Fashion has long been considered the mirror of our times. At the Fall 2019 shows, the collections that resonated were the ones that addressed the cultural shifts happening around us, particularly those related to women: the fourth-wave feminist movement, #MeToo, a record number of women in Congress, and a blurring of gender lines, to name just a few. On the runways, that translated into excellent tailoring; romantic frocks with dark, un-princess-y undertones; and a noticeable lack of anything you might call “conventionally sexy.” These were clothes for strong, self-possessed women—not damsels in distress.
But what if you’re getting married? Bridal is, not unexpectedly, another story entirely. The identifiable “look” of bridal is still a big white gown; in bridal marketing, the narrative is still predominantly of the traditional, man-proposes-to-woman kind. Can you really call yourself a feminist if you wear a white fairy-tale gown and tiara to legally promise to “love, honor, and obey” your husband until you die? (Yes, you can, but it feels a bit incongruous these days.) You could say the idea of getting married runs counter to the millennial agenda. A few statistics back that up: Last year’s report by the Census Bureau found that millennial adults are increasingly choosing to live together instead of getting married. The results are the same—cohabitation, shared expenses, pets, bickering!—without the extra paperwork. Within my group of late-20s/early-30s friends, the common thought is that marriage isn’t worth the hassle until you’re ready to start a family. And even then, plenty would argue it’s still a bogus construct.
At the same time, the past decade has seen incredible strides in the world of weddings: The number of gay marriages has been increasing every year, and interfaith marriages are on the rise. Some reports show that millennials are bringing down the divorce rate, too, partially because fewer of them are getting married but also because the ones that do tie the knot are choosing to do so later in life.
However you look at it, our ideas about relationships and weddings are changing. So here’s the big question: Is the bridal world keeping up? From my experience covering the bridal collections over the past five years, plus nearly eight hours of interviews with bridal designers and buyers for this story, I’d say . . . sort of.
As the Spring 2020 Bridal collections get underway this week, I’m confident that at least 99 percent of the gowns will be white. Many of them will be of the “princess” variety, styled with cathedral veils, tiaras, and flower crowns. Others will be at the other end of the spectrum: “naked dresses” with sheer panels and plunging necklines, a trend one trustworthy source told me is on its way out. Most of these gowns will still require at least nine months lead time (if not more) so they can be made to measure and altered in a timely fashion.
For many women, none of that feels particularly modern. So I spoke with bridal designers, buyers, boutique owners, and jewelry makers about where the bridal market stands and where it’s headed in the next decade. The biggest surprise I heard? That bridal should be acting more like ready-to-wear. Read on for more of the big takeaways.
Brides are beginning to shop for gowns the way they shop for everything else: online (and under the wire).
A recurring theme among the experts I interviewed was that brides aren’t placing their orders a year in advance anymore: They’re waiting until a few months—or less!—before their big day. “Women are waiting much longer to make these decisions because they’re exposed to so much and have everything at their fingertips,” designer Danielle Frankel says. “Most of my brides are coming to me three or four months out from their wedding. It’s hard to make these ceremonial looks when the time is so limited. I can handle it because I’m a tiny company, and I can dedicate my resources there. But this shorter lead time is a major talking point among bridal designers and stores.”
Frankel’s solution isn’t to start turning down brides. Instead, she’s adapting and moving part of her business to a ready-to-wear model: There will still be plenty of made-to-measure gowns, but she’s also designing looks that can be produced in “regular” collections (i.e., off the rack), including her first knits. (She’s shared an exclusive first look here with Vogue ahead of her presentation tomorrow.) Of course, this makes more sense for Frankel than other bridal designers because Frankel has situated herself in between “bridal” and “fashion.” Her ivory satin gowns, suits, camisoles, and trousers come with gestural, of-the-moment details like puffed sleeves and baroque pearl buttons, without a mermaid skirt or sparkly flower in sight. Many of her pieces are available to buy online on Net-a-Porter, too; she was the first designer featured on the site when it launched bridalwear last year.
Elizabeth von der Goltz, Net-a-Porter’s global buying director, echoed Frankel’s sentiments. “Our customer is probably a little bit less traditional [than the bridal shop customer], she loves fashion, she wants a lot of choices, and she wants things faster,” she says. “People want to buy what they’re going to wear tomorrow.” With the exception of Frankel and a few “bridal designers” like Naeem Khan and Rime Arodaky, Net-a-Porter’s bridal section mostly consists of popular ready-to-wear designers who produce ivory capsules for the e-tailer. There’s a crisp white cotton gown by Ala?a; glossy ivory suits by Gabriela Hearst; wallet-friendly satin dresses by Georgia Alice; and crystal-trimmed lace gowns by Alessandra Rich. They’re refreshingly nontraditional, and buying one is as easy as, well, buying anything else at Net-a-Porter. “If you’re a bride, you want to see everything,” Von der Goltz says. “So at least with online [shopping], you can see as much as possible and have more choices.”
