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Designers Think Positively About Wedding Business

Bridal firms express optimism despite shaky economy.

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Brides might scale back on their guest lists because of economic instability, but designers are still banking on them to splurge on wedding gowns.

This story first appeared in the October 23, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

While attendees at this week’s bridal market, which got under way Oct. 15 in Manhattan, were making some adjustments, they were accentuating the positive about business. Vera Wang, whose directional collections tend to set the pace for other designers’ future seasons, offered gowns in unexpected shades: chestnut, gray, maize and celadon. The designer said she wanted to play with color “to provide a light, optimistic antidote to a dark fall.”

To further that sentiment and to capture the ethereal beauty of fairy-tale princesses, Wang adorned her dresses with smoke-colored jeweled garland, sequin straps and sparkling double-strand bracelets.

Carolina Herrera also broadened the palette, offering Champagne-colored and ivory gowns, including a few with unexpected accents such as wheat-inspired beading and a chocolate-colored ribbon. In fact, there was no shortage of embellishment, or “bling” as some preferred to call it, in collections such as Anne Barge, Badgley Mischka, Reem Acra and Monique Lhuillier.

Even the opening-night party at Rockefeller Center’s rooftop garden and terrace was all about razzle-dazzle. Swarovski hosted the event to celebrate the publication of its “Unbridaled: The Marriage of Tradition and Avant Garde” and exhibited several gowns photographed in the book. The Champagne flowed and a few hundred guests assured that none of it went to waste.

Barge, who flew in from Atlanta, said she was delighted to see how many people turned out and dressed up. “We haven’t had a big, festive party like this since the Eighties and early Nineties….It’s good for the industry to get everyone together,” she said.

Acra was also eager to banish the gloom. “I’m such a positive person that I can’t think negative,” she said. “Instead of worrying about things, I started shipping [more product] to overseas stores and I have been selling more couture clothing.”

Mara Urshel, co-owner of Kleinfeld in Manhattan, was upbeat, especially since the store has 100 appointments daily compared with 85 or 90 a year ago. “We haven’t felt a ripple, but we are getting ready in case there is a situation,” she said.

Most current shoppers already have committed to reception venues, but the newly engaged could hold off on their nuptials until the economy evens out. Urshel is prepared to reduce staffers’ hours and adjust store hours to accommodate the bulk of customers, if necessary.

“If they are going to cut down on anything, I don’t think it will be the wedding dress,” she said. “They may cut back on the number of people they invite or have a destination wedding, which can be more affordable.”

Douglas Hannant’s first bridal collection was a winner with Urshel. who picked up the line.

Hannant said he expected the launch and the emotional connection he makes with brides to boost his ready-to-wear sales. “It should help with name recognition to get out there in bridal. It’s also the most special day of a woman’s life.”

At Barge’s runway show Sunday, Mark Ingram, who owns a bridal salon and just opened an eveningwear space in Manhattan, said the market seemed to be “all over the board with a lot of bling, texture and interesting details and techniques.” But he also noted that a few designers, such as Lela Rose, were more austere.

Rose’s decision to offer only six new styles “really made a statement,” Ingram said. “I think I am going to pull in a little bit, too. I think girls are going to want to connect more with the retailers they buy from, and the designers need to connect with their clients so they’d better get their butts to the stores to sell those dresses.”

In the coming months, J. Crew will do all its shoots in the U.S., according to creative director Jenna Lyons Mazeau. Aside from supporting the domestic economy, it will remind shoppers they can have a beautiful wedding stateside, she said. The anemic economy could make more women turn to the brand for its affordably-priced wedding gowns, which start at $295 and go up to $3,000, she said. “We see what’s happening in the world. But we know people still fall in love and get married. We’re excited about the opportunity and hopefully we will bring in some new customers who might not have thought of us before,” Mazeau said.

Joseph Murphy, president and chief executive officer of JLM Couture, said there’s been a lot of interest in the company’s opening price point, Tara Keely collection.

“We have to be better and focus on the attractiveness of styles to do the same amount of business,” he said.

However, there are still brides willing to spend a few thousand dollars on their gowns. The average wedding costs about $50,000, so most brides won’t blink at buying a $3,000 dress, Murphy added.

Amsale showed off her Little White Dress collection to stores for the first time. The capsule collection consists of short dresses geared for brides who prefer to wear a gown to their wedding and a shorter style to their reception. They also may be worn for rehearsal dinners or engagement parties, the designer said, adding that no other company has put together a collection of short white dresses.

By making the dresses in New York, she offers a three-week turnaround time, another selling point. That allows for stores to carry them on their sales floors or for special orders. Wholesale prices range from $450 to $550, and 30 stores have picked up the collection.

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