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NEW YORK — Try as designers might to show more progressive wedding gowns, they often have to maintain a degree of modesty to satisfy traditional bridal specialty stores.

Despite that caution, designers such as Carolina Herrera, Vera Wang and Lela Rose managed to show off their creativity during the bridal market here last week even as they heeded buyers’ requests for nonstrapless gowns and more coverage. The robust euro proved to be another challenge for companies sourcing fabrics from Europe, and China and India’s booming economies have ratcheted up the cost of getting embellished pieces from suppliers there.

This story first appeared in the October 30, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But that isn’t enough to discourage new labels from getting into this overcrowded market. The wedding industry as a whole is said to generate $120 billion in sales annually.

Gilles Mendel has created a five-piece capsule collection that he will sell to customers through his J.Mendel stores in a month. Melissa Sweet plans to introduce a yet-to-be-named introductory priced collection this spring. Pronovias is gearing up for the opening of its first U.S. store in Midtown Manhattan. Perhaps the certitude of weddings has something to do with it, with more than two million U.S. couples marrying each year.

People are still getting married, never mind what is happening with the stock market, the economy or in politics,” James Mischka said.

Even Vera Wang was in the mood to celebrate, and did so by staging a runway show at the Ukrainian Institute — the first to be held outside her showroom in years. Before things got started, she mingled with guests in the French Renaissance building’s main floor. “I’d like to have a party, but unfortunately I have to show some clothes,” said Wang, with drink in hand.

Her collection toasted gentility with a nod to the “otherworldly glamour of high society, Social Register debutantes from Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier to such infamous heiresses as Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton.” Gowns were decorated with cabbage rose adornments, silk faille sashes and velvet ribbons. The designer’s collection was an ode to “a period of unparalleled wealth, privilege and social aspiration that still captivates us today,” according to her show notes.

Trying to make New York more of a destination for weddings, city officials are getting rid of the old to make room for the new. Interior designer Jamie Drake, who has done work for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been tapped to spruce up the city clerk’s office, including the marriage bureau and its small chapel. The project is expected to cost about $13 million.

More women are only giving themselves a year or less to find a dress for their weddings, said Gary Schwartz, president of Priscilla of Boston bridal group. Even though that puts more pressure on the supply chain, his bridal group is determined to increase its account base 30 to 50 percent in the fourth quarter by focusing on secondary markets. “Some of those markets would never make sense for freestanding stores, but there is business to be done on the wholesale level,” he said.

Pleased with the response to its opening-price-point Vineyard label, Priscilla of Boston plans to launch the secondary Melissa Sweet label in the spring.

At Badgley Mischka, many stores wrote orders on the spot and were evenly divided into two camps — “slinky, sexy, siren gowns” and “A-line, fuller dresses,” Mischka said. For its latest advertising campaign, shot in an Atlanta mansion Monday, the designer label opted for one of the more popular styles, a dress with a sheer midriff.

“[Buyers are] definitely going for glamour, but they don’t want to ignore the traditional bridal shape and silhouette,” Mischka said.

Badgley Mischka is keeping its prices in the $1,700 to $6,500 range, even though sourcing European fabrics has become more expensive because of the weak dollar, and getting beading and other types of embellishment from India and China is more costly as those countries’ currencies rise in value. The company did not want to pass along the bulk of the increases to its customers, Mischka said.

Mark Ingram, who has a Midtown Manhattan bridal atelier, said he was struck by how pricing has crept up compared with last year because of the strong euro. With gowns that retail for as much as $20,000, he said his customers are not terribly price-conscious. Angel Sanchez, Elizabeth Fillmore and Monique Lhuillier were a few of his favorite collections. Ingram also liked Anne Barge, Rivini and Ulla-Maija, especially the Empire waistlines and bubble skirts.

Lela Rose, spurred partly by the publicity from being featured in a Martha Stewart Weddings fashion show on the “Today” show, shot its first advertising campaign Thursday in a New York photo studio.

Amid casting and wrapping up market appointments, Rose said: “Within the wedding industry, you have to communicate who you are as a brand. And you need to do that pretty quickly.”

In addition, most brides-to-be tend to be insecure in their decision-making and need the extra recognition of an ad, Rose said.

In just a few seasons, she has developed a knack for using textiles that are not usually seen in wedding dresses. One of her more innovative creations this season is a pinstripe dress with a detachable tier. That way a bride can wear the longer version for the ceremony and the shorter one for the reception. “It’s like we’re speaking two different languages sometimes. Alençon lace? I’m not even sure I know what that is,” Rose said.

Shopping at Angel Sanchez’ showroom, Carine Balabi, owner of Carine’s Bridal Atelier in Washington, is another believer in fashion-forward customers. More than a year ago she left her job as manager of Saks Fifth Avenue’s bridal salon in Tysons Corner Center in McLean, Va., because customers were flocking to New York to find more directional wedding gowns. “My big thing was to bring fashion like you would find in New York to D.C.”

Angel Sanchez, Carolina Herrera, Jenny Lee, Junko Yoshioka, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix are among the labels in her 1,800-square-foot store. Business has been so strong that Balabi already has outgrown her space and is in the process of leasing her entire building.

After showing a more directional collection last season, Sanchez said he obliged stores by reigning things in creatively to appeal to a wider base of brides-to-be. “Normally, Angel Sanchez is more fashion-forward,” he said. “I like to design those types of dresses, but I have to think about business, too.”

Not about to go the poufy route with wedding dresses, Sanchez took a more romantic traditional route. “I don’t try to please everyone, but this is more traditional than ever before,” he said.

Sanchez, who studied architecture and practiced it for two years before going into fashion, incorporated linear touches to his designs this time. He used touches that have worked well in his signature eveningwear collection. He also offered two versions of the dress “Desperate Housewives” actress Eva Longoria wore for her wedding last summer — something stores requested.

Amsale, meanwhile, said she was told by buyers to create dresses that were not as bare as the ones she showed last season. “I really paid attention to their concerns,” she said. “In general, they wanted to play it safe, but then they feel like you are not giving them something new. It’s a fine line. I was told last season my collection was too forward, but at the same time, brides don’t want to look like everyone else.”

Camille Thiry Russler, owner and chief executive officer of Ever After, a bridal store in Miami, said, “There is a divide in the market between couture and commercial designs. Brides view couture gowns as iconic pieces that are guaranteed to make a statement. Gowns created by well-known, respected designers are what are treasured to be worn on the wedding day.”

Shoppers at Manhattan’s Kleinfeld also have an eye for what goes into a design. The average wedding gown purchase at Kleinfeld is $4,000 to $5,000, and shoppers value what designers put into the dresses, co-owner Mara Urshel said. Amsale, Kenneth Pool, Reem Acra, Badgley Mischka, Christos and Rivini were among the labels that made a splash with her. Chris Kole, a newcomer to the bridal business, showed an all-cotton collection that made Urshel think, “How timely can you get when the world is going green?”

In general, the array of lighter fabrics, including chiffons, organza and tissue taffeta, as well as the selection of lace, were winners with her.

“It was probably one of the most satisfying markets for retailers,” Urshel said. “They gave us what we were looking for: more dresses that were not strapless, lighter fabrics — I loved all the chiffon — and ballgowns. I was very pleased.”

Lara Meiland-Shaw, owner of Lara Helene Bridal in New York, said brides are more informed because of the “inordinate amount of time” they spend online checking out past and current collections, and from reading “every bridal magazine that is out there….They know exactly which fabric they like and which silhouette will flatter their figure, and are becoming more demanding about finding the perfect style, which means that we must offer variety,” she said.

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