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The virginal, fairy-tale princess, once the stereotype of the bride, now shares the stage with older, more sophisticated women, whose nontraditional weddings are changing the nature of the business.

Older first- or second-time brides, who often help foot the bill, have definite ideas about their weddings. Increasingly opting for gardens, beaches or resort settings over church ceremonies, they may put more money into an exotic trip than miles of tulle and beading for a one-time gown.

But even those who have outgrown princess fantasies still want to be queen for a day. Today’s more sophisticated brides want glamorous, sexy alternatives to the informal collections of yesterday, which tended to be dowdy afterthoughts in bridal lines. And the bride’s not the only one looking for gowns worthy of a red-carpet entrance. Mothers-of-the-bride want young, updated options, anything but the suits or jacket dresses that they perceive as matronly or dowdy.

Bridal firms have always offered “informals,” small groups of less-expensive alternatives to traditional wedding gowns. Today, informal collections have graduated from afterthought to primary growth opportunity, with expanded collections and sales that often outpace those of traditional formal gowns.

For bridal retailers, informal bridal gowns offer less hassle than formals. Available for immediate delivery and easily reordered, they have quicker turns and are easier to alter and store. For social-occasion retailers, the new informals can be a low-risk entry into bridal sales.

The focus on updated design for bridal and mother-of-the-bride is blurring the lines between categories and offering potential crossover sales. A sophisticated bridal gown may appeal to a mother of the bride, while a sexy, young mother-of-the-bride evening gown may be perfect for a nontraditional bride.

“Informal bridal gowns used to be a stepchild, but now we’re looking at it as a design category,” said Lee Fein, partner in Marisa Collection, a New York bridal and social-occasion house. “It’s evolved into a major category, both for second- and first-time brides.”

The new emphasis has also transformed the price-driven nature of the category, with customers now willing to pay more than $1,000 for an informal gown, said Fein. In the past year, the company has added more luxury fabrics, including silk crinkle and pintuck dupioni. Maintaining simple silhouettes such as modified A-lines, gowns include more touches of color and textural interest, such as draping and ruching.

This story first appeared in the September 29, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In the past year, informal gowns have doubled from 50 to 100 styles out of a total of 300 at Demetrios, a New York bridal firm.

“We always had informal dresses, with removable trains, but it’s more important than ever,” said Paul Golias, vice president of sales at Demetrios. “Today’s brides who run off to an island want a flowing dress.” Strapless gowns, in chiffon and a new French crinkle taffeta have been bestsellers, with gold and champagne as the most popular color choices, at $300 to $400 wholesale, compared with $500 for formal bridals.

Sales of informal gowns had slowed considerably at Mon Cheri Bridals, a Trenton, N.J., bridal and social-occasion manufacturer, before a 2002 launch that updated and positioned informals as a separate category. Called Destination by Mon Cheri, the group capitalized on the popularity of beach and resort weddings, with lighter fabrics such as chiffon and organza, tiered skirts and color.

“It’s sophisticated, rather than ruffles or tons of tulle,” said Yolanda Carita, sales director, who described the line as “our most successful launch ever.” The group, with 12 to 15 gowns per season, saw sales jump 340 percent for fiscal year 2003, with similar increases projected this year.

Mother-of-the-bride is also a growth area, with a new emphasis on younger styling. In two collections — Montage By Mon Cheri, and a lower-price line, Cameron Blake, “sexier and softer” looks have replaced structured suits, said Carita. The spring groups include off-the-shoulder or strapless tops, A-line ballgowns, asymmetric hemlines and floral prints or embroidery.

“For mother-of-the-bride, the jacket-to-match, suited look is over, done with and passé,” said Jessica McClintock, a San Francisco bridal and social-occasion designer. “The customer wants a hip, happening look that offers comfort.”

For spring, a stretch charmeuse group features a strapless bodice, fitted on top, with a more flowing generous fit around the hips.

McClintock said mothers are also buying informal gowns, which make up 75 percent of the 50 styles in the bridal collection, also in stretch charmeuse, chiffon and silk dupioni.

McClintock, who debuted a bridal collection in 1976, said the popularity of nontraditional and destination weddings fits nicely with her countercultural image.

“I’ve always designed for nontraditional brides,” she said. “My dresses aren’t about big emotional, dramatic, Barbie-doll looks, but more lighthearted looks that appeal to second- or third-time brides.”

At Maggie Sottero, an Australian bridal company with New York offices, sales of best-selling informal bridal gowns are now on par with sales of best-selling formal gowns. Strapless, corset bodiced gowns with lace-up backs and chiffon halter silhouettes with A-line silhouettes and blue sequin trim, priced at $249 wholesale, appeal to older brides.

“People are marrying later, in their late 20s or early 30s, and running off to get married rather than have traditional church weddings,” said Suzanne Robbins, national sales director.

The growth of informal bridal gowns and crossover sales between the bridal and social-occasion divisions have helped increase business 35 to 45 percent over the past two years at Jaquelin Bridal, a Fort Myers, Tex., bridal and social-occasion house.

“Retailer requests have increased tremendously in the two years, for simple, informal gowns, with maybe color, lace or beading,” said Wen Wu, owner and president. “Sales are cutting into traditional bridal-gown sales, which have been steady, but with no growth.”

The more moderate-price Jaquelin division, which includes informal gowns, has performed better than Christina Wu, the higher-end formal bridal line. Informals, at an average price of $300 wholesale, compare with $750 wholesale for traditional gowns.

The social-occasion line, La Belle, originally designed as suits and dresses for mother-of-the-bride, has been revamped and updated, to appeal to social occasion and bridal stores. Halter and strapless bodices, low backs and handkerchief hemlines appeal to brides and mothers, said Wu.

Crossover social-occasion, bridal and mother-of-the-bride sales have doubled for each of the past two years at Cassandra Stone, the Lisle, Ill., social-occasion company. Before the popularity of informal and destination weddings, business was stagnant, said Markus Schramm, sales manager.

The unorthodox nature of today’s weddings has created some surprising bestsellers.

“We’re often shocked at what retailers reorder,” said Schramm. “One Texas store’s best-selling bridal gown was a snake-print wedding gown, and a mother-of-the-bride look was a stretch denim with a mesh top and chains.”