Inside the Designer Bridal Boom

From Sophia Kokosalaki and Oscar de la Renta to Net-a-Porter and Browns, a wide range of ready-to-wear designers and luxury fashion retailers are capitalising on the rise and rise of designer bridalwear.

LONDON, United Kingdom — Greek-born designer Sophia Kokosalaki has been producing custom-order bridal gowns since her London atelier opened its doors in 2000. But it wasn’t until a chance meeting with Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet in 2011 that Kokosalaki, who chose to step away from ready-to-wear that same year, thought an entire bridal line might be a worthy endeavour.

Two years later, Net-a-Porter — which launched a dedicated online bridal boutique in 2009 — increased its buy of Kokosalaki’s bridal line by 67 percent. Meanwhile, Kokosalaki has found that creating bridalwear better suits her schedule and is easier to manage as a business than trend-driven ready-to-wear. “I would never compare myself to Alaïa, but this process does allow me a similar freedom to what he has built for himself. I don’t need to worry about the fashion calendar. [And I don’t] have to pay so much attention to trends.” Along with Net-a-Porter, Kokosalaki’s wholesale stockists for her bridal gowns (most of which cost under $5,000) include the famed New York bridal store Kleinfeld.

Twenty years ago, a designer like Kokosalaki wouldn’t have touched bridal. But that all began to change when prominent society women started turning to their designer friends to make their gowns. Famously, in 1996, Carolyn Bessette asked her close friend Narciso Rodriguez to create the gown she wore to marry John F. Kennedy Jr, putting the young and previously unknown designer on the fashion map.

For her wedding, Alice Temperley, who launched her namesake label in 2000, also wore a gown specially made by a prominent ready-to-wear designer: herself. “Our wedding [to husband and business partner Lars von Bennigson] was featured in British Vogue in 2002 and we had a huge number of brides-to-be enquiring about my dresses — I wore three different [dresses] of my own designs,” she says. Soon enough, she was taking special orders and, in 2006, launched a full-fledged bridal collection. She now shows at Bridal Fashion Week in New York twice a year.

“Over the last few years it has been hard to keep up with the demand for bridal appointments, so we have now designated a whole floor of our Notting Hill, London boutique to bridal,” says Temperley. “It’s a fast-growing part of our business and we are looking at expanding our wholesale offering further.”

In the US, the overall wedding market was worth $48 billion in 2012, according to a July 2013 report released by New York-based market research firm We Connect Fashion, with an average of 16 percent of individual wedding budgets spent on women’s dresses. This puts the value of the market for wedding gowns, in America alone, at roughly $7.7 billion per year.

In recent years, several ready-to-wear brands have seized the opportunity this represents, launching designer bridal lines of their own, including Giambattista Valli, Lanvin, Matthew Williamson, Naeem Khan, Oscar de la Renta — which brought its bridal collection in-house in 2006 after years of operating the category as a license business — and Marchesa. Even J. Crew has gotten into the bridal game. And while they have not launched fully fledged bridal lines, Nina Ricci, Valentino and Roland Mouret have created bridal gowns exclusively for Net-a-Porter.

Net-a-Porter’s bridal boutique, which has shipped to customers in over 65 countries, is geared towards offering a fashion customer a fashion dress in a way that’s more in tune with the needs of today’s affluent, modern bride. “By and large, [our bridal and ready-to-wear customers] are the same. They lead phenomenally busy lives and don’t always have the time for the more traditional approach which involves multiple fittings,” said Holli Rogers, fashion director of Net-a-Porter, on the retailer’s decision to launch bridalwear.

“We wanted to turn the system on its head…. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could create a version of a designer’s existing dress which our customers may well already own and love and rework it in shades such as cream or champagne?’ Our approach allows for brides to be much more spontaneous. They can buy their dress before jetting off somewhere exotic to get married. Then we added bejeweled belts and headbands, feathered veils, chiffon shrugs so busy brides could complete their look,” she continued, adding that Lanvin and Roland Mouret were currently the retailer’s top-selling bridal designers.

“I kind of fell into bridal,” said Charlie Brear, a designer who has also been tapping the modern bride’s desire for something unique since 2004. A former stylist, Brear bought a number of vintage wedding dresses for a shoot, after which she no longer needed the gowns and was struck by how fast she was able to resell them, realising immediately that there was a real market for bridal gowns that deviated from the “Cinderella” norm.

Caroline Burstein of Browns, which launched Browns Brides in 2004, says that back then, “the most exciting brand on offer was Vera Wang. Today, there is a dress for every bride. Each one can look individual and be able to express who she is and not be dressed in a wedding gown that wears her.”

In a slow economy, bridalwear can also be a more reliable business than ready-to-wear. Burstein said that, since launch, the bridal category has “grown steadily,” even during the recession. “The bridal side of the business was definitely affected [by the downturn] less that the main business,” she said. “It’s almost recession-proof,” added Temperley. “There will always be new brides looking for that one special gown.”

Indeed, for most women, who are not typical luxury fashion consumers, their wedding dress will be the most expensive outfit they wear in their lives. American women spend an average of $1,211 on their wedding dresses, according to TheWeddingChannel.com, a number that might be on the low-end of what a designer ready-to-wear dress currently costs, but is a clear indicator that if a woman is going to spend significant sums on a dress, it’s going to be for her wedding day.

And therein lies one of the biggest opportunities for ready-to-wear designers and luxury retailers targeting bridalwear: reaching an aspirational customer who is increasingly aware of high-end fashion brands, but cannot afford their products, except perhaps for that very special day that they expect to remember forever.

Alex Bolen, chief executive of Oscar de la Renta, says that while bridal is a “relatively small business” for the brand — about 5 percent of the company’s overall revenue — “it’s a fantastic way for us to showcase to a younger customer what our brand is about. It’s the one day when a woman is likely to splurge on herself.” And, while still small, the brand’s bridal business is currently growing at 30 percent per year, revealed Bolen.

Even mass-market retailers are getting into the “designer bridal” market. David’s Bridal, the privately held company that claims it outfits one-in-three American brides — and recently opened up its first UK store in London’s Westfield Stratford City shopping mall — partnered with Vera Wang in 2010 on a line of affordable gowns. Early this year, the brand announced that it would be the exclusive retailer of Truly Zac Posen, the Project Runway judge’s first-ever line of wedding gowns.

“The average customer is no more,” said David’s Bridal chief marketing officer Brian Beitler. “Even the more traditional customer is interested in finding ways to make her gown unique, whether that’s through jewellery, accessories, or the way she does her hair.”

“Now, every bride has a point of view.”