NEW YORK — Practicality, austerity and a desire to be more contemporary have helped create a multipurpose movement in bridesmaid dresses.
Whether they’re selling these styles in bridal or dress departments, retailers are reporting a pickup in sales as dressmakers update their bridesmaid offerings with looks that are more understated and able to be worn after the wedding.
While vendors and merchants said that some women will always want formal gowns, they said the new mode is here to stay.
In the past five years, bridesmaid dress sales have tripled at Neiman Marcus’s downtown store in Dallas, according to Margaret Redmond Haughton, bridal department manager and buyer. With four key lines — Watters & Watters, Dessy, Jim Hjelm Occasions and Christian Dior — retailing for $200 to $450 in the bridal department, Haughton said bridesmaid dresses that can be worn after the wedding are becoming increasingly important.
Saks Fifth Avenue’s customers buy their bridesmaid dresses in the dress and eveningwear departments, according to David Merk, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for women’s dresses, eveningwear and suits. Key labels include A.J. Bari and Black Tie Oleg Cassini, Merk said, generally selling for $250 to $350.
Last spring, Saks held its first series of “guest-at-the-wedding” trunk shows in 12 cities. The shows, with 17 vendors, sold 1,000 units, said Merk. The shows feature special occasion dresses for bridesmaids, mothers-of-the-bride and other guests. Saks plans to hold the trunk shows twice a year.
At Dessy, based here, business is on pace to produce 120,000 units this year, a 25 percent increase over last year, according to Alan Dessy, vice president.
The company received 17,000 inquiries after a recent print ad campaign promoted how Dessy’s bridesmaid dresses can be worn again, he said. A $46 bodysuit with a matching $55 crepe sarong by designer Randy Fenoli for Dessy is a leading look, he said, and is an example of the new styling.
“We’re on a tear right now because this is our forte,” Dessy said. “Girls want to wear things that are more like their everyday clothes. They’re definitely rebelling against the dumb bridesmaid look.”
Vatana Watters and her sister, Achariya, founded Watters & Watters in 1988 after their friends complained about the lack of understated bridesmaid dresses. The company launched its line by selling 10 styles to Neiman Marcus in Dallas, including a two-piece silk dress that helped put the firm on the map.
Now the company offers 110 styles each year, and has built its account base to 1,200 stores. Styles are available in sizes 2 to 24 and dresses wholesale for $95 to $180. In 1993, volume grew by 25 percent and Watters said this year gains should be even higher.
“We realized the educated consumer would spend more for something that can be worn again,” Watters said.
Trunk shows have been so successful that next year three will be held each week, Watters said. A three-day trunk show at Exclusives for the Bride in Chicago generated over $50,000 in sales, according to store owner Nancy Gussin.
At Kleinfeld’s 5,000-square-foot store in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, Dessy, Watters & Watters, Bill Levkoff and Laura Ashley are top labels among the 100 vendors the store carries, she said. Bridesmaids often shop in the store’s ready-to-wear department for Victor Costa, A.J. Bari and Ralph Lauren Downtown, a group within the Ralph collection, she said, noting sales are up 30 percent over last year.
“Designers are still offering long dresses with clean lines, but they’re not as sweet as traditional bridesmaid dresses,” she said. “It’s very much a cosmopolitan look, but one that can be worn again.”
Vera Wang, here, introduced a five-piece bridesmaid line last summer as a complement to her bridal gown business and has sold 4,500 units since then. She said the collection has doubled this year and she expects a 10 percent sales increase. Wang said the bestseller is a short organza sheath with a short or long chiffon overskirt. Ivory, black and navy are the most popular colors for those want to wear the dress again, she said.
Jessica McClintock, San Francisco, said her bridesmaid collection consists of 40 offerings for spring and 20 for fall. In the past six months, the company has sold 55,000 units in bridesmaid dresses — or $8 million worth of merchandise at retail, McClintock said. The bridesmaid dresses, featuring mostly contemporary looks, contribute to 12 percent of total sales.
For spring, Jim Hjelm introduced Jim Hjelm Occasions, a bridesmaid line that retails for $185 to $210. Joseph Murphy, president and chief executive officer of Jim Hjelm Private Collection Ltd., the parent company, said the 20-piece line should boost sales by $1.5 million this year, or about 10 to 15 percent of total volume. Murphy said the company’s goal is to acquire 5 percent of the total bridesmaid market, which he estimated is a $200 million business at wholesale.
Hjelm said his bridesmaid dresses are meant to be worn again. In January, Judd Waddell left Carolina Herrera to bethe designer of Jim Hjelm Occasions.
Sales for bridesmaid dresses at Dave & Johnny, here, are expected to grow 20 percent this year, according to Randy Ressner, sales manager. “There’s a tremendous amount of crossover buying,” Ressner said. “About a year ago, customers suddenly started buying dresses we never looked at as bridesmaid dresses.”
Mass marketers, such as David’s Bridal Shop, a 15-store chain based in Ardmore, Pa., have increased business substantially, said Ressner, who noted David’s typically books 125 units in 15 to 20 different styles.
Even though the customers aren’t selecting dresses they’ll keep, the contemporary bridesmaid business is strong at Mom’s Night Out, a new 1,000-square-foot Lexington Avenue boutique that rents formal maternity clothes. New dresses will be bought each year to maintain an updated look, according to owner Patricia Shiland.
Bridesmaid dress rentals contribute to 85 percent of its business, she said. Shiland said she plans to open a 800-square-foot store in the Northeast this fall, but declined to say exactly where.

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