After two years of pandemic uncertainty, brides are ready to get dressed — and their teams are on standby.
“June is the busiest month I can remember,” says Julie Sabatino, owner of The Stylish Bride. “I’ve had my business for 20 years. I don’t remember anything like it.”
Sabatino is in the middle of staffing up for a big summer wedding season. After two years of large events being postponed due to the pandemic, 2022 promises to be one of the wedding industry’s busiest years. As one of the most seasoned bridal stylists in the industry — her business predates social media as we know it today — Sabatino has worked through various economic crises: the stock market crash in 2008, real estate bust, and the pandemic.
“What I have seen over the last 20 years is that every time we come out of one of these things, people want to party, and they want bigger and better and more elaborate and more exciting,” she says. “And this time probably the most, because we’ve been locked down for so long.”
Distinct from red carpet or celebrity stylists, bridal styling is more on par with costume design; it’s part of the larger design picture, encompassing venue, geographic location, color schemes, and floral. While many wedding vendors — caterers and photographers — are considered essential no matter the event budget, bridal stylists are generally synonymous with luxury weddings and larger production value. Sabatino and Gabrielle Hurwitz are often namechecked in weddings alongside many of the industry’s top vendors, including photographers like Jose Villa, Corbin Gurkin, and KT Merry, and planners like Mindy Weiss, Marcy Blum, and Laurie Arons.
“At least on the luxury level, which most of my clients fall into, it’s a no-brainer they would hire a bridal stylist because they’re hiring the best of the best in terms of their planners and their photographers, their florists, their videographers — [fashion] is the other puzzle piece,” says Hurwitz, who launched her styling business in 2018.
Bridal stylists help couples plot a cohesive sartorial story across all wedding events, from the rehearsal dinner to the ceremony and the day-after brunch. Hurwitz has noticed that the trend of planning entire wedding weekends continues to grow, and with the many events come multiple looks to style.
“Brides are using this post-pandemic world to really go all out with their fashion for their wedding and kind of turning it into its own moment,” says Hurwitz. “Most of my clients are doing full wardrobes for their weekend, and it’s all-encompassing and an opportunity for them to really dress up and celebrate through fashion.”
“You want the dress to be an extension of yourself, and you want it to look effortless and not overdone,” says Cynthia Cook Smith, a former Vogue editor who pivoted to bridal styling in 2016. “It’s a lot of pressure to make all these decisions. And so you need somebody you trust to guide you and help you stay on track and keep it fun.”
Smith begins working with brides soon after they get engaged. “We’ll usually set up a phone call and discuss what dresses make sense in their wedding location, how big the wedding’s going to be, and how formal it will be. And then from there, we’ll decide which boutiques and designers to try on.”
She guides brides toward looks that stand out while remaining timeless; most of her clients spend between $8,000 and $20,000 on their ceremony dress. For clients interested in going the custom route, she can advise them on options including smaller customizations with big impact — lengthening a train, changing a neckline or lining — and tap into her knowledge of buzzy emerging designers for brides veering from traditional bridal mainstays like Carolina Herrera or Oscar de la Renta.
In addition to working with brides on outfit and accessory selection in the months leading up to their wedding, many stylists employ teams onsite to help brides get dressed and be on hand to field any issues that might arise.
“We’re there prepping, steaming, laying things out — sometimes we’ve had to sew people into dresses, people bust zippers, people get stains on things,” says Dara Adams of Veil by Dara Adams. “We’re there for all those emergency moments, and it doesn’t have to be a total buzzkill because you have someone there who can quickly come into play and fix the situation so that the day can continue.”
Former Vogue editor and contributor Alexandra Macon cofounded Over the Moon in 2015, a fashion-forward digital wedding company which features curated e-commerce — including Prabal Gurung’s debut bridal collection and an exclusive capsule of non-bridal Brock Collection dresses — alongside editorial content. OTM also offers a styling service, employed by many brides featured in the “real weddings” featured on the site; their base option includes head-to-toe styling for four looks curated by OTM stylists. The team is also available by FaceTime or text to lend an editor’s eye or offer advice on tailoring. Macon notes that the digital footprint allows them to work with couples looking for differing levels of support; they have plans to expand their team soon, in response to an uptick in interest for bridal styling.