Brides aren’t just buying one gown. They aren’t even buying only two gowns.
Von der Goltz added that many brides will order their entire look on Net-a-Porter—the shoes, bag, makeup, hair clips, and all the other extras. Some will even put a few dresses (or jumpsuits or trousers) in their cart for a variety of wedding-adjacent events: “We’re seeing a lot of people buy a second white dress to change into after the ceremony, and then they’ll buy all sorts of white things for the honeymoon,” she says. “[When we buy] we’re thinking about the sexy pieces you might want for the after-party or the boho pieces for the destination, or simple knee-length dresses if you get married in the city. . . . It’s about meeting all of those different needs and being able to find it all in one place.”
The one thing you won’t find on Net-a-Porter? Major ball gowns. “We have big gowns for evening but not in white per se,” she says. “What we [prefer] to do is look at a new ready-to-wear collection and say, ‘That look would be so cute in white!’ or ‘Imagine that for a bride!’ So it’s more organic. Going forward, we’re going to add more bridal, including some dresses at a lower price point like Retrofête’s sequined minis. They’re still elevated but more accessible for the bride who wants to change three or four times.”
Fashion designers are beginning to enter the bridal market, but it’s still relatively uncharted territory.
For brides who want to buy everything in one place but “in real life,” there’s the Bergdorf Goodman bridal salon, which has been managed by Nara Ragimov since 2005. On our call, she hit upon many of the same touch points as Frankel and Von der Goltz: the faster turnaround times for producing gowns; brides ordering more than one dress; and ready-to-wear designers introducing their own bridal capsules. “The market has definitely changed a lot, and we try to keep up with our clients,” Ragimov says. “A lot of girls do want to buy multiple looks but never from the same designer. One bride wore Danielle Frankel’s tuxedo jacket as a dress for her rehearsal dinner, and another wore an ivory Alexander McQueen suit. I actually wish more top designers would come out with bridal collections. That would be so exciting.”
Fashion obsessives might cling to that idea as the “future” of bridal. Imagine wearing Paco Rabanne down the aisle! Or Celine! Or Gucci! During our meeting, Frankel joked that “no designer wants to get into bridal because it’s ‘uncool.’ ” Maybe 2020 will be the year they can shake that stigma. The opportunity is there: The bridal market in the U.S. is estimated to be $72 billion, and globally it’s closer to $300 billion, with a particular surge of interest in Asia and the Middle East. For new designers, though, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword: To start your own line and break through a market dominated by heritage brands (Oscar de la Renta, Elie Saab, Vera Wang) is difficult.
“You don’t see many new designers in bridal because it’s very hard to make money in bridal up front,” Frankel explains. “The market schedule is different from ready-to-wear, and every time you sell something to a store, it’s almost a risk because they’re only buying one [sample] of every style. You don’t see a return on that until a bride orders it. And the cost of acquiring customers is much higher than ready-to-wear—it’s such an emotional purchase that it takes a lot of time and energy just to sell it, because a bride will usually want to come back a few times. So to create a product at that level of luxury and then sell it as an emerging designer . . . it takes a lot of capital.”
“It’s really rare that someone young can just start their own bridal line and make it really successful,” Ragomiv adds. “You don’t see that very often.” That’s a bit of a bummer for brides and shop owners who are interested in new talent, but it means the opportunity is open to “alternative bridal” designers like Frankel as well as popular ready-to-wear designers who are entering the market. Next season, Roland Mouret will join that group and unveil his first official “White Collection” for brides, but he’s already cut a few of his curvy, sculptural dresses in ivory. The Clovelly gown, for instance, comes with a square neckline and pleated sleeves reminiscent of his beloved Galaxy dress. “I am questioning how women are approaching their wedding,” Mouret wrote in an email, adding that he hopes women will wear his gowns long after they walk down the aisle. “I don’t think it is relevant anymore to buy a dress for one occasion—women are way more practical than that.” His first capsule of dresses—which he describes as being made for “the bride who goes above the conventions associated with weddings”—is available on his website and on Net-a-Porter.
For a traditional bridal boutique to succeed, it needs a unique vision—and a compelling mix of new designers.
