Anytime a disruption is made to an industry on the scale of 300 stores, one must acknowledge the massive change. I want to explore the possibilities of how the bridal industry may be effected by the vacuum left behind, should that disrupting corporation cease to exist. To understand the possibilities I forecast, it's important to have context of the world before chain bridal conglomerates.
The Democratization of the Western Bridal Gown through History
Queen Victoria's Influence
So much about bridal fashion has changed over the last century that it stands as a really fascinating history model in its own right. Prior to the Victorian era, the contemporary idea of a bridal gown didn't exist. Women wore their nicest dresses, and while there are a few documented instances of opulent white dresses before her, it wasn't at all a widespread idea. Newspapers and fashion authorities of the day proclaimed white to be the most fitting color for the bride. The industrial revolution meant that each seam need not be handstitched, allowing more middle class families to embrace the trend. Culturally, it's important to remember that conspicuous displays of wealth were often on