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“It was like happy days are here again.”
That was the takeaway from last week’s run of bridal shows, according to Mark Ingram, whose signature New York boutique is a favorite haunt of fashion-minded brides.
This time around, designers ramped up the fashion quota with an array of colors, geared for sophisticated brides keen on making their weddings more of a party than a traditional reception with cake-cutting photo ops and bouquet throwing. Several executives noted the assortment of more formal gowns adorned with rosettes, distressed flower details, silver beading and other flourishes seemed to indicate a turnaround in demand is near. Those were welcome signs for the $183 billion wedding industry, which, like other business sectors, has faltered in the recession.
All too familiar with how the unsteady economy, job security concerns and diving stock portfolios last year forced many brides-to-be to postpone their weddings until this year or next, bridal executives are eager to make up for lost time and in many instances lost sales. David’s Bridal aims to woo more of the newly engaged with its inaugural collection of Vera Wang dresses, which will hit stores early next year. (For more on the Vera Wang collection for David’s Bridal, see pages 10 and 11.)The fact that other retailers like J. Crew and Anthropologie are going after the bridal sector as well has increased the competition. Several designers strove to distinguish themselves by sending more individualistic styles down the runway. For example, for her show at the Pratt House, Carolina Herrera designed dresses inspired by such free thinkers as Georgia O’Keefe, Isak Dinesen, Edith Piaf and Frida Kahlo. Herrera said, “All of these women contributed to the world with their beauty, intelligence, style and uniqueness. They were more or less inspirational by the way they lived.”
While styles were as varied as the women who will buy them, three major factors have clearly taken hold of the bridal business. The New Bride is not about to let her mother or anyone else sway her wedding-related buying decisions; destination weddings continue to be a consideration in terms of design and cost cutting, and bridal executives see shoppers split in two camps — opening price point bargain seekers and the more indulgent high-end shoppers.
THE NEW BRIDE
Today’s brides-to-be make, on average, 177 product decisions, according to Condé Nast’s 2009 American Wedding Study. They are also just shy of the age of 28 on average, and spend $28,082 on their wedding — a slight increase compared with a 2006 survey. Nearly 8 percent cover the costs of their weddings themselves. Brides-to-be typically spend $1,075 on a wedding dress, another slight increase compared with three years ago, and their bridesmaids tend to pay $126 for their dresses.
During a Brides magazine-hosted trend presentation last week, The Future Laboratory’s Chris Sanderson defined today’s brides in three categories — Young Pragmatics, 18-to-24-year-olds who often are serious savers; Uptime Girls, 25-to-34-year-olds who delayed marriage for careers, and The Calm Indulgers, women in their 30s and 40s who are the most assertive shoppers. Regardless of which category best suits them, the current batch of brides are willing to break the bank for select items. Sanderson said their attitude is, “This is my special day. I have license here to spend more than I normally would.”
After his show last week, Oscar de la Renta said his varied collection was geared for the assortment of today’s brides. “One of the biggest changes with weddings today is the venues. There all different kinds of weddings now — some people go to very fancy places, or to the beach. I am trying to address all the different ways a bride wants to dress.”
Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig also presented a well-balanced mix of dresses. “We’ve thought of every different kind of bride from traditional to fashion-forward,” Chapman said.
The designers also now have newlyweds covered in the china department, thanks to a licensing deal with Lenox unveiled last week.
JLM Couture’s Joe Murphy said, “Today’s bride is more confident and better educated with more refined taste. She has better access to information through the media and social networking.”
In addition to searching fashion sites to see designer looks right after they appear on the runway, today’s tech-savvy shoppers are also surfing the Web to find the best price for their favorite looks. That thrifty strategy has its limitations, though, since most high-end styles are primarily available in stores. Nevertheless, more bridal executives are taking to the Web to get their branding messages out. Junko Yoshioka’s chief operating officer David Gomez said, “The current bride is online more than ever.”
Given that, the company is stepping up its social media branding efforts by networking on sites like Facebook and Twitter, and looking at upscale bridal blogs for advertising. “I wouldn’t say I am saving money, but I am targeting smarter, tracking better and seeing strong results,” he said.
With the breadth of today’s brides’ demographics, it isn’t surprising budget-conscious shoppers are also looking for more stylish gowns. The strapless black Prada dress with a graduating hemline that Carey Mulligan wore to this year’s Oscars has prompted David’s Bridal shoppers to look for a similar style, said design director Dan Rentillo. The 300-plus store chain has seen strong sales for its $500 signature wedding gowns as well as the higher-end Oleg Cassini dresses, which go up to $1,150 for a tulle ball gown style with tiny ruffles. Jeweled combs, headpieces/veils reminiscent of something Grace Jones might wear and other accessories have been another bright spot.
