By  on February 19, 2008

The Chinese wedding industry is booming — and Hong Kong is leading the way.

For brides the world over, finding the perfect gown is one of the biggest decisions in planning a wedding. For bridal gown designers, it's a business that's growing, lucrative and, more than ever, looking East.

In the last year, the wedding industry has boomed in the Greater China region (which includes China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) with Hong Kong brides discovering the joys of buying rather than renting gowns, and Mainland Chinese brides moving away from tradition toward a more Western idea of how their big day should look.

As with everything in China, the numbers are staggering. In the world's most populous nation, there are nearly 10 million weddings each year — that's 10 million brides looking for just the right dress. And, as their buying power and international awareness increases, they are heading to Thailand or Macau for their honeymoons (weddings already represent 50 percent of banqueting business at The Wynn Macau) and turning to Hong Kong to shop for gowns.

The trend is not lost on retailers here. Joyce Boutique, for example, recently held a teatime trunk show to reintroduce Vera Wang wedding gowns to the market. Anita Wong, vice president of merchandising for Joyce, said, "This is like a relaunch of bridal. We started in the very early Nineties but stopped for awhile. Now we think it's about time to start again. We have demand, especially from our older customers' daughters. It's the right time and we really do see potential from the Mainland Chinese customers, too."

Wong says the gowns, with prices ranging from 40,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $5,125 at current exchange, to 160,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $20,500, are sold by appointment only and require a four-month lead time.

"There is a big potential. Right now, people have to fly to New York or Paris for the clothes. It's a service to bring bridal here so that they can choose the gowns and have the fitting here," said Wong.

Joyce is not alone in trying to tap into this market. Central Weddings is a bridal boutique located across from Louis Vuitton in the city's chic shopping mall, The Landmark. The year-old store carries bridal labels such as Carolina Herrera, Badgley Mischka and Monique Lhuillier. "Local brides tend to rent gowns, so this is a niche market. It's really a matter of how much they want to spend and showing them something other than the Cinderella gowns you usually see here," explained Carolyn Chow, general manager of Central Weddings.She and three friends started the business after each experienced the frustration of being a bride in Hong Kong who couldn't find designer gowns. "Buyers are just now getting educated about this. It takes a while," she said, adding that 10 to 20 percent of the store's business comes from overseas, including Southeast Asia and Mainland China.

"It's difficult or impossible for some brides to travel to the U.S., so they come here," she said. "We have had some Chinese brides come in — there is definite interest and the business is just starting to develop."

The store does not advertise locally, only in international bridal magazines. It also uses tie-ins with some of its neighbors, including Tiffany & Co. and the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel, to help attract international brides. "We're a single store, so these cross-promotions really help," said Chow.

Local designer Dorian Ho is taking a similar tack, working with the Intercontinental Hotel here to promote his bridalwear. The hotel's Crystal Wedding package, starting at 990,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $126,800, includes accommodations, a banquet and a custom-made gown covered in Swarovski crystals designed by Ho. The designer is determining whether there's enough business for him to warrant a separate bridal operation.

Cindy Lu, director of DH Wedding, says business is booming, and only slows during the Lunar New Year holidays.

"Dorian started the bridal collection in November 2005, but before that he had a lot of customers requesting bridalwear. There is a big demand," said Lu, who added that a few factors are working in their favor: "Our customers are often educated overseas. They have the concept of owning wedding gowns rather than renting and they like the idea of Western-style gowns. Plus, the government changed a regulation here so that people can get married wherever they want to. Now we have beach weddings, destination weddings and so on."

Another reason the industry is so competitive and lucrative here is that Chinese brides change three or four times in one night.

"You need more than just the white dress," said Lu. She said few brides look for the traditional qipao, but nearly all want something that gives a nod to tradition. Ho's solution is his D'Orient collection of gowns in celebratory red, each with one or two Chinese elements, like a Mandarin collar, silk frog closures or traditional floral beading.Not surprisingly, Mainland Chinese brides are as keen to mesh East and West as their sisters in Hong Kong. Lu says that China represents "a small but growing part of the business. Their spending power is significant — and they like to spend a lot on weddings," she said.

Even for brides who cannot or choose not to travel to Hong Kong, the look of weddings and the wedding industry is changing in China. New bridal fairs are added to the exhibition schedules every year and new outlets are springing up regularly, such as the Zhengzhou Wedding Goods One-stop Shop Wholesale Market, a one-year-old venture that is home to nearly 300 wedding-themed shops.

Analysts say China's bridal industry now generates more than 250 billion yuan, or $34.5 billion, each year, and may reach 500 billion yuan, or $69 billion. For brides and dressmakers alike, that's Double Happiness indeed.

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