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Weddings Are Changing. Can Designers Keep Up?

As the traditional bridal industry loses touch with Millennials, newcomers are reaping the rewards.
Dora Kloppenburg on her wedding day wearing a blouse and shorts by Cecilie Bahnsen | Source: Courtesy, Photo by Authentic Memories
  • Zoe Suen

UTRECHT, The Netherlands — Dora Kloppenburg didn't grow up fantasising about her wedding dress. But when she got engaged in February, she knew exactly what she wouldn't wear.

“I never dreamt about a white princess dress, I just wouldn’t feel like myself in one,” she said. “But I still wanted to feel the luxury of a bridal dress.”

The Utrecht-based accessories designer ended up ordering a voluminous white trapeze blouse and short set by Danish designer of the moment Cecilie Bahnsen, purchased online for €1,260 ($1,387). On her big day, she paired them with tomato-hued sandals and white flowers in her updo.

Kloppenburg’s wedding outfit wasn’t just bought for her big day. She plans to re-wear the blouse with skinny jeans, saving the shorts for next summer. “People buy a pretty dress and wear it for one day, but I want to wear mine more often,” she said.

Kloppenburg is among a growing group of millennial women opting out of traditional bridal offerings and shopping with more practical considerations in mind. The shift not only flags a growing demand for outfits that one could walk down the aisle in and wear to a party the week after, but sheds light on the dated dogmas of the bridal industry that render it ripe for disruption.

Saying Yes to the Dress (With Pockets)

Bridal retail is big business, worth an estimated $300 billion globally, according to IBISWorld. Data from Lyst shows that 23 percent of brides are buying not one but two outfits for their big day, while the average cost of a bridal dress is up 12 percent, according to wedding marketplace The Knot.

I never dreamt about a white princess dress, I just wouldn't feel like myself in one.

But as spending soars, tastes have changed, as have definitions of what a bride should wear. Lyst’s 2019 wedding report showed that online searches for gowns with pockets and white suits rose 83 percent and 43 percent, respectively. The Edited found that bridal assortments jumped by 225 percent from 2018 to 2019.

Wider inclusivity drives in fashion have recently been echoed by bridal brands. At New York Bridal Fashion Week, which ran from October 3 to 8, Theia’s Creative Director Don O’Neill sent disabled model Bri Scalesse down the runway in an embellished ivory gown. Israeli Galia Lahav’s latest campaign starred transgender Victoria’s Secret model Valentina Sampaio.

However, some experts feel that the bridal industry is still stuck in the past. “Most brands [are] offering limited sizing and two collections a year,” said Avery Faigen, retail analyst at Edited. She notes that with the exception of retailers like Torrid and BHLDN, the wider bridal market has been slow to reach customers of all sizes and tastes, and few brands have entered into rental and sustainability conversations.

Something Old, not Something New?

While many brides still yearn for traditional "gold standard" gowns (think Vera Wang or Marchesa Bridal), e-commerce has offered legitimate solutions for sustainably-minded or thriftier shoppers like Kloppenburg, who are searching for second-hand gowns or more affordable styles from mass-market crowd-pleasers.

Wed’s Spring/Summer 2020 collection | Source: Courtesy

Traditional brands are also failing to address changes in shopping habits. Many brides-to-be are opting for pre-loved pieces from The RealReal or StillWhite, a bridal resale marketplace founded in 2010 by Bruno Szajer and his wife Ingrid (the first dress sold was hers). Dresses sold through via StillWhite go for 50 to 60 percent of their original retail price (averaging at $955). Sellers on the site have earned £23 million ($28.2 million) since it launched, according to Szajer.

“In the early days, every sale happened in person,” said Szajer. “Today, 77 percent of dresses are purchased online, with 30 percent of them shipped overseas.”

Consumers are also increasingly dress-hunting just a few months, if not weeks, before the big day, at odds with luxury bridal’s notoriously lead times.

The shift has hit traditional bridal boutiques hard. Florida-based Alfred Angelo Bridal, one of the world's largest manufacturers and retailers of wedding dresses, called it quits and filed for bankruptcy in July 2017. American chain David's Bridal, where brides can find everything from budget-friendly frocks to Vera Wang gowns, rebounded from bankruptcy in late 2018 but is still facing $250 million in debt.

Disruption by Design

E-commerce’s level playing field and an outmoded bridal industry have also made room for a new breed of designers blurring the line between bridal and ready-to-wear.

Net-a-Porter's bridal section features offerings from bridal brands alongside white dresses and separates by a range of established and emerging designers from Emilia Wickstead to Cecilie Bahnsen and Instagram-friendly Les Rêveries. The bridal selection's most affordable piece, a $275 mini-dress by Halston, is sold as "a chic second bridal look for a wedding reception" but could also double as a cocktail dress.

"The idea of a wedding dress lasting for one day is so ridiculous," said Amy Trinh, who, alongside her Central Saint Martins classmate Evan Phillips recently launched Wed, a brand creating sculptural and surrealist dresses that would appeal to fans of Simone Rocha and Comme des Garçons.

The idea of a wedding dress lasting for one day is so ridiculous.

Wed came to be after Trinh got engaged but, like Kloppenburg, struggled to find a dress that felt right. The brand's styles come in white and black (not unlike Stella McCartney's white and black capsule collection launched after last year's royal wedding). Despite the brand's name, the duo would rather customers think beyond the aisle. The pair debuted their wares at Child Showroom during Paris Fashion Week and were surprised by the positive response their concept garnered from buyers; Trinh notes that some buyers seemed keen on positioning Wed as a ready-to-wear brand, while others leaned towards stocking them as a bridal designer.

“We design specifically with bridal in mind to make sure the dresses are special enough, but ask, ‘can I wear it after?’” Trinh said. “If I can’t, we scrap it,” (“or alter it,” Phillips laughs).

The duo play with form and volume over pearls, lace and beads. For durability and washability, Wed's pieces are made with a combination of synthetic and natural fabrics. "You can't even necessarily wash white satin if you spill red wine on it, and a hard clean will ruin the dress," said Phillips. "It's important for the dresses to live past that day."

Rather than going up against the Vera Wangs of the world, the likes of Wed and Bahnsen are sticking with ready-to-wear. Trinh and Phillips plan on growing their label by launching new collections each season rather than following the traditional bridal calendar, and are considering adding colour, prints and accessories to the mix.

Most of the requests... were from women who simply wanted to buy the [ready-to-wear pieces] in white.

German-born eveningwear designer Paula Knorr saw the potential for bridal when designing ready-to-wear, but opted to separate the two. Her bridal collection features signature disco-ready silhouettes in white — from holographic wide-legged trousers to high-neck draped tops — at modest prices (a sequin dress retails for €700 ($771). Some pieces feature dancefloor-friendly discrete stretch panels and Knorr is currently exploring biodegradable glitter options for sustainably minded customers.

“Most of the requests I received for bridal were from women who simply wanted to buy the [ready-to-wear pieces] in white,” said Knorr. “They weren’t interested in traditional gowns and the price that comes with them. They wanted to buy... pieces that they can re-wear and that fit a less traditional wedding.”

These new-age bridal offerings challenge whether the distinction between bridal and ready-to-wear simply lies in the former’s bespoke experience, entrenched by countless champagne-fuelled wedding try-on montages in romantic comedies. But assuming luxury brands and bridal boutiques continue providing fairytale fittings for brides-to-be, others, like Kloppenburg, will be relieved to find a convenient, low-maintenance alternative.

“The experience [of buying your wedding dress] is getting a million fittings and getting it made to measure,” said Phillips. “But the question is, does it have to be?”

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