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NEW YORK — With more brides-to-be wanting their wedding days to be unlike any others, bridal designers are stepping up to meet their demands.

During last week’s bridal market, designers and bridal manufacturers discussed strategies for dealing with their ever-discriminating customers. With the two-dress trend and destination weddings continuing to be increasingly popular, some resources played up nonwhite dresses and more casual styles. Others focused on luxury-minded shoppers who won’t compromise anything, regardless if they will wed on a faraway beach.

This story first appeared in the May 2, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

After a presentation of her intricate wedding dresses last week, Vera Wang said, “We can’t ever underestimate the consumer today. You need to have consistency in your brand, but that doesn’t mean you can spill out the same thing every season. In any price point, you have to show a certain design integrity — something that shows you went to another place and that’s not easy.”

Wang insisted she still loves designing wedding dresses after 16 years of doing them and seemed to prove so with deconstructed, featherweight dresses or grander styles with cascading volume, transparent touches and layers. Hints of the Oscar night dresses she designed for Keira Knightley and Michelle Williams can be found in some of her wedding looks, but the designer said, “I have to dress real women for this part of my business and it’s getting very unpredictable. I am conscientious of different kinds of weddings and certain things that resonate with brides.…There’s a goddess and a San Francisco girl, and ones from Washington, L.A., Saint-Tropez and St. Barth’s.”

As Wang works to constantly refine her bridal gowns, Oscar de la Renta has a renewed interest in the category. He has been designing bridal gowns for private customers practically since he started his business 40 years ago, and for spring 2003, launched a wholesale bridal collection in a license with bridal gown resource Carmela Sutera. The designer conceded the licensed collection never really took off, so he and Alex Bolen, his firm’s president and chief executive officer, decided to take it in-house.

“It’s not a relaunch, it’s a launch,” de la Renta said. “This is the first time I am doing it myself. It’s a product that requires a total commitment to make it look right.”

The designer’s 26 styles include a sleeveless tulle gown embroidered with circular motifs, a column dress of Guipure lace and a pleated satin chiffon gown. The pieces include details such as pleated taffeta trains, crochet embroidery and tiered tulle. De la Renta’s collection also includes a few bridal accoutrements, including veils, shoes and handbags. The spring bridal launch is expected to be accompanied by a stand-alone advertising campaign.

“It is a reflection of what I do in ready-to-wear, and how I see women dress today,” de la Renta explained a few days before his show last week. “[With bridal], the girls are much more fashion-conscious than the same girls were 20 or 30 years ago.”

Bolen added that while de la Renta designed custom-made dresses for brides in the past, “We will not be in that business anymore. This is our bridal business now.”

The collection, which has suggested retail prices from about $4,500 to $15,000, targets a tight distribution to upscale specialty stores and better bridal boutiques. For now, the bridal collection will not be sold in the existing Oscar de la Renta boutiques, since they don’t have the space to devote to a separate bridal area.

Bolen, who wouldn’t disclose specific sales projections for the line, said in the short term, the business could generate revenues in the low single-digit millions. “We can grow it to several times that size,” he noted.

Priscilla of Boston hopes to attract more designer customers with its new Priscilla Platinum collection, which is designed by Kenneth Pool. During a preview of the collection earlier this month, Pool said the 19-piece collection will wholesale from $2,200 to $5,500 and be sold at Priscilla of Boston’s 10 stores, as well as at select specialty stores like Kleinfeld.

Pool, whose résumé includes runs at Amsale, Reem Acra, Vera Wang, Bob Mackie, Arnold Scaasi and Bill Blass, has seen a shift in terms of what brides are buying. “The girls I’m getting in are spending a lot more money. They want something on a higher level and not just fashion.”

Gary Schwartz, president of the Consohocken, Pa.-based Priscilla of Boston, which also makes Melissa Sweet and Us Angels dresses, agreed. “For a period of time, certain styles could have lasted on the sales floor for several years, but now fashion is moving faster than ever before.”

Next year, three more Priscilla of Boston stores are expected to open, with major West Coast cities of particular interest, Schwartz said, although he declined to be more specific. Having stores enables Priscilla executives to see what’s working and what brides are looking for. Pool’s collection is “a nice addition to Priscilla of Boston stores and to the suite of designers we already have,” Schwartz said.

Designer Amsale Aberra said women are favoring more risqué looks. “I think more and more brides today are going for a sexier look. Even with traditional styles, it is now about a closer fit, a plunging neckline, or a bare back,” she said.

