Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — The competition to dress bridesmaids these days is becoming just as rough as catching the bouquet.
Now that the special occasion dress business has come off a few great seasons at retail, spurred by millennial bashes and economic smashes, vendors are targeting potential market segments where they can continue to build volume, and one of the hottest categories to develop of late has been bridesmaid dresses.
Several contemporary dress manufacturers have increased their offerings of bridesmaid looks to capitalize on what’s being called a booming business at retail, particularly in department stores where brides-to-be have been scouting out less-common concoctions for their attendants as an alternative to the traditional bridal venues. The resulting hype in the market has attracted more than a handful of vendors looking to catch the bridesmaid train, much in the way dress vendors capitalized on the evening separates trend and the social category last year to cash in on Year 2000 parties.
But many of them have found that, despite their reputation, bridesmaids are not so easily cracked, for retailers often require a manufacturer to maintain a huge inventory of dresses to accommodate bridal parties. It is also a high-service operation that can require a separate infrastructure to maintain a consistency of fit and color so that wedding party members can obtain identical looks at different retailers around the country.
“It’s a tough business, and brides today are looking for more fashion looks with heavy embellishments, not the inexpensive Gwyneth Paltrow slipdresses that are simple to knock out for $200,” said one traditional social occasion manufacturer, who declined to be named because a recent foray into the bridesmaid business turned out to be the retail equivalent of being left at the altar.
For others, it’s been a blessed union.
Nicole Miller has expanded its bridesmaid business over five years to reach a volume of $18 million, said Bud Konheim, chief executive officer. Konheim noted it was a business the company entered somewhat by accident, when retail sales reports indicated block buys of eight to 10 pieces of a particular style were coming from its ready-to-wear collection.
After three years, the company started designing bridesmaid dresses within the line, although they are not called that, since other customers — about 30 percent — still want and buy the dresses for non-nuptial purposes, Konheim said.
“This grows every year, but there is a saturation point in every category,” Konheim said. “Like everything else, everybody is jumping in, but this is an incredible service business. We have invested in bridesmaid infrastructure and carry incredible inventory at all times, with 40,000 to 45,000 units of stock to service all the stores.
“Not a lot of people can carry that kind of inventory without looking to close it out, and nothing sells off-price in the bridal business.”
Konheim understands the appeal of the category. As the number of marriages in America continues to increase, up to about 2.5 million last year, according to several estimates, so do the number of bridesmaids. Bridal parties appear to be getting bigger as well, with up to a dozen attendants in the brigade, and women are starting to exceed the standard $200 to $300 retail cap for bridesmaid looks.
Nicole Miller had one particularly strong embroidered look for bridesmaids that retailed for $550.
“There’s no question we will end up in the bridal gown business in the future,” Konheim said. “The dress business has become almost strictly an occasion business.”
Laundry by Shelli Segal has also developed an impressive bridesmaid business out of a capsule group of simple satin dresses, usually with a little treatment on the back to specifically target the lady-in-waiting crowd. But that company has also found bridesmaid customers aren’t limiting their choices to that selection, while regular dress customers are buying bridesmaid looks for other occasions.
“What I think is bridesmaid is selling for prom. What I think is collection is selling for prom and bridal,” said Andrea Scoli, vice president of dress sales. “When you get chunks of selling 53 pieces of something from collection, that’s bridal.”
Crocheted cashmere sweaters paired with silk organza skirts have been the top-selling look at Laundry for bridesmaids overall, followed by strapless ballgowns in satin faille, duchess satin or iridescent taffeta.
“The bridal category continues to grow, because brides seem to be more modern than ever and they want their bridesmaids to look modern, too,” Scoli said. “The old joke was that brides picked dresses that their bridesmaids could wear again, but now they are investing in looks they really can wear again.”
Joseph L. Murphy, ceo of JLM Couture, a dress maker specifically aimed at bridesmaid with its Jim Hjelm Occasions and Lazaro Ensembles lines, said customers are increasingly fashion-minded when it comes to dressing attendants.
“Department stores are looking for innovative styling from established bridal brand names because they are finding when a consumer goes into a store and buys a dress from ready-to-wear, if they have already looked at magazines and shopped around, then there is already a brand awareness on her part,” Murphy said. “If they see that brand, it makes a sale easier.”
While the majority of JLM’s business is made through specialty bridal retailers, Murphy has seen an upturn in department stores taking the category seriously as they have seen customers shopping for bridal looks in rtw. That trend has also influenced traditional bridesmaid makers to adopt more of an rtw look in their lines.
“Because someone wants a more contemporary-looking gown, they go for a ready-to-wear look, but a lot of those looks are too bare and don’t work in a church or synagogue environment,” Murphy said. “It has to be ready-to-wear trends interpreted in the right way. Manufacturers are tempted because they always want to expand their categories and sell inventory; but what they find is that it cannibalizes some of their existing business.”
For Zola Evening, a bridge-priced eveningwear line launched at retail this spring, satin separates such as a camisole paired with a long, slim skirt have added a significant amount of business for the firm through sales to bridesmaids.
“It’s a business that just took off,” said David Minka, the designer of the line. “It’s becoming a more sportswear-oriented feeling, with a modern boatneck shell worn with a slim skirt or a camisole with a long train and stole. It’s not like I’m concentrating on designing bridesmaid, but it ends up being put together that way.”
Kenneth Zimmerman, principal of Zola’s parent company, Kenny Z, said bridesmaid sales increased volume by 15 percent for the season.
“It’s a great niche business that, no matter what, is always there,” Zimmerman said. “It almost makes me want to go into the bridal business.”
Michael Ruff, national sales manager and vice president of Cachet, a moderate social occasion vendor, said bridesmaid has been a key category driving the business, along with evening separates.
Two-piece looks such as trimmed corsets and A-line satin skirts have noticeably improved Cachet’s sales beginning with the current spring retail season.
“It’s really started to flourish,” he said. “People want something different for bridesmaids, plus they can use separates like a basic skirt or top that can also be worn again with something else.”
At better-priced dress house Donna Morgan, the company had to hire a dedicated staff member to handle bridesmaid inquiries, in response to booming business once it began advertising three years ago in bridal magazines and bridal issues of InStyle and Martha Stewart Living, said Kathleen McFeeters, ceo.
Donna Morgan is also considering a license for bridal gowns because of the boom in wedding-related sales, she said.
“Women who were getting away from that old image of what is a bridesmaid dress is what pushed us into that business,” McFeeters said. “Customers are shopping from ready-to-wear because they are looking for something they would wear again.”
Two-piece looks like a spaghetti-strap bustier paired with a satin skirt have been Donna Morgan’s strongest looks for bridesmaids, she said.
ABS by Allen B. Schwartz has also been bolstered by sales to bridesmaids in recent years. Color and embellishment like press-on rhinestones, embroidery or beaded straps have been important looks in that category, totaling sales of at least $20 million in recent years.
Allen Schwartz projected the bridesmaid business could increase to $30 million this year, incorporating a group of bridal dresses ABS launched four months ago. The new ABS Bridal line, which begins retailing this month, includes ivory and champagne contemporary looks, wholesaling from $175 to $300.
“Bridesmaids is adding a lot of additional business to department stores because it is becoming fashion oriented,” Schwartz said. “A lot of stores haven’t tried it yet, but more of them are.”