Wedding planning inevitably leads to some surprising circumstances and quick-thinking workarounds, but brides and wedding planners aren’t the only ones dealing with the unexpected.
Increasingly, bridal designers, manufacturers and retailers are having to figure out solutions to shipping delays, labor shortages, lengthier delivery windows, a downturn in international shoppers and other pandemic-related issues. In addition, many brides-to-be postponed weddings or upended their party plans entirely due to the pandemic, two determinants that can also affect wedding gown choices, as well as the attire that guests choose to wear. Somehow dealing with frazzled brides and pushy mothers-of-the-bride pales in comparison to current concerns.
Despite those factors, designers and executives are making accommodations as best they can. Round-the-clock virtual service, longer lead time pleas, more compact collections and over-accommodating in-store assistance are some tactics that have become routine. During last month’s bridal market, several industry executives flaunted a whatever-it-takes attitude. As Reem Acra said: ”If we cannot get something from Italy, we find a different way. There are so many different criteria and ways of going around things and making sure everything goes as smoothly as possible.”
Ready or not, weddings and receptions are happening, including the thousands that were postponed due to the coronavirus crisis and travel restrictions. So much so that weekday celebrations are becoming more routine, since weekend openings are scarce at many venues The wedding services industry in the U.S. is worth $51.2 billion and an 11 percent gain is seen, according to IBISWorld. Despite a pre-pandemic downturn in marriages, the wedding gown sector is expected to reach $43.5 billion next year, compared to $32.5 billion in 2017.
In touch with thousands of brides every month about their plans, David’s Bridal said they are becoming more optimistic and planning weddings, despite working with six-month windows as opposed to nine or 12 months, as was the norm before the coronavirus took hold. While some brides continually pushed back their weddings in order to hold larger celebrations, others opted for backyard weddings or more intimate gatherings as in “mini-monies” to avoid any further delays, but “she still wore a dress for the pictures and the memory,” according to chief executive officer James Marcum. While this fall has been “very robust,” next year is going to be “incredibly strong” for the industry based on data. Wedding parties are increasingly utilizing three or more bridesmaids, which is seen as another positive sign, he said.
With 300 stores in the U.S. and eight franchised ones in Mexico, David’s Bridal has ramped up virtual tools for planning, inspiration and purchasing. The majority of brides still go online to book an in-store appointment to make their transactions, Marcum said. That requires completing extensive questionnaires about preferred styles, the wedding date, size of the bridal party and other information that is put to use by the company, which has a vertical supply chain.
“Because of all that data, we see trends. We’ve been able to pivot over the past two years, due to the impacts of COVID-19, to a more casual assortment. The changes have been numerous and we’ve been very responsive where we can curate, design, test and chase the fashion trend,” he said. “That puts us in a unique position. Throughout COVID-19, we had 300,000 dresses ready to go and they were domestic.”
Looking back at some of the financial downturns over the years, such as the recession in the early 1990s, the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the real estate market’s nosedive in 2009, JLM Couture’s CEO Joseph Murphy noted that resurgences in consumer spending and wedding planning followed each. “Every circumstance is more extreme than the previous one and this has been the most challenging,” he said, adding that stores now want to have fresh styles, with fashion becoming more important. “You hear that consistently with stores needing to restock.”
Murphy continued: “This whole start-and-stop with the pandemic has been challenging for brides, events, [wedding] locations and stores in general. With all these vaccines, antivirals now at work and herd immunity, we’re going to really see an acceleration of free movement again and that will help our industry a lot.”
After months of lockdown and self-isolation, there is more interest in grander celebrations. That has sparked appreciation for the “Bridgerton” look and interest in jewel-encrusted treatments, bustiers and full skirts, he said.
Just as the pandemic has led to a raft of lifestyle changes, bridal marketers have changed how they are connecting with “soon-ley-weds.” Love Stories TV launched bridalfashionmonth.com, a virtual hub to spotlight this season’s bridal collections, and cohosted a shopping event with The Wedding Brigade, a portal for Indian weddings. In celebration of her launch with Pronovias, Vera Wang was on hand for an Instagram live event.
That said, Kleinfeld co-owner Mara Urshel was thankful to be seeing almost every collection on her list in-person and on models versus on Zoom. All in all, vendors are offering more focused, thought-out and smaller collections than in seasons past “so that everybody can really capitalize on getting the right brides for their customers that really project their [respective] aesthetic,” Urshel said.
Brands are increasingly trying to understand the retail side of the business, including marketing and communications, instead of just making dresses and hoping that they are going to sell, she said. Resources are also responding to more brides shopping closer to their wedding dates, despite shipping challenges out of China “with the smart ones buying fabrics way ahead of time,” Urshel said.
In terms of styles, shoppers still want to dress like the bride they always imagined, whether it be for a beachfront wedding or a formal one. And one of the upsides of downsized weddings is that often means there is more money for the wedding dress, according to Urshel.
The Kleinfeld co-owner mentioned a few challenges — potential shipping delays, a slight uptick in price points and a downturn in out-of-state shoppers from California and other West Coast locations. “When are people not going to be afraid to fly, to go into tight places and come to New York to enjoy theaters, museums and everything they used to? I don’t know when that’s going to happen,” Urshel said.
Jenny Packham earned high marks this season for being “very beautiful and very well-priced,” said Urshel, who also planned to check out Pnina Tornai, Yumi Katsura, Savin London, Reem Acra and Peter Langner. Planning to “be very specific” with this season’s buy, Urshel said most purchases range from $3,500 to $5,500 but the $5,000 to $7,000 range is increasingly important.
