These Companies Are Trying to Fix the Worst Part of Being a Bridesmaid
From her office in New York City’s garment district, Corie Hardee is getting ready for summer wedding season. Racks of bridesmaid dresses, which cost between $50 and $75 to rent, are crammed into her small warehouse space. Frantic brides and bridesmaids will soon saddle her with emergencies—once, a bridesmaid's dress was chewed up by a dog; another time, a bride had 10 dresses stolen off her porch. A year ago, when Hardee's business was much smaller, these would be occasional interruptions, she says. "Now it's a new scenario every week."
Hardee’s business, called Union Station, is one of many budding new entrants in the battle for bridesmaids. Powerful mainstream retailers, such as Urban Outfitters, Ann Inc., and Target, have in recent years launched lines for nuptials, backed by their robust, well-trafficked websites. And several startups, including Union Station, Vow to Be Chic, and Weddington Way, are pushing brides to consider new ways of finding and ordering bridesmaid dresses. All are seeking to supplant the old guard of local shops and bridal chains through online shopping.
A lot of money is at stake. In 2012, weddings included an average of four bridesmaids, each spending about $136 on a dress, according to the most recent data from Wedding Report, an industry research firm. That puts the bridesmaid market at about $1.7 billion nationwide, Wedding Report estimated. It's a big bonus on top of the price of a gown, a $2.5 billion market on its own.
Picking out a white gown is often a lengthy process beloved by brides, but bridesmaid dresses are much more likely to be acquired online, industry experts say. And shopping for a bridesmaid dress can be a source of anguish. Bridesmaids often have little say in the dress they're forced to don. It's tough to make the whole group happy. Coordinating logistics can be a burden. And after being worn once, a bridesmaid dress usually languishes in the closet.
Hardee, who founded Union Station in 2012 as Little Borrowed Dress, attracts brides who don’t want to inflict a one-use-only purchase on their best friends. Instead, brides register their parties and select the styles and color palette they want. The rest is up to the bridesmaids, who discuss fit, styling, and color with reps before getting shipped a dress and a backup size. Customers return the dresses after the wedding, and Union Station handles the dry cleaning. Though men have enjoyed rental services for decades, since many tailors and clothing stores offer rented tuxedos for black tie events, it's a more recent model for womenswear. "It seems like the bridesmaid space is kind of the stepchild of fashion," says Hardee. "Because it's kind of an afterthought."
“It’s an incredibly outdated industry,” says Kelsey Doorey, founder of Vow to Be Chic, an online bridesmaid dress rental service based out of Santa Monica, CA. Doorey launched Vow to Be Chic in 2014, following a stint at Rent the Runway, a pioneer of online fashion rental. (Rent the Runway also has its own bridesmaid dress rental service). Vow to Be Chic's loaner garments largely run between $95 and $125 and include labels Nicole Miller, Jill Stuart, and LulaKate.
Doorey says the bridal industry is “out of touch” with how young women shop. They don’t want to drive around seeking different dress designers or convene at a bridal shop to get fitted for dresses together. Instead, bridesmaids are mostly looking for convenience. And because people are now getting married at an older age, groups of friends are more likely to be dispersed geographically, making it impossible to get everyone together the old-fashioned way. That’s where the online players come in.
The website of Weddington Way, a San Francisco startup that sells bridesmaid dresses online (with a rental service in testing), invites bridal parties to “Buy your bridesmaid dresses as a team.” Founder Ilana Stern, a Stanford MBA and former buyer for Bloomingdale’s, is trying to simplify the decision-making process without having to physically corral a group of women. On her site, brides and bridesmaids can convene online and pick between $330 Badgley Mischka satin dresses or more affordable looks from such labels as Alfred Angelo or Dove & Dahlia. “It’s been an administrative nightmare for bridesmaids in the past,” says Stern. “And technology is really suited to solve that.”
JoAnn Gregoli, owner of Elegant Occasions, a wedding planning company in New York, says the bride no longer exerts total control over her bridesmaids’ style. Cookie-cutter, mono-hued sets of bridesmaids aren’t as common as they used to be. "They're allowing them to be their own person with a voice, without forcing them to get a horrible bridesmaid dress they'll stick in the back of their closet," she says.
Neighborhood bridal shops and many major bridal labels have struggled to adapt to the online shopping world. David's Bridal, the nation's biggest chain, is working on improving its digital business, though an executive recently told Racked that its website remains "less than optimal." Most other traditional retailers are still banking on brides' desire for the classic experience—and the bridesmaids' dresses that go with it. It's a dangerous play, says Gregoli, because they may be left behind. Sensing the incumbents’ stagnation, big brands have stepped into the fray in recent years and are "going to force these other companies to make a move or be antiquated," she says.
J. Crew led the charge when it started selling bridal gowns and bridesmaid dresses in 2004, with multiple others following suit over the past several years. Ann Taylor and White House Black Market boast collections of clothes for the big day. Target’s Tevolio label offers up satin bridal gowns and lace bridesmaid dresses. Kate Spade has a smaller shop for gifts and accessories. Urban Outfitters added boho-chic bridal clothing to its Free People label in May. Five years prior, Urban launched BHLDN, a dedicated bridal brand, which posted a near triple-digit increase in sales last quarter.
Weddings are an attractive bet for mainstream apparel brands because they’re a low-risk, consistent source of consumer spending, says Simeon Siegel, an analyst at Nomura Securities. And while the way a bridesmaid shops for her dress is changing, the fact that she needs to wear one isn't. “Until people can start proposing with smartwatches, you need to go get a diamond ring,” Siegel says. “Within that rule, there’s also this notion that you need to have a white dress and you need to have a bridal party.”
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