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NEW YORK — The wedding bells were muted at last week’s bridal trade shows, overwhelmed by consumer and buyer concerns over war, terrorism, travel and the economy.
While the fall edition traditionally is not as important as the spring collections in October, both retailers and exhibitors were unsettled by the lack of commerce in a category that had been seen as bucking the downturn. In the last year or so, designer houses such as Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and Badgley Mischka have signed bridal licensing deals, adding cachet to the category.
But even that couldn’t lift the market, as retail traffic was sparse at three fairs: Gerard Bedouk Publishing’s Couture Bridal Show at the Kitano Hotel, and two shows produced by a unit of Weddingchannel.com: the Independent Visions Bridal Show at the Metropolitan Pavilion and the Intimate Visions-produced Wedding Couture Designer Showcase at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
According to a GBP spokeswoman, preregistrations were “good, but only 75 percent of 240 stores showed up.” She said about 300 specialty bridal stores and department stores in the U.S., Canada and overseas typically attend the October edition in full force.
Ilene Shack, president of Independent Visions and vice president and managing director of Weddingchannel.com, said approximately 400 stores attended the combined shows at the Metropolitan Pavilion and the Waldorf-Astoria. Attendance at Independent Vision’s fall bridal shows averages 520.
“About 75 companies showed for us this time,” Shack said. “It’s usually 160. It was down by more than 50 percent.”
However, she said attendance should be up at the October editions for spring, which traditionally pulls in a larger turnout.
The low level of traffic was especially tough for new resources. A number of firms, including San Francisco-based Charsa and the Avionni label by Aileen Ng of Toronto, as well as upscale Italian labels like RS Couture Roma and the Essij brand by Atelier Carmen Sollo from Naples, said they had not written one order during the four-day events that closed April 1.
Some retailers in attendance said they came to Manhattan because it provided an opportunity to see new brands and order fresh merchandise.
Armed with open-to-buy budgets that generally ranged from the low-single digits to more than 10 percent, retailers said independent bridal business has suffered similar ups and downs experienced at major department and specialty stores in the last 18 months.
One consumer trend worrying specialty retailers was the number of brides-to-be slashing budgets for their wedding gown by half and allocating the remainder to home investments or high-ticket items for the home. Instead of paying a suggested retail of $4,000 to $6,000 for a wedding gown, women are asking for gowns in the $2,000 to $3,000 range, said retailers.
In response to the frugal consumer, scores of bridal manufacturers, such as Kenth Andersson New York, Chicago-based Suzann Designs and New York designer Henry Roth, are introducing moderate-to-bridge-price secondary lines or creating new labels for bridal gowns, bridesmaids dresses and mother-of-the-bride fare.
Betsy Nasouri, owner of Betsy’s Bridal Couture, a 22-year-old bridal operation in Farmington Hills, Mich., said since Sept. 11, 2001, bridal business has been down.
“It’s the economy, the war and the anxiety,” Nasouri said. “Now, instead of inviting 400 guests to a wedding, brides are asking 200. You have to cut corners now. Before, I never had a problem selling a $4,000 gown.”
Nasouri said because of the economy she was remaining cautious with her budget and planned to buy four “major” gowns, instead of the standard eight she normally orders. Ian Stuart, shown at the Metropolitan Pavilion, is among her top-selling resources, she said.
Nasouri said, “Because of this war, people are beginning to switch wedding dates. A lot of fiancés, brothers and fathers have either left or will be on their way.”
Deborah Kylar, an owner of the 14-year-old Serendipity Bridal store in Austin, Tex., said she was shopping showrooms, as well as the trade fairs. She ordered wedding gowns from Watters & Watters, Monique L’Huillier and Vera Wang.
Kylar’s partner, Beverly Montgomery, said two factors were responsible for 20 percent sales gains against a year ago: consolidation of two smaller shops into a large store in an upscale location, and the addition of bridal accessories, including jewelry, veils, shoes and lingerie.
“We had one customer who only spent $250 on a bridesmaid dress instead of a wedding gown, but spent $750 on a veil,” said Montgomery. “Psychologically, she felt she was economizing.”
Patricia Buck, owner of Patricia Buck Bridal in Augusta, Maine, said the war has prompted a number of women to “cancel the big wedding dress and do a rush wedding with a less expensive dress.”
“I’m not buying much at this market, just what I absolutely have to have, like Vera Wang,” Buch said. “I’m here to look at everything and see what the trends are.”
She added that she ordered Model Novias Collection, a new label from Spain shown at the Couture Bridal Show, and new label Panoply, which was exhibited at Independent Visions.
“I’m looking for wonderful fabrics such as silks, but in a less expensive venue,” said Roberta Parry, owner of Elisabeth Parry For The Bride, a 53-year-old specialty operation in Great Barrington, Mass. “I cater to the Berkshires. My customers right now want a slender silhouette and simple, elegant looks in wonderful fabrics. Nothing froufrou.”
Parry said she plans to order Model Novias Collection, noting she is considering ordering Casablanca and Barbara Allin, two resources who exhibited at the Metropolitan Pavilion.
Teresa Furnas, owner of Lincoln, Neb.-based A Bridal Trousseau, said, “I’m here because I think it’s important to buy a little since other stores who haven’t come to New York won’t have any fresh merchandise.”
Furnas said she was placing orders with two brands: Rena Koh Collections, a showroom resource, and Panoply.
“We’re looking for anything different. Everybody is tired of same-old, same-old ideas,” said Paula Schmidt, owner of An Elegant Event, a nine-year-old bridal and special occasion boutique in Chesterfield, Mo. “We’re hearing a lot of brides are having weddings on a beach and they want light, fluffy fabrics like tulle and organza that fly beautifully in the wind.”
Amy Wiegrefe, assistant buyer and store manager of An Elegant Event, said, “It’s now all about shape and a close-to-the-body silhouette. If you have a simple, sophisticated dress, it’s irrelevant if it doesn’t fit properly. We think the simple, bias-cut silhouettes are wonderful by Amy Michelson.”
Michelson showed her collection at the Kitano Hotel.
Long, slim architectural silhouettes.
Strapless continues to be strong.
Short of tea-length bridesmaids dresses that average a suggested retail of $250 versus $750 for a full-length wedding dress.
Tea receptions, which are more economical than a gala cocktail party and sit-down dinner.