Ulla Maja chairman and ceo Charles W. Bunstine 2nd noted there is a split between traditional bridal design houses and those that have a broader fashion sense of design. “Bridal gowns are more in keeping with the woman’s individual sense of style and current fashion than the historic definition of a bridal gown. It seems that the more design-driven businesses like ours are experiencing their greatest growth, while the others are losing their historic market share.”

Joseph L. Murphy, president and ceo of Jim Hjelm, has noticed some interesting changes underfoot — silhouettes are more eveningwear-inspired within the boundaries of good taste; wedding gowns in blush-type colors are becoming increasingly popular; brides are moving away from simple looks, and tea-length dresses are still catching on with bridesmaids. His $26 million company makes dresses under the Alvina Valenta, Jim Hjelm, Jim Hjelm Occasions, Occasions Bride and the Lazaro labels.

He said he is seeing more reorders for nonwhite dresses and chalked up the interest in color to the idea that “fashion trendsetters are now more multicultural.”

“Instead of having the monolithic view of fashion that we have had for so long, we’re seeing more trumpet skirts and other fitted silhouettes,” he said.

Junko Yoshioka, the designer behind the Junko Yoshioka for Bonaparte label, said she, too, is dealing with more brides having destination weddings than she was a few years ago. To that end, women are favoring nontraditional gowns with clean lines, minimal beading, and figure-flattering silhouettes.

In addition, Tara Maietta, the company’s director of sales and marketing, said she has noticed in dealing with shoppers at trunk shows that they are no longer as “name conscious” about wedding gowns as they once were. “The 21st-century woman feels confident enough to wear something that is fashion-forward and one of a kind. They don’t want to look like everyone else.”

Kleinfeld co-owners Ronald Rothstein and Mara Urshel witness that all the time, courting hundreds of brides a week at their 35,000-square-foot store at 110 West 20th Street here. That one location sells to 15,000 brides each year, with each dress requiring about 30 hours of work. Customer service remains the driving force behind the company’s success. As one of the 29 bridal consultants passed by during a tour last month, Rothstein said that particular employee alone generates “a couple million” in sales each year, which is more than some independent bridal stores do annually.

Needless to say, he and Urshel continue to go to great lengths to keep shoppers coming through their doors. When their store opened last year, they spent an extra couple of hundred thousand dollars for slimming, lead-free mirrors. Kleinfeld is installing plasma-screen TV monitors to welcome shoppers by name to the by-appointment-only store, and a high-tech camera that will allow shoppers’ mothers, friends and other confidantes to dial up online to check out what the brides-to-be look like in their dresses.

To ensure shoppers are treated just so, Kleinfeld buses the 160 of its 200 staffers who live in Brooklyn to and from the Manhattan store each day. The way Rothstein sees it, finding above-and-beyond amenities and keeping employees happy are essential to Kleinfeld’s success. “You know what? It’s not a department store’s life to be in the [bridal] business,” he explained. “We treat everyone as if they are in our family.”

J. Crew is trying to make the most of the destination wedding trend — a natural fit for the brand — by offering more styles and a wider choice of colors. Head women’s designer Jenna Lyons said, “What we’ve found is that when we are stepping out and designing things that feel more J. Crew and casual, we have had a wonderful response. Shoppers are looking for alternatives to the big dress, the fancy dress and the shiny dress. They’re really loving colors — pale champagne and pale pink. We’ve really had a tremendous response to anything that is a little less expected, less obvious and less bridal, but still special and pretty.”

Nonwhite wedding dresses make up 35 percent of J. Crew’s offerings and to keep the trend going, the retailer plans to broaden its color assortment next year. Lyons also noted that an alternative to strapless or strappy — mainstays in wedding gowns — has been well-received. There has been a lot of interest in a silk taffeta shirt dress with eyelet trim even though its $2,200 price tag is on the high end of J. Crew’s offerings.

Event planner Tatiana Byron, the organizer behind the Wedding Salon 2006 at Gotham Hall, has noticed how “brides will take a piece of their heritage and accent it in every part of their weddings” from their attire to the decor, food, and music. “Brides are going to fashion designers more and more and getting their dresses custom made, the right fit and tailor made to them. Bridesmaids dresses are looking more like couture evening gowns than the traditional styles of uniform dresses,” she said. “Destination weddings are more popular than ever. People are getting married later and want smaller, intimate, exotic environments to celebrate their love.”

Another wedding planner, Mindy Weiss, who was hired recently by Linens ‘n Things as its in-house bridal and gift expert, agreed. “Up until recently, I was producing about two destination weddings a year, and this year alone I am doing 15. People want more than one evening with their friends and family, they are looking to spend entire weekends together, in a camp-like atmosphere, and really enjoy themselves.”