Appeared In
Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 04/12/2011

NEW YORK — Call it the Kate factor.

This story first appeared in the April 12, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

With the countdown to the royal wedding approaching the two-week mark, Kate Middleton’s dress remains a mystery but the grandness of the celebration is a given. Although it’s unlikely an American has gotten the nod for the Big Day, designers here have whipped up an abundance of ballgowns and more extravagant wedding gowns for their new collections. With 2 billion people expected to tune in to watch the April 29 real-life fairy tale wedding, the ripple effect very well could be far-reaching in terms of how other couples dress for and celebrate their nuptials.

Oscar de la Renta went all-out, sending 37 wedding gowns down the runway Monday morning, and there were six or so others that could have joined the brigade. “Bridal has become such an important part of our business. And we started later than anybody else,” he said.

From a white floral guipure embroidered bikini with an organza caftan to a ruched-bodice gown with a skirt of taffeta rose petals and cascading tulle, de la Renta seemed to have considered many brides beyond the traditional churchgoing ones to broaden his appeal with a range of shoppers. And there are certainly plenty of customers to pursue — 2.5 million couples marry in the U.S. each year, and the $40 billion wedding industry has weathered the recession somewhat better than other businesses, such as designer ready-to-wear, leading to a flock of new entrants eager to tap into the sector.

Sometimes those two worlds collide. Carolina Herrera drew from select details from previous collections and translated them into wedding gowns, such as an exquisite tricolor fabric that was sculpted into a one-seam wedding gown. “That’s the way it should be for a bride. I can say I was inspired by the brides who want all different types of dresses,” she said. “It’s for the real girls who want to wear these dresses. You have to give them options.”

Herrera (as well as a few of her peers) embraced the season by decorating her runway with branches of white cherry blossoms. “I love bridal shows because they are so full of hope, feeling and dreams. The music is divine, the runway is covered with flowers and everyone is happy. When I do a fitting with a bride, she will say, ‘I love it. I have been dreaming of getting married since I was a little girl,’” she said.

Grand as many of these creations are, the U.S. market also seems to share the soon-to-be princess’ panache for high-low labels. Vera Wang earned high marks at her Sunday afternoon runway show for her extremely intricate Degas-inspired signature designs, while earlier in the week she held a presentation of her new White by Vera Wang collection for David’s Bridal. (Bridesmaid dresses and shoes have been added to the latter.) As well-received as Wang’s top shelf and more affordable gowns were, there certainly was no confusing the two in terms of the depth of design. During an interview last week, Wang sounded more enthralled by the U.K. wedding-induced nationalism than capitalism. “This is a great thing for England, and I like that she is a young, modern woman,” she said of Middleton.

Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig are also planning to offer the high-low bridal combo. They confirmed they will be introducing a more affordable collection of wedding gowns through a deal with Priscilla of Boston. Like Wang, Herrera and a few others, Chapman and Craig incorporated a few signature ready-to-wear accents, such as sheer fabrics and capelike draping, which were used for sleeves in their high-end bridal collection. After all, there can never be enough options. “In Florida, more brides want fit-and-flare; in New York now, it’s the big dress, and in London there is more interest in Grecian draping,” Craig said.

With their more affordable collection, she and Chapman will be delving into a sector of the business that is attracting new labels. J. Crew and Anthropologie are wooing style-conscious brides, and just last month, Los Angeles-based designer Kirstie Kelly started hosting trunk shows at Costco to sell her new Costcouture wedding gowns.

The designer of Middletown’s gown will rocket to fame. Mark Ingram, who owns a signature boutique and has a hand in the new e-commerce wedding site The Aisle, said the royal wedding will also have an impact on the entire industry. “It’s all positive. It’s particularly good for the high end and good for high fashion. Bridal has become such an enticing and interesting market to many designers. Everybody feels it’s a real cash cow,” he said. “There are even trunk shows at Costco. That is almost absurd. Hopefully, the royal wedding will help put us back on track and will make bridal a very special, sacred thing again.”

In that vein, Romona Keveza made a point of telling guests about the royal-inspired touches she had arranged for her Sunday night presentation at the St. Regis hotel. During what amounted to intermissions between the presentations of three different collections, the designer mentioned how Chopard, a sponsor, flew in from Geneva a tiara with 2,113 diamonds and another one with a 37-carat diamond, and that a guard was waiting backstage for their safekeeping. She also noted how the London royals won’t be the only newlyweds — Prince Albert II of Monaco and his fiancée, Charlene Wittstock, will make things official this summer. Trying to tap into interest in those two events, Keveza described her royal-inspired collection before presenting it.

Many American brides to be seem to like Middleton’s fast-track wedding planning. Lela Rose noted how brides are ordering gowns four months before their weddings, whereas eight to 12 months was more the norm in seasons past. And as does the future royal, they know a thing or two about controlled spending. “In today’s economy, not only do our retailers have to ‘sell’ the dress, but the bride needs to ‘sell’ the dress to herself or the person helping her finance the dress,” Rose said. “A $5,000 dress needs to look like a $7,500 dress. We are working hard to find embroideries and fabrics that give brides a reason to justify their purchase, regardless of the price.”

Brides who used to spend $5,000 to $10,000 are now opting for dresses in the $3,000 range, according to Nicole Miller. “This falls right into the area where we have always had our dresses priced,” she said. “We recently elevated our opening price point from $1,500 to $1,850 — and the upper end of the range is $3,200. We haven’t had price resistance.”

Camille Thiry Russler, owner of Ever After, a designer boutique in Miami, said her annual sales jumped 42 percent last year by catering to international shoppers, especially those from Brazil and Venezuela. The average shopper spends $7,500, but gowns start at $5,000 and go up to $30,000, she said. Sales of Carolina Herrera’s wedding dresses “have seen an incredible increase in the first quarter,” she said. “Designer shoppers look at bridal like art. They are looking for statement gowns that translate their style as a woman,” she said. “My clients definitely look at ready-to-wear to see what works for them.”

Russler will be welcoming shoppers with flutes of Champagne bright and early at 5 a.m. on April 29 to watch the big event in her store. “They want to see it. The luxury client is always looking for an experience, styling and entertainment,” she said.

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