With five bridal labels, Morilee Bridal by Madeline Gardner as been in expansion mode, having opened 35 concept shops since November 2020. Fifteen more are expected to be completed by the end of 2022. CEO Terri Eagle noted that some retailers have used the partnership as an opportunity to transform their stores. Since January, the 68-year-old company is on average 81 percent ahead of the number of dresses sold versus 2019 figures. Through the end of this year, sales for in-store boutiques are expected to track 80 to 100 percent gains and next year’s projected growth is expected to be 50 to 60 percent, Eagle said.
In addition to Gardner’s exclusive line of dresses that retail from upward of $5,000 and $6,000, Morilee started offering an exclusive line of wedding dresses this year solely for boutiques that retail from $1,500 to $5,000.
Morilee’s in-house designer Gardner, who is “very hands-on” with brides, store owners and stylists, gives the company “a real read on the market,” Eagle said. Brides are looking for personal connections with the designer, who occasionally will do a sketch for a dress, personal appearances or store events, Eagle said. Gardner hosts tea times on Tuesdays and Morilee is doing geo-targeted retail blasts to encourage brides to attend the tea times and/or trunk shows. Ribbon-cutting events and sweepstakes for gowns have been other initiatives.
While the pandemic has made stores more focused about partnerships, Eagle emphasized the importance of offering a key assortment of dresses, as well as marketing, customer service and manufacturing. Given the state of global shipping, the company is recommending that customers order 20 weeks ahead versus 14 to 16 weeks two years ago.
On average brides are spending more on their dresses, due partially to COVID-19-related downsizing of weddings or other factors. “From store owners that we talk to, they might not have been able to take that honeymoon, but boy they’re going to put it behind the dress. There is a ‘wow’ factor to how they want to be seen,” Eagle said.
There were also some new additions. The online bridal specialty site Over the Moon partnered with Brock to launch a collection for brides and wedding guests. Monique Lhuillier unveiled her Bliss jewelry with Kay Jewelers line that will be sold in the fall of 2022. Another bridal designer, Ines Di Santo, has joined forces with Paper Source to create wedding invitations that were inspired by gowns in her collection with such accents as painted edges and watercolor illustrations.
Reem Acra said it’s hard to predict how the bridal industry is changing, since the process is not yet complete and the whole world is in flux. The industry could be as strong as before, since couples still want to get married and celebrate, albeit maybe in a more nontraditional way, the designer said. That means more thought is being given to who they want to invite and where they want to be married, with many opting for a homier environment, she said.
Many of Acra’s event-planner friends are booked for next year, due to 2021 postponements. In addition, the coronavirus crisis caused some couples to focus more on their relationships versus the prospect of going out and meeting someone else or relocating to try living in another city, she said. That accelerated the road to marriage for some, she said. “There is some tendency to want to be together. You don’t want to be alone. You want to have a family. You [realize] you rely on relationships and family. The bond between people became stronger. That you can see across the board,” Acra said.
Consumers still want beautiful gowns, and many are buying wedding dresses for multiple occasions, such as one for an official wedding and another for a celebration that had been postponed. Lightweight long and somewhat dramatic dresses with long trains are in demand. Their spending power hasn’t changed and brides have time to look for dresses more than they ever have had, Acra said. “They’ve seen a lot and now they want something that they haven’t seen. It’s always challenging to come up with the next thing. You can’t just look at what’s happening now. You have to think about what’s on their minds and what will be [happening] in a year,” she said.
The designer gained a lot of media attention a few weeks ago after Princess Victoria Romanova Romanoff wore Reem Acra dresses for both her religious wedding and the Oct. 1 reception. The “very simple” but “very regal” look that she chose is “very much the Reem Acra look,” Acra said.
Colombian bridal designer Francesca Miranda traveled to New York for the launch of her digital platform “The Gloria,” which includes the debut of ready-to-wear for modern brides and select furniture designed with local artisans. Spending time with her two daughters during the pandemic made her think more about new approaches, she said. “We feel that Latin America is very important now. We have a lot of flavor, taste and creative people. It’s wonderful to celebrate life and Latin American design,” Miranda said.
The idea is to create a one-stop shop to offer everything a bride could need including jewelry, beach clothes, pajamas, robes, bridal footwear and beauty products. The rtw, for example, can be worn for weddings and afterward as well. The designer explained, “I love to make pieces that are for always, not just for a moment,” adding that many items are handcrafted in the company-owned factory.
Grace Loves Lace founder Megan Ziems said brides are increasingly looking to buy gowns from brands that champion sustainability and ethical manufacturing. Designing and manufacturing in Australia has meant the company isn’t dealing with Asia-based manufacturing delays, as others in the industry are, she said.
During the pandemic, Grace Loves Lace has unveiled seven showrooms; bolstered its virtual services, including the introduction of 24/7 customer service; rtw for delivery “in a matter of days,” and its first eco-wedding gown, which resulted in the company’s first Global Recycling Standard certification, Ziems said.
After 10 years of working in fashion, New York-based Stefania Everenn decided to start her own bridal company with a focus on size inclusivity, local manufacturing and technology-based development and shopping experiences. Working with retailers is a priority and shoppers will be able to view the designer’s styles in 3D and augmented reality to get a closer look at the details before visiting a boutique. The dresses wholesale from $700 to $2,700.