By  on October 28, 2009

The wedding business apparently isn’t recession-proof after all.

As more brides postpone their weddings and purchases, designers and manufacturers are proving to be more nimble, sharpening opening price points, shortening delivery times and finding unusual designs to try to curtail any procrastination. Like many designers and executives interviewed during last week’s shows, Vera Wang offered a sober outlook. “As far as business is concerned, let’s be honest, it’s a bad situation. Like every other company, we lowered prices in the past two years. Overall, we feel very good about the price value we are offering.”

Retail consolidation has only made business more challenging. In the past year, Saks Fifth Avenue shuttered its bridal salons, and three well-known East Coast specialty stores also called it quits — Suky Rosan in Ardmore, Pa.; Calvary Bridal in Millburn, N.J., and Yolanda’s in Walpole, Mass. The editorial frontier also shrank, with Modern Bride and Elegant Bride magazines folding shortly before the shows began.

Mark Badgley and James Mischka responded to consumers’ cost consciousness by opening their runway show with a line from their new, more affordable Mark and James label. The British designer Alice Temperley unveiled a full-fledged bridal collection in addition to her made-to-order gowns. With more brides ordering gowns three to five months before their nuptials, Lela Rose said she is working more closely with stores to avoid rush charges whenever possible. The designer is offering more styles at her $1,800 opening price point, too. Even David’s Bridal, a national retail chain known for its razor-sharp prices, played up $99 options, including some that could be worn as separates after the wedding. JLM Couture introduced its Blush label and chief executive officer Joe Murphy sent a pre-market letter to stores emphasizing the need for teamwork.

But not everything was driven by price. Angelo Lambrou, who has an East Seventh Street store in Manhattan, will feature his wedding gowns in “Brides for All Nations,” a Nov. 5 runway show sponsored by the United Nations Women’s Guild. Nicole Miller served up more red-carpet-inspired wedding gowns than traditional ones. Saja has branched out into bridal, wedding planner David Tutera has teamed up with Faviana for a new label and Francesco Fino opened his first U.S. store at The Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, where designer Douglas Hannant also opened a store in September.

After unveiling a capsule collection of wedding gowns at Bergdorf Goodman, Marchesa presented 19 styles that will be sold exclusively in stores such as Browns in London. Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig were both married within the past two years, so bridal was a natural extension. Chapman said she welcomed the design challenge. “It is the one day of your life when you really feel you can go for it,” she said.

Mark Ingram’s signature Midtown bridal salon will be among the stores carrying Marchesa’s bridal collection. “All the gowns were magical and deftly constructed with an expert hand,” he said.

Ingram also gave high marks to Monique Lhuillier, Angel Sanchez and Anne Barge. But he said a turnaround is underfoot, as evidenced by “greater traffic, more optimism, higher ticket sales and generally happier brides.”

But it hasn’t been that way. Last year the most popular gowns he sold were in the $8,000 to $14,000 price range, but this year many will not spend more than $10,000. He said, “Honestly, anyone who tells you that their business is ‘flat’ with last year is probably not telling the truth. So many brides put off their weddings until 2010, that all of the better bridal business suffered this year.”

Checking out bridal lines at the Hotel Intercontinental last week, Sara Timko, owner of Sara’s in Branchburg, N.J., said having exclusive lines was the best bet. “People do bargain. They will say, ‘So-and-so will sell me this dress for $4,000. Can you do better?’”

Ani Cole, owner of Madison Avenue Bridal, a Covington, Ky., store, said, “They’re visiting their dresses a lot more. It used to be they would come in to look at the dress they wanted, once, twice or three times before buying it. Now they’re coming in at least a dozen times.”

Cole said she had picked up a few newcomers — Katerina Bocci, Karen Sabag and Ian Stuart. The Detroit-based Bocci let retailers know that she is part of the Made in Detroit marketing campaign that trumpets local businesses. “I am very happy about being able to provide paychecks for the people who work for me. They depend on me. It’s not just about me.”

Bridal executives aren’t the only ones trying to woo cost-conscious couples. Manhattan’s Lower East Side now has a Vegas-style wedding chapel that has a $150 wedding package — photos and invitations included. The Wedding Chapel will get some air time on TLC in the docuseries, “Flowers Uncut With Jeff Leatham,” which makes its debut next month. Leatham, the Four Seasons artistic director, filmed a segment in the Norfolk Street space and left behind $10,000 worth of artificial flowers. Another sign of the times is Ritz-Carlton’s “A Vow to Help Others,” which gives couples who have all-inclusive weddings the option of donating five percent of the total food revenue from their event to either a charity of their choice or the Community Footprints Fund.

Kirstie Kelley, who has a signature line for Disney Fairy Tale Weddings, said as more women wed later in life, they are less inclined to have traditional weddings and will dress accordingly. Modern and simplistic styles were in demand last week, she said. With distribution in 110 retailers worldwide, she said, there is talk of Disney opening freestanding bridal stores, but nothing is imminent.

Hannant’s business partner, Frederick Anderson, said the company offers a range of prices, but they are not as low as they were last season. “Obviously, business has been really soft and many people are planning their weddings for a year from now,” Anderson said. “What I am looking forward to is next year. That’s when women should start spending again and we will get out of this rut of lower-priced goods.”

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