Bridal Designers Try Different Tactics to Court Shoppers

In these challenging financial times, bridal designers are trying different tactics to court shoppers.

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In these challenging financial times, bridal designers are trying different tactics to court shoppers.

This story first appeared in the October 14, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

With the October market about to get under way, several manufacturers emphasized the need to spend more time with retailers and consumers. There is an increasing awareness of the importance of price in light of the shaky economy. Amsale, Anne Barge and Junko Yoshioka said they were making a concerted effort to offer more affordable pieces.

Despite the ongoing uncertainty about the economy, Amsale, who designs a signature collection and has a Madison Avenue boutique, does not expect brides to compromise on their wedding day plans. “All these things are falling on us right now. But people are still getting married and their dreams of having a beautiful wedding dress don’t disappear overnight,” she said.

However, she has noticed price resistance to gowns that retail between $4,000 and $4,500, which was not an issue in the past. To try to help out shoppers, Amsale is offering more dresses that will retail for $3,500 so brides won’t feel as though they are stretching their budgets. Twenty-five percent of her collection will fall in that price range, as opposed to 15 percent, which had been the norm.

“I have always been conscious of the fact there is a customer who really wants an Amsale dress, but who doesn’t want to spend a lot of money,” she said.

Most brides would rather reduce other personal spending expenses, such as going out to eat or buying ready-to-wear, before they would scrimp on the price of their wedding dress, she said.

Her freestanding store “has not been affected at all” by the recent financial turmoil, and sales are up from last year, she said. “So far, we haven’t seen it yet, but five months from now could be a whole different story,” Amsale said.

Oscar de la Renta Inc. is confident about its burgeoning wedding business, which has seen sales climb “certainly better than 25 percent” in the past year, said chief executive officer Alex Bolen. Aside from entertaining clients, market week is all about reviewing business and planning accordingly, since the designer prefers to show a collection once a year in April. Rather than introduce new styles, the focus is to build existing sales, Bolen said.

Having taken the bridal business back in-house a few years ago, the company approaches it as a stand-alone business, and maintaining a certain level of exclusivity has resulted in sales growth, he said. While there are no doubt a few accounts that the company’s bridal team would like to pick up, the objective is to build sales with existing ones.

“Our bridal distribution is pretty tight. We are in the top doors in a limited number of markets. We’re looking to do more business with the folks we are currently doing business with,” Bolen said.

Last year Reem Acra started pursuing more business overseas and designing more customized pieces for individuals, and now that strategy is helping her firm weather the economic storm. Dubai, Kuwait, South Korea, Singapore, China and Turkey are areas where her label is doing well, she said. She expects to sell 4,000 units this year, with an increase in one-of-a-kind dresses expected to boost overall sales.

“My focus is overseas, and my business has been expanding rapidly overseas. Hopefully, the economy is not going to affect us as much as others or as much as we think it will. Brides are still going to get married,” she said. “But I do think simplicity is in the air — flowy, understated dresses with not too much embellishment. People may start to have smaller weddings.”

Barge, who designs signature collections of wedding dresses and holds the license for Badgley Mischka’s bridal collection, expects the top-tier and opening price points of her lines to become increasingly more important. But thus far, the retail scene has not panned out as she imagined it would with everything that is going on with the economy. During a three-day trunk show at Kleinfeld Bridal earlier this month, Barge said she was surprised by how many $7,000 to $14,000 Badgley Mischka gowns she sold at retail “with no problem.”

“It was the biggest trunk show we have had with the line. I found it incredible that people were out there buying these very high-priced gowns. I think people are tired of being sad and are just buying dresses. It’s not really following what’s going on with the economy,” Barge said.

What is reflective of these unsteady economic times is the increased interest in wedding gowns retailing below $3,000. Given that, Barge will put an emphasis on her lower-priced Le Fleur collection, since she believes the middle market seems to have dropped down to a lower price point. Le Fleur starts at $2,410 and goes to $3,500 at retail. Anne Barge Couture’s opening price point is $3,290, and the Anne Barge Black Label collection starts at $6,000.

“We all have been through the recession before in the Eighties, but that seems so long ago. The hardest part about this one is there are so many more designers out there and so many more stores. Some of the stores have already fallen by the wayside,” she said. “The primary reason for that is they expanded at what was not a great time. But how could anyone have known?”

While some bridal firms may be faced with less working capital, the bridal business is a recession-proof one, Barge said.

David Gomez, chief operating officer of Junko Yoshioka, said most retailers are still coming to market, except for some West Coast stores. As far as scaling back on their buys, “no one is suggesting that they will do anything but be normal. We’ll see once we sit down and place orders,” he said.

By the end of the year, the company expects to see a 12 to 16 percent increase over last year, due largely to its ad campaign and the fact that more stores such as Ultimate Bride and Mark Ingram have picked up the collection, Gomez said.

Anticipating rocky times, Junko Yoshioka has introduced several dresses that will retail between $2,500 and $3,000, which is significantly lower than its existing opening price point of $4,000. At the other end of the spectrum, the brand has unveiled select pieces that will retail from $12,000 to $14,000. In doing trunk shows, Gomez has found that certain brides don’t blink at price tags if they fall in love with the dress. His trunk show schedule will be stepped up in the months ahead. “Now, more than ever, is the time you need to be in front of the bride,” he said.

Marimo USA is launching its Champagne and Bara Luxe collections at the Wedding Channel Couture show at the Hotel Intercontinental Oct. 18 to 20. Champagne is offered in misses’ sizes from 4 to 20 and Bara Luxe is a full-figured line geared toward women who wear 16W to 28W. Before the recent financial fallout, Marimo staffers were aware of the ailing economy and set prices for its all-silk gowns so they would be no higher than $3,000 to $4,000 at retail, said Yvonne McClendon, director of strategic planning.

The company expects to sell between 1,500 and 2,000 dresses in the first year, McClendon said.

“I believe that any size woman should be able to go into a bridal salon, try on a dress and be able to zip it up,” she said. “Full-figured women can’t do that the way women who wear an 8, 6 or 4 can. We wanted to focus on larger-size women to make sure they have a wonderful bridal experience.”

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