By  on October 24, 2006

NEW YORK — Looking beyond the trappings of traditional wedding attire, several designers are kicking up the fashion quotient in their bridal collections.

Last week's bridal market packed plenty of options for fashion-minded brides-to-be, from deconstructed dresses at Vera Wang to laundered gowns at Lela Rose. Aside from having roomier silhouettes designed to look dramatic from a variety of angles, not just for the standard full-length portrait, some of Wang's dresses are also convertibles — essentially two dresses in one.

"I'm trying to push them away [from traditional dresses] to get them to go forward," Wang said of her customers. "Brides have to evolve from a fashion point of view — and why shouldn't they?"

The emphasis on more stylish dresses is more in step with brides who are jetting off to destination weddings, which continue to be a driving force in the $120 billion bridal industry. Many are more willing to spring for a designer dress since they are footing the bill for their weddings and often have more money to burn because they are tying the knot later in life. Even pets that follow the bride down the aisle now have dressier options. Hamptons Hound, the luxury pet accessories label, has introduced a bridal collection of hand-beaded leather collars.

Women have faced their own fashion challenges in choosing wedding gowns, according to William Calvert, who has been selling customized gowns for years and is now pursuing wholesale.

"It's either Cinderella or a slipdress," he said. "But now more people are thinking, ‘I'm smart. I want something interesting. I don't want to look like Barbie.'"

Calvert introduced his line of wedding gowns at a cocktail party in his Hell's Kitchen town house last week. The guest of honor was Oprah Winfrey's niece Chrishaunda Lee Perez, who appears in the current issue of Town & Country Weddings in the gown Calvert designed for her nuptials in the Bahamas. Her dress, which required 55 yards of fabric and featured white chiffon over layers of ivory habotai and gold habotai, was among the dresses displayed. The average retail price of one of Calvert's gowns is $10,000.

A newcomer to the wedding dress scene is Lela Rose, who approached the category from a ready-to-wear point of view."We wanted to have a totally different take on weddings," she said, and did so by using unexpected fabrics such as laundered duchesse satin and muslin.

There are also touches like embroidered cotton silk voile and a kimono back with a bustle. The nine-piece collection, which wholesales from $1,800 to $4,500, will be sold initially in about 17 stores domestically and internationally. Aside from naming the dresses after places where people get married, such as City Hall, The Estate and The Castle Dress, Rose will embroider the wearer's wedding date in blue thread inside the dress and will ship it in a keepsake box.

JLM Couture president Joe Murphy said "body-conscious brides" are looking for more fit-and-flare styles and trumpet silhouettes. Longtime industry designer and retailer Anne Barge said, "Brides are reaching out for more unique, never-been-seen-before, sophisticated gowns that make a fashion statement."

As for how the business has changed in the past year, Angel Sanchez said, "There are so many choices, but not necessarily all of them are good. Many people are more or less doing the same thing. Last season, there was so much ornamentation that it looked too forced, too romantic. This season we have gone back to clean and simple dresses, but with fashion."

Fashion-forward designer dresses are the big draw at Warren Barrón, a bridal store that opened in Dallas last month and carries such labels as Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang, Carolina Herrera and Ulla Maja, according to the store's co-owner, Elle Warren. As the former sales and marketing director for Angel Sanchez, she and Cecelia Flores-Barrón, a former Saks Fifth Avenue bridal executive, said they buy wedding dresses from much more of a fashion perspective than traditional bridal salons.

"Everyone gravitates toward fashion if you offer it to them," said Warren, adding that 14 Angel Sanchez dresses were sold in the store's first month.

Warren pointed to Lela Rose and Angel Sanchez as last week's bright spots. "Lela Rose was the one thing we saw that we couldn't believe how much we loved," she said. "It is extraordinary. She used all sorts of unusual fabrics like muslin. It is very different and so beautiful. Lela is from Texas and we will have the exclusive for the collection in Dallas."Mark Ingram, owner of the Mark Ingram Bridal Atelier here, was talking up plans to launch Karl Lagerfeld's bridal collection in the U.S. He expects the label to generate "hundreds of thousands" in sales.

Kleinfeld owner Ronnie Rothstein was talking dollars of another kind. He said some labels have raised prices to $4,500 from $2,500 to try to cover the expenses of staging runway shows or beefing up their ad budgets. The Fashion Calendar listed 32 bridal shows — four times the number of shows held five years ago — and that excludes designers who showed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel or the Essex House.

Yolanda Cellucci, owner of Yolanda's of Boston, has also seen a jump in prices due to what vendors have told her are manufacturing and material costs.

"In our salon, there are dresses that are $3,500, $4,500, $5,700 and $6,900, and they are spending it," Cellucci said. "Somehow girls find a way to buy the dress they want."

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