More than one in 10 brides were planning a destination wedding, according to the 2009 Condé Nast study. But that is not cause for a sundress and flip-flops. “These are not casual affairs — they’re not spur of the moment, grab five friends and let’s go to the airport,” Ingram said. “Destination weddings are well-planned out events at resorts, hotels or villas, and the dress is as important as it would be at a New York City wedding at the Plaza Hotel.”
On average, destination weddings cost 64 percent less than traditional ones, but last year’s economic turmoil and escalating travel expenses caused a downturn in the numbers, according to The Wedding Report. This year, the average destination wedding is expected to cost $7,520, which would be slightly down compared with the 2009 figures, said The Wedding Report founder and chief executive Shane McMurray of The Wedding Report. The Bahamas, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean destinations shared the top slot for destinations, followed by Florida, Hawaii, Las Vegas, California, Central America or Mexico, Miami, New York City and Europe, he said.
Jacqueline Johnson, president and ceo of Marrycaribbean.com, noted many Caribbean resorts offer incentives that range from free weddings to 60 percent off traditional rates.
With interest in destination weddings showing no signs of letting up, Oscar de la Renta, Lela Rose, Reem Acra, Monique Lhuillier and several others showcased wide-ranging collections. The influx of fuller dresses such as ball gown styles hasn’t dampened interest among destination wedding-bound brides. Kleinfeld co-founder Mara Urshel said, “Destination no longer has to be defined by the small narrow dress. So many of the styles now are lightweight and packable. And because they are fuller with so much ruching and draping, the girls don’t have to worry so much about wrinkling.”
Regardless of where they plan to wed, more brides are gravitating toward gowns with more luxurious elements as opposed to architectural styles, said designer Angel Sanchez. “People have gone back to more romantic styles. Women want to dress in more special gowns. The modern, clean bride was my client five years ago,” he said. “The attitude of the buyers was so much better this season. They came with bigger budgets and were less inclined to just take two or three samples.”
Ritz-Carlton executives have noticed a surge in “minimoons,” three-to-four-night postwedding stays, followed up with more extended trips a few months later. To cater to those newlyweds looking for shorter initial escapes, the company is offering such packages as “Romance: No Planning Required,” an all-inclusive package offered at its St. Thomas resort with such indulgences as a catamaran sunset sail and rose petal turndown service.
THE STATE OF THINGS
Back in the U.S., industry executives are rallying to create excitement at retail. Brides revealed its plans for “White Hot Hope,” the first industrywide, charity-driven retail initiative designed to ring up sales, create consumer excitement, and benefit Dress for Success and Operation Smile during October.
Several resources have been working to keep prices down. This time around, Lela Rose, who has built her ready-to-wear business by being amidst the opening price point for the designer business, slightly lowered her opening price point for wedding gowns to $1,700. But the designer’s Aviary design, a $2,700 gown with hand-cut flowers with feather and crystal details, was a standout this season. Such delicate and often subtle details were evident throughout her collection, which was inspired by the seaside rock erosion she saw during a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands. As for the recession’s toll on the industry, Rose said she was encouraged that “no one is talking about it as much as they were before.”
With a budget 10 percent greater than last year’s, Ingram planned to buy more heavily from Vera Wang and Marchesa, two new labels to his store. Long, languid dresses from Rose, Wang and Herrera, which he described as Thirties garden party dresses, were among his favorites. A trunk show last month sold 30 gowns, including several that retail for upwards of $9,000, which indicated to him the economy has begun to turn around. “My classic dress business is dwindling — even those girls are trading up,” he said.
Kleinfeld’s Urshel agreed: “Our bride is getting more daring. She used to be staid, true and classic, but now she wants to be different and wear something really unique.”
Lhuillier, Herrera, Romona Keveza, Anne Barge, Badgley Mischka, Amsale and Kenneth Poole were among her top picks. Kleinfeld shoppers typically spend $4,000 to $5,000 for a dress. “There’s something about a wedding — whether they have the money or not — they want to look fabulous and they have to have the right dress,” Urshel said.
Knowing bridesmaids are more intent than ever to find the right look, The Dessy Group unveiled its Cynthia Rowley bridesmaid dresses. The company, which has an assortment of labels and a Pantone Wedding color guide, sold 500,000 units last year, which was nearly a double-digit gain compared with 2008, said ceo Alan Dessy.
Another newcomer to the bridal scene is David Meister, who just signed his first license, a bridal one with Designer Bride Inc. Due to debut in June, the 12-piece collection will retail from $1,500 to $3,500. David Meister Bridal will be available later this year at select full-service bridal salons in North America and internationally. Meister said, “Walking down the aisle is the biggest red carpet moment of a woman’s life,” he said.