a really good way to pass on good karma,” says Sweet. This passing of wedding gowns from one bride to another is what The Brides’ Project facilitates, and the sentimental value of this to both donors and customers is made evident by a quick scan of the store’s many racks. Several of the gowns have small envelopes attached to them - “To the bride” and “Dear new bride” they read, and they contain notes that create a bond that goes beyond wearing the same wedding dress.

There is a dress, Sweet remembers, that embodies what The Brides’ Project can provide to a bride, aside from donating to a worthy cause. One particular dress came to the store from a bride who bought it in New York. It was worn by two more brides after her, travelling as far as Jamaica with one of them.

“The dress changed from bride to bride, with little alterations and this and that,” Sweet recalls. “And the three brides actually got in touch with each other. They’re all bubbly, fun, friendly women and it was almost like the dress chose them. They made an effort to start a dialogue and they were joined together by this garment that they wore on one of the most special days of their lives.”

One particular dress came to the store from a bride who bought it in New York. It was worn by two more brides after her, travelling as far as Jamaica with one of them.

At any given time, The Brides’ Project has approximately five hundred gowns on the two floors of the Toronto house Sweet both lives in and runs her business out of. Each of the rooms on the two main floors is filled with dresses, shoes, purses and gloves. Veils, most of which Sweet has made or altered herself, are kept in the second floor bathroom along with several vintage gowns that hang off the shower doors. Each gown is carefully tagged, listing the size of the garment, what year it was made, what it is made of, and the price. Brides pop in and out of each room, followed closely by volunteers who are ready to give them advice and guide them through the store’s inventory. 

“We get a mix of customers,” says Sweet of the brides who helped her donate upwards of $100,000 last year to charities like Run for the Cure and Prostate Cancer Canada. “We definitely get brides who are plain and simple, on a budget. We also get brides who aren’t on a budget, but they want to support what we do and generate some meaning through their wedding day. I think the majority of our customers want to have a sensible budget and they’d also like to make a difference.”

Sweet says the women who donate dresses to The Brides’ Project are also sensible, and would rather see someone else enjoy their gown than be emotionally attached to a material thing. “Hearing that somebody fell in love with the same dress - that’s the biggest compliment,” says Sweet. “For someone to say, ‘You had really great taste. So much so, that I’m going to wear it, too.’”

Helen Sweet and bride-to-be, Michelle. 

After almost twenty years, Sweet continues to take great pleasure in what her business means, both to brides and to cancer research. The store has consistently grown over the years, donating more and more each year. Despite this, Sweet still remembers her first customer.

“She came to us because she had lost her father, and she said that by buying a dress from us, she felt like her father was walking her down the aisle,” recalls Sweet. “It really hit me then: this is about more than just donating money. It’s about the impact that it has on the people who are participating.”



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