Giselle Dubois and Paul Tsang-Diaz’s showroom, Spina, specializes in true “bridal brands” that you likely haven’t heard of. That’s because they’re exclusive to their store, either in the U.S. or on the East Coast. Many of the designers come from Israel, like Lee Grebenau and Liz Martinez, and the duo is committed to supporting emerging designers like Louden Love (from New Zealand) and Gracy Accad (a local New York label). It’s encouraging for designers who do want to start their own label. “There’s a greater interest in smaller brands right now,” Dubois says. “Brides don’t want to wear what everyone else is wearing. And what’s really changed in bridal is that back in the day brides were strictly dependent on bridal magazines, and now there are endless ways to discover a new designer or boutique because you can see the entire collection on social media,” she continues. “We have brides in Dubai, Australia, and Japan DMing us on Instagram to ask, ‘Can you ship to us?’ That’s never happened before. Instagram itself is a huge vehicle for our business. And I feel like brides are becoming more comfortable purchasing a wedding gown through social media or online, too, which is crazy to me. But they do it—as long as there’s a return policy!”
As for the future of bridal boutiques like Spina, Dubois added: “There are so many factors involved in a wedding, so you really have to become a lifestyle company where you offer ready-to-wear pieces, evening pieces, rehearsal-dinner pieces, bridesmaid pieces, and obviously the gowns. I think that’s what our business is trending towards. Because the more options you can offer a bride within your same house, the better.”
When it comes to engagement rings, many brides are shifting their priorities away from big diamonds towards subtler, less conventional designs.
I could write a whole essay on engagement rings (for instance: Why does everyone want the exact same style?). But let’s focus on one of the brands that’s disrupting the jewelry market. Jess Hannah and Chelsea Nicholson’s one-year-old line, Ceremony, refers to its rings as “symbols of love” rather than “engagement rings.” They’re engagement rings for some people, sure, but for others they’re commitment rings, and some couples are buying two rings so they can propose to each other. Ceremony’s branding contrasts sharply with that of other jewelry companies, which default to the traditional, heteronormative story line. Last year, ahead of its launch, Hannah explained: “Relationships have evolved, but the way jewelry companies speak to them has not. Attitudes on love in general are more open to different kinds of relationships, but everything on the market is still catered to a man proposing to a woman.”
Ceremony’s more timely, inclusive message—which is essentially: Do whatever you want!—resonates with millennial shoppers, but it’s the distinctive, sculptural designs that get them in the (real or virtual) door. Ceremony doesn’t really do gobstopper diamonds, nor will you find ubiquitous halo rings, overly dainty solitaires, or old-fashioned settings on their site. All of the rings are unisex, and most of them are vintage-inspired with clean lines, a mix that feels both modern and timeless. “My goal is that in 10 or 20 years, no one looks back and says, ‘Wow, that ring is so 2019,’ ” Hannah says. Customers are getting on board with the more alternative designs, too: She was happy to report that round brilliant diamonds (the most readily available on the market) are Ceremony’s least popular cut. Instead, they’re selling a lot of marquise diamonds, like in the weighty Sienna I signet, and emerald cuts, like the bezel-set Dahlia.
More interestingly, Hannah and Nicholson find that their customers are less worried about carat size and more concerned with the look of the ring. It marks a departure from the days of women fretting over diamond sizes and refusing to settle for less than three carats (or way more than that). Maybe it’s just the changing tides of fashion—women are favoring a subtler, more confident kind of glamour these days—or we’re adjusting the way we perceive value in jewelry and clothing.
“Another thing we’re seeing is that people aren’t as worried about their band matching their engagement ring,” Hannah adds. “In the past, I did custom rings for my own line [J.Hannah], and most of my clients were very concerned with everything matching. That’s cool if you want it to match, but I kind of like that people are saying, ‘I just really like this ring, and I don’t care if it matches.’ They can wear their wedding band on another finger—there are no rules.”
The days of megawatt diamonds certainly aren’t over, of course. Puffy ball gowns aren’t entirely a thing of the past either—at least not yet. Like all things in fashion, it takes time for trends and new ideas to “trickle down” and go mainstream, but these shifts feel less like a trend and more like a movement. On the cusp of a new decade, it isn’t far off to think we’re (finally!) embarking on a new era of bridal, too.
I think it will be less about dictating what’s modern versus dated—because, really, you should wear what you want!—and more about couples making their own traditions. As more brides and grooms begin to question the “rules,” many of which have been around for decades (or centuries, lest you forget Queen Victoria started the white wedding trend back in 1840), they’ll be looking for disruptive designers and brands that speak to them, not the ones who perpetuate a specific idea of what a marriage or wedding should look like. The most outdated concept of all is that you “should” do anything—whether it’s wearing a certain type of dress, overpaying for a certain type of venue, or getting married at a certain age. (Or getting married at all!) Millennials are already pretty good at rejecting societal norms. Now’s as good a time as ever to be a designer with a fresh, forward-thinking idea they can get behind.