CLASSICS, PRICE KEY AT BRIDAL MARKET

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--While price-consciousness continues to accompany the march down the aisle, last week's bridal market moved at a brisk clip.
Shopping the bridal showrooms and the New York Bridal Show at the Hotel Pennsylvania, retailers reported budgets that ranged anywhere from even with last year to sharply ahead.
Classic gowns in fabrics such as silk satin and silk shantung were among the top order-getters. Reflecting a growing practicality along with the emphasis on price, merchants and vendors agreed that looks for brides, bridesmaids and mothers-of-the-bride that could be worn again after the wedding were outselling ornate and embellished designs.
Patricia Buck, the owner of a 7,000-square-foot bridal shop in Augusta, Maine, that bears her name, said she spent 40 percent more at this year's market. Looking primarily for traditional short-sleeve or off-the-shoulder bridal gowns that wholesale for $250 to $350, Buck said she placed orders with firms such as Alfred Angelo, Jessica McClintock and Mori Lee.
After she moved into a larger shop in December, monthly sales at least doubled, and in some instances quadrupled, compared with last year's, she said.
"Most of the girls buy middle-priced gowns, even though we also sell more expensive ones," she said.
In bridesmaid dresses, styles from Jessica McClintock and Alfred Angelo are top performers, said Buck, noting most women want styles that can be worn for other occasions.
Fernanda Botticelli, buyer for Botticelli Bridal Boutique, a 2,000-square-foot store in Bronxville, N.Y., said her buying was flat this market compared with last year. She said she placed 50 percent of her orders for "simple, sophisticated" silk bridal gowns by Scaasi, Jim Hjelm, Galina, Demitro's, Eve of Milady and Diamond Collection by Ron Lovece. Most customers at the boutique buy gowns that wholesale around $600, she said. Among trends, Botticelli noted more resources are offering pale pink as an alternative to white or ivory bridal gowns.
Rose Taft, Bernadette and Eve of Milady are popular mother-of-the-bride resources in the shop, she added.
Lori Daigle, owner of Victoria Crossing in Rutland, Vt., said she ordered 25 percent of her bridal gowns from Alfred Angelo. She's in the process of devoting half of her 1,800-square-foot ready-to-wear boutique to bridal offerings, since stiff rtw competition is coming to town in the form of a 68-store mall. In the next year, she expects bridal sales to contribute 30 percent of the store's overall sales, about double the current total.
"I needed to find a niche. Bridal is a service business that you never see in a mall," she said. "It's called, 'Trying to stay alive in the Nineties.' "
To attract a wide range of customers, Daigle said she purchased a cross-section of styles in sizes 2 to 22, including Bill Levkoff, Watters & Watters and Demitro's. Grace Melim, owner of Nadia's, a 3,000-square-foot shop in Taunton, Mass., said last week's orders were even with last year. More than 70 percent of her bookings were placed for prom dresses that wholesale for $60 and $100.
Slim-fitting rayon crepe dresses with halter necklines are a key look, she said. Melim is turning away from lace and beaded bridal gowns, opting for more simple looks. Her store sells most of its gowns for about $600, she said.
"Customers are still cautious when it comes to price," she said, "and it seemed like dress prices have come down a little bit, because they're using less sequins and less expensive fabrics."
Among the vendors, Richard Glasgow, owner and designer of Richard Glascow Inc., estimated at least a 10 percent increase for market week. At last year's market, 60 percent of the orders were placed for Riccio, the firm's moderate-priced line, and 40 percent for the higher-priced signature collection. This year the ratio shifted, he said; 60 percent of the orders were placed for the Richard Glasgow line.
"Most buyers are still very price-conscious, even though they are looking for things that retail for $1,500 to $2,000," Glasgow said.
He attributed some of this season's growth to the expansion of the company's production facility at 14 East 38th St. The 12,000-square-foot site will have the capacity to increase production 50 percent, he said.
Price was also important in other showrooms.
Lynn Carr, director of sales at Ulla Maija, said bookings were up 30 percent over last year, even though the number of appointments was about the same, showing individual stores are buying more. The collection wholesales for $1,300 to $3,000, but most buyers select items in the $1,500-to-$2,000 range, she said.
"I think they're deciding on four or five designers and they're offering them in greater depth," she said.
Alvina Valenta, a bridal company based in Babylon, N.Y., had a 35 percent gain in bookings last week, compared with last year, said Dan McMillan, president. Of the 24 buyers who viewed the line, most selected simple gowns in silk satin or silk shantung that wholesale for $1,500 to $2,000.
Earlier this year the company won the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award for the New York district from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Joseph Murphy, president and chief executive officer of Jim Hjelm International, said this year's market week orders were 10 to 15 percent ahead of last year's. The company usually generates about 65 percent of its annual business from the October market, he said.
The firm makes and distributes Lazaro, Jim Hjelm Private Collection, Jim Hjelm Pure Romance, Jim Hjelm Occasions and Jim Hjelm New Collections.
A publicly owned company, Hjelm recently reported operating profits were hurt by lower gross margins in its third quarter ended July 31. Operating profits fell to $13,529 from $45,055 a year ago. Hjelm cited lower prices for its new Occasions line and its Lazaro bridal line, and temporarily higher costs for beading production, which was shifted out of Haiti.
After losses related to discontinued operations, the third quarter showed a final loss of $80,851, against net profit of $29,808 a year ago. Sales rose 14 percent to $1.7 million in the quarter. For the nine months, Hjelm's earnings rose 37.2 percent to $146,612, and sales gained 12.5 percent to $5 million.
In early December, bridal and bridesmaid looks will be featured in the company's first catalog, which will be mailed to 10,000 consumers and retailers. During market week, 40 percent of the buyers selected gowns from Hjelm's Private Collection, which wholesales for $695 to $1,295, Murphy said. Sales for Occasions, a 22-piece collection of wear-again bridesmaid dresses, have been particularly strong, Murphy said.

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