TO HAVE AND TO HAUTE
A DESIGNER INFUSION IN THE BRIDAL MARKET HAS MADE FOR A STRAPLESS, BREATHLESS BUSINESS.

Byline: Leonard McCants

NEW YORK — For brides today, walking down the aisle might be mistaken for walking down a runway.
With a designer infusion in the bridal market developing the last two years, as names like Givenchy, Richard Tyler and even ABS have entered the market, and retailers and magazines have put more focus on the category, brides are finding literally thousands of gown options before them in different silhouettes, colors and lengths.
The dresses often borrow trends from the runway, according to several makers.
“It’s a great time to be a bride,” said Ken Downing, vice president of corporate public relations and fashion presentation at Neiman Marcus. “It’s evident that fashion and fashion designers are paying attention to the bridal world.”
One of the most important looks on the catwalk and in the chapel this year is the strapless dress. Retailers and resources both said brides-to-be are demanding gowns that make them feel sexy on one of the biggest days of their lives.
“More women are in shape these days, and they know how uncomfortable cap-sleeved dresses are,” said bridal designer Clea Colet. “And they are not as modest. Even the mothers encourage them to go a little bit lower on the neckline.”
However, at Kleinfeld, the 60-year-old Brooklyn bridal emporium, brides-to-be are starting to move away from the sleeveless silhouette.
“We’re coming off two to three years of strong strapless selling,” said Betty Lou Aluisio, Kleinfeld’s executive vice president and general merchandise manager.
“Now I’m seeing girls coming in for strong sleeve interests, and it’s not for religious reasons and it’s not for the ceremony,” she said. “It’s preference. About six to nine months ago, the comment was: ‘I don’t want strapless, all of my friends have strapless.”‘
Aluisio also noted that “grand, large and important dresses” are selling well, in addition to long trains, sometimes with 12 feet of fabric.
“It’s tradition in a new and different way,” she said. “It’s a different kind of sleeve or a different kind of embroidery or a different waistline.”
With the increased focus on weddings, especially in newer publications like InStyle and Martha Stewart Living, brides-to-be have become increasingly more demanding, said Michelle Roth, owner of an eponymous boutique in Manhattan.
“They want to look stylish, they want to look elegant and they want to feel that their individuality is expressed,” she said. “We’re seeing that translated into color, sexy silhouettes and custom measurements. The gown has got to come out immaculately.”
Roth said her customers are walking down the aisle in strapless, streamlined dresses with hand-embroidered bodices or, conversely, they’re buying fitted bodices with a full ballskirt.
Just as women are taking control over their everyday lives, from their wardrobe to their careers, they, too, are taking control of their wedding day.
“The real trend now is that women are being the design directors of their own closet,” said Neiman’s Downing. “That is translating to bridal as well. Girls are attracted to what they think is beautiful and not the fantasy of what a bride should be.”
To that end, he said, the Neiman Marcus customer is stepping way from white and looking to gowns in ivory, champagne and other “candlelight colors,” as well as slim, strapless dresses with embroidery at the bodice.
“We’re really delighted about how important the strapless dress is today,” he said. “I think that brides want to look sexy on their wedding day.”
Barneys New York, whose bridal salon has been open for a year, is reporting a strong demand for the department.
“It’s an exciting business for us,” said Judy Collinson, Barneys executive vice president and general merchandise manager. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of service, and it’s an interesting relationship to have with your customer.”
Best-selling items include strapless dresses, A-line or column gowns and bridal separates, an emerging trend within the category.
“I don’t know if they start out looking for separates,” Collinson said, “but it’s appealing to them. It’s definitely a part of the business.”
On the manufacturing side, one designer who does not believe in the movement toward separates is Arnold Scaasi.
“I believe a dress should be a dress unless you’re doing sportswear, and this is bridal,” he said. “This is a special moment, and they want the dress to be something they cherish always. It has to be really special and like nothing in her wardrobe.”
Mark Badgley of the design duo Badgley Mischka was a little less emphatic about the look.
“We’ve touched on it,” he acknowledged. “But personally, it’s not our favorite to get into separates for bridal. I think it’s fun for second weddings because it’s a little more casual and has a different kind of mood to it.”
Other designers find refreshing the fact that separates allow women the freedom to mix-and-match tops to bottoms.
“We think it’s a great idea,” said Ursula Hegewisch, co-owner and co-designer of Wearkstatt, a bridal resource with a SoHo boutique by the same name. “In our shop, we carry other people who design separates. It’s definitely a trend, and it gives people versatility. It’s a little bit more comfortable, so construction-wise, I like it.”
Wearkstatt, whose signature gowns are architectural and clean, is starting to make dresses in limited-edition fabrics, such as a gossamer-like organza covered in mini ostrich feathers.
“It allows us to indulge and stay close to the trends,” Hegewisch said.
Instead of separates, Scaasi sees his customers gravitating toward large, draped skirts in luxurious fabrics, especially silk satin and platinum-colored embroidery with “major” trains.
“It’s totally away from the minimal look,” he said. “It follows what’s happening in fashion.”
The Badgley Mischka bride-to-be is not looking for a marshmallow puff gown, but rather, a more simple style.
“We find that in terms of silhouette, she wants it to look slightly ready-to-wear inspired,” Badgley said. “At the same time, she doesn’t want it to be sleek eveningwear.”
Bestsellers include dresses that are strapless with a chiseled waist, a dramatic skirt and minimal embellishments, sometimes in crystals.
One of the most expensive wedding purchases is the wedding gown, and in a surprising move, designer Reem Acra increased the prices of hers in an effort to increase quality. It was, she said, a successful move.
“My bridal business is booming,” she said, noting sales are up threefold for the season.
Using her friends and other jet-setting women as inspiration, Acra designs for a youthful customer with gowns such as a strapless A-line silk satin dress with a full skirt and a chapel-length train.
“I want to dress the woman who’s younger and has a flair for fashion,” Acra said. “But I’ve had women dress in these in their 70s. But it’s not an old look.”
With her new bridal line exclusive to Barneys, Pamela Dennis is just getting a feel for her bridal business. But she said luxurious gowns are not having a hard time selling.
One in particular, a strapless white gown with clear Austrian crystal embroidery that retails for $15,000, has been a standout for Dennis.
Brides are also looking to accessories like shawls, shoes and even little handbags to diversify their wedding-day look.
At Carolina Herrera, women are seeking sheer organza shawls, fox wraps with a tie and quilted satin wraps, according to Amy Golan, Herrera’s sales and marketing manager for bridal and accessories.
Trying to counter the trend toward more accessories, Los Angeles-based designer Monique Lhuillier said she steers her customers away from them.
“We don’t accessorize as much, she said. “It’s about the bride. We’ll do a lot of feminine details like little bows and flowers, instead.”
A key look is a simple Italian silk dress with a mermaid silhouette and fullness in the skirt, she said.
The current crop of brides is more educated about the options, be it strapless or not, and more demanding in terms of quality and styling, vendors said. But above all, it comes down to the moment when the wedding march starts and she makes her entrance.
“It’s almost like the brides are walking down a runway,” said Henry Weinrich, co-owner of Michelle Roth with his sister. “They want to bowl their guests over.”