The Tricky Business of Selling Wedding Dresses
Vanessa Granda for Taste The Style
If shopping were a sport (and isn’t it?), searching for a wedding dress would be the championship game. Although event shopping is never the easiest, given the hyper-specificity it tends to entail, weddings—especially one’s own wedding—take the cake for most demanding. The hope, after all, is that your wedding day will set the tone for your relationship, dressing it up in the most idyllic light for all the world (okay, your friends and relatives) to see. Flowers and food are certainly fretted over, but nothing receives as much scrutiny as the dress (or the suit or skirt—given that it’s 2016).
The wedding industry is well aware of this and has transformed significantly over the years to cater to the variety of women seeking out that one-and-only dress. As a result, today’s brides are faced with more options than ever, a reality that seems equal parts blessing and curse. There’s more than just something for everyone—there’s an endless assortment, one that accommodates diverse tastes but is much tougher to whittle down, too. And the onus isn’t solely on the bride—designers, wedding planners and saleswomen are also faced with a trickier landscape. With so many different fabrics, lengths and shapes ogling for the bride’s attention, how do these helping hands ever get her to settle for just one?
Marcy Blum, one of the top wedding planners in the industry whose past clientele includes LeBron James and interior designer Nate Berkus, says that doing your homework beforehand is key. “You have to have a good idea of who the bride is before you start the process,” she explains. “Is she very private? Some salons are almost communal experiences. Are there specific designers she wants to see? Because stores carry different designers.” Most importantly, the customer service has to be top notch. Blum says she avoids anywhere that is “scarily aggressive in their selling tactics.”
Vanessa Granda for Taste The Style
But the ever-growing market isn’t necessarily a challenge. “There are so many different ways to shop and do your research now, especially with Instagram and Pinterest. It’s made things easier for brides to narrow down what they want,” says Katharine Polk, the designer behind the ready-to-wear bridal line Houghton. Her luxurious yet edgy designs are for the non-traditional bride, as is her accompanying sales process. Having done away with the usual 6-month lead time, Houghton offers brides immediate satisfaction by stocking their top-selling gowns online. For those with more time to spare, they offer private appointments in their New York City atelier—but given that all of their dresses are produced locally, turn-around time is still quicker than usual.
Mara Urshel, the co-founder of New York City’s more traditional bridal retailer Kleinfeld, agrees with her sentiment. “[The larger market] has made it more exciting,” she tells me. “You know, brides are much older now… when we bought the company 19 years ago, [getting married in] your early twenties was the norm. But today it’s more common to marry in your late twenties or thirties, and the result is that brides are much more educated, they’ve been to enough weddings and have visited every designer or retailer’s website, so when they come in I think they appreciate the options. If somebody tells me they were married 40 years ago, I can say, Was the dress a Priscilla, Galina, Demetrios or Bianchi? And chances are it was [one of those designers].”
More options does not mean that all runs smoothly, of course—and the biggest challenge when looking for a dress seems to be a matter of taste. “Many times the brides have a very clear vision—what they see in the mirror—which is not what everyone else sees in the mirror, but they will go for it [anyway],” Urshel explains. “Seeing the dress in a picture [online] and seeing it on the body are two different things, so we give her the option of seeing herself in dresses that she never expected to try on. It’s not a subjective thing, it’s very objective—what’s subjective is when they bring 10 people to vote on it. That becomes complicated, because a bride may fall in love with a dress, but turn around and see faces that are not approving.” Polk shared similar concerns, noting that “Too many opinions makes the process stressful for a bride… we often see that she wants to include her family and/or close friends, but it can be more confusing than helpful. A bride will often come in with a clear idea of what she likes but get discouraged when there are too many opinions being thrown at her.” Ushel believes this audience-element has grown to be a national problem, spurred on by the hubbub surrounding reality TV shows like Kleinfeld’s very own Say Yes to the Dress.
Vanessa Granda for Taste The Style
Wedding planners like Blum can alleviate this issue a bit, acting as a voice of reason amongst the crowd, but one that ideally isn’t too heavy-handed. “I just like to remind the bride what the wedding they are planning entails,” Blum further explains, “so that they don't fall in love with a cathedral train that will wind up as a dust buster at a barn wedding.” Indeed, reality checks can be helpful, just as long as they “never push a bride into a dress she doesn’t love,” says Polk. Although the Houghton designer is running a business at the end of the day, she ensures that price is irrelevant when it comes to selecting the final dress: “If a bride looks amazing in a $2,400 gown versus a $10,000 one, then I want her to go with the $2,400 gown. I want a happy bride who will look and feel her best.”
The atmosphere of the shopping experience plays a huge part in that as well, as many brides can be easily overwhelmed by it all. “They don't [all] have the patience and stamina for the task that us veterans do,” Blum points out. So how does Urshel keep things intimate at a salon as spacious and popular as Kleinfeld? It comes down to the bond formed between the consultant and customer. “It’s a matter of developing that relationship—conveying that you’re here for her, that she’s your bride and the only person you really care about. [We’ll discuss everything from] venue and timing to specific desires and more personal things that they want to share,” she says, noting that all of her hires have to love brides and share a passion for helping them find the right dress. For Houghton, it’s about making the process stress free, fun and easy. Polk tells me that she was very specific about the design of her atelier for that reason. “It’s very laid back, comfortable and filled with gorgeous natural light. We offer champagne in a pink can with a straw and have music playing so it feels like somewhere you would want to hang out, rather than feeling like a stuffy salon. Having my English Bulldog Jonesy in the atelier for the appointments also lightens the mood!”
Although the experiences at a place like Kleinfeld or Houghton may differ on the surface, what the companies share is an incredible amount of concern for each bride. There’s a clear artistry to selling a wedding dress, and as all of these women have evidenced—the finest work is the most discrete.