OTM also taps into their knowledge of upcoming collections and editorial background as a selling point, to make sure they’re steering clients toward choices that don’t feel too ‘seen’ on social media.
Each stylist touched on the impact of social media on their work, both in terms of brides thinking more about the post-wedding product — the highlight reel of photos and video — and the effect of endless access to wedding imagery.
“I think [working with a bridal stylist] has become more popular as people see it more often on their Instagram feeds and publications,” says Hurwitz. “Social media has put a lot of pressure on people to nail their fashion for the wedding. And so being able to trust that to someone else just makes them feel more at ease with everything.”
Sabatino started her business in the early Aughts in response to a lack of information outside of bridal magazines — today, the problem is too much information. “[Brides] have such information overload and so many pictures. What I do for them is cut out the noise and help them focus and zone in on what they need to see,” she says. “And at the same time, understand the realities of the dress, because social media is awesome in so many ways, but presents an image that isn’t always applicable or accurate to the bride.”
Cook notes that her brides will sometimes see an image of their dress worn by another bride on social media and second-guess their choice. “You think of your wedding dress as unique to you and your moment,” she says. “It’s not a good feeling to find and purchase one of the most important dresses of your life, just to see it on somebody else’s body and in their wedding.” While it’s inevitable — small bridal collections coupled with a few particularly popular bridal designers — Cook notes that sticking with the original dress, versus finding a new one they haven’t seen before, is almost always the right choice.
Sometimes, seeing the dress in context of another wedding can be helpful.
“Brides can see any bride in the world, no matter where they are. And I think that’s opening their eyes to what the possibilities could be, whereas magazines are more curated to the magazine’s taste and what their target market is,” says Adams, who in addition to her styling business is the fashion editor for Black Bride Magazine. “But now the inspiration is endless. You can follow hashtags and see brides from all over the world and how they’re using style to create these experiences and events. Brides see that it takes a team to reach a certain level of aesthetic. It takes multiple creative partners that work in different areas to create something that will give you that moment we see on Instagram.”
While there is an overwhelming focus on The Dress, grooms are also a big part of the picture, as well as bridesmaids. Adams notes that her packages include the entire wedding party to create a 360-degree style picture.
“We don’t even offer just the bride, because we feel that for you to get the transformation and the result you want, everyone has to look cohesive and well-styled; most definitely the groom,” says Adams.
“Of course, we know about the dress, and everyone anticipates the dress, but a lot of work goes into groomswear as well,” she continues, adding that many of the grooms she works with will go the custom route. “So we’re figuring out the design, the fabric, where it’s going to be made — the fabrics are coming from Italy or India; Africa for some of my traditional weddings. It really is a full couple experience.”
The goals remain the same when styling same-sex couples, although the approach shifts when pairing two dresses or even two suits to share the spotlight. “You want to coordinate but not match, and that can be hard to do, especially when you want to present a cohesive [aesthetic], but not the same,” says Sabatino — but those challenges are why couples tap into her expertise.
For Adams, who got her start in editorial styling, working in the wedding industry has reframed the gravitas and emotional power of clothing. “It gave garments meaning to me again; what garments could do as far as people’s self-esteem or how important what we wear is to a certain event or something happening in our lives,” she says.
And even though most brides will only wear their wedding dress once, it’ll likely be the most-photographed outfit they’ll ever wear.
“At the end of the day, flowers are going to die. A cake’s going to get cut and eaten,” says Hurwitz. “But the photos of you and your partner are what you keep.
“Besides the memories, those are the tangible things you keep from a wedding,” she adds. “You are only physically wearing [the dress] for 12 hours, but it will have a legacy of its own.”