Byline: Leonard McCants / Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Just as most of Manhattan was shutting down after the attack on the World Trade Center, a future bride walked into Amsale Aberra’s new Madison Avenue boutique searching intently for a gown.
The woman stayed for more than an hour, even as Aberra and her staff began closing the shop.
“She was really focused on finding a gown,” Aberra recalled. “Not to say the bride was being insensitive, but life has to go on.”
Despite dire predictions about the rest of the retail economy, weddings transcend financial fluctuations, bridal designers and retailers contended. The events of Sept. 11 and the expected military retaliation may work to strengthen the desire to have commitments and marriages, as families seek to come together for celebrations of life and unity.
“Weddings, to begin with, are a bit serious,” said designer Reem Acra. “But they will be more serious as couples become more conscious and religious about things. People are going to pay attention to everything. It’s not just going to be about a party and that will show in the dress.”
Acra predicted that dresses for spring will have more romantic, princess-like elements, such as ballgown skirts, cap sleeves, form-fitting, embellished bodices and long veils. Coincidentally, the look was well represented by Jennifer Lopez’s princess style, off-white chantilly lace and silk gown, with layered skirt and cascading tulle veil, worn at her wedding Saturday night.
Moreover, after several seasons of colorful wedding dresses walking down the aisle, white and ivory gowns will become more important again, Acra said.
Yolanda Cellucci, owner of Yolanda’s, a specialty store in Waltham, Mass., echoed that sentiment, feeling that the tragedy has prompted many people to focus on moving forward with happier events like weddings.
“I’ve never seen the store as busy as it was last Saturday [Sept. 22]. People are making decisions. They know they need to make a commitment,” Cellucci said. “After this terrible tragedy, a lot of people got caught in this mess when airplanes weren’t flying. They realize that these things can happen and they can happen again. If they like something, they know they need to make a decision and stick to it.”
Bridal sales are running ahead of last year, with Helen Morley, Lazaro, Jim Hjelm and Badgley Mischka being the best-selling labels, she said. There’s also a movement away from strapless looks to styles that accent the shoulders and sleeves, she noted. Body-conscious dresses are also in demand, since many girls want “skimmers” made of soft fabrics such as silk satin and charmeuse.
“It’s almost a return to Jean Harlow,” Cellucci said. “Brides aren’t typical brides anymore. They’re getting married on beaches and at resorts. It’s not their mother’s wedding.”
Aberra, whose company carries her first name, echoed the return of princess-themed gowns with delicate embroidery and other embellishments. Her dresses, though, feature colorful elements like blue sashes on an ivory duchesse satin strapless gown.
Tom Bugbee, president of Los Angles-based bridal firm Monique Lhuillier, said one way the economy may affect the bridal market is in the price women will spend on a dress.
“They will be a little bit more price conscious,” he said. “And the stores will be, too. When they come now, they’re saying, ‘I have these five to eight lines, and I want a decent assortment from $2,500 to $3,000 as a mid range.’ They’re looking for that lower price point.”
To address that need, the company is looking at several options, including lowering their margins, using less-expensive fabrics or lightening up on the embroidery, Bugbee said.
In the meantime, designer Monique Lhuillier, who is Bugbee’s wife, continues to focus on bias-cut dresses with minimal embroidery. Lace has been strong, in addition to trapunto stitching. Strapless gowns are giving way to styles with cap sleeves.
Victoria Hadden, a founder and designer of Serafina, a wholesale and retail operation, said brides-to-be are looking for “more conservative dresses with little belts and other Sixties inspired influences.” Bateau necklines and off-the-shoulder styles are “unbelievably big,” as well as structured tops with A-line bottoms, she said.
“A lot of down-to-earth working girls who could afford a designer dress are thinking, ‘Why not spend the money on the honeymoon or a house?’ That has been benefiting us, since our gowns are in the $3,000 to $4,000 range,” Hadden said.
The fabric story is told in lace, chiffon and silk crepe, mostly in fluid silhouettes.
Following a similar retooled-classics vein, Romona Keveza’s spring collection is dedicated to Hollywood legends. Some of her wedding gowns are inspired by the style of famous actresses and some of their best known film roles, such as Audrey Hepburn in “Funny Face,” Greta Garbo in “Love” and Marilyn Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire.”
“I have revisited fashion periods of the past that are still timeless and interpreted them for brides today,” she said. “A lot of brides, when they walk in, say they want to look like Audrey Hepburn or Greta Garbo because these women have a style that is timeless.”
New to the American market is Belgian resource Johanne Riss, whose unusual gowns come as two-piece dresses in as many as 12 different necklines.
Sold at Bergdorf Goodman since March, the underdress is made of a polyamide fabric that hugs the body, with an overdress done in silk organza, satin or silk chiffon.
“In the United States, people want princess dresses, but we give something different,” said Jonathan Riss, vice president. “You can see the femininity of the woman’s shape, and you don’t hide who you are.”
Princess-style gowns in white or off-white are still key at Michelle Roth, a bridal boutique that will begin to wholesale dresses in the U.S., Italy and Japan starting with New York wholesale bridal market Oct. 6-9, according to co-owner Henry Roth. The store also retails other designer collections from Domo Adami, Spose di Gio and Juliette Max Chaoul.
The 22-piece collection starts at $1,100 wholesale and goes up from there, he said. First-year sales should hit about $1.75 million, he added, noting that even though reaction to the initial collection, which bowed in January only at the boutique, was 30 percent ahead of plan, the decision to wholesale the line was prompted by current events.
“Sept. 11 has propelled business plans,” said Roth whose sister Michelle, is the other co-owner. “We’re children of Holocaust survivors, so we have a strong fight-back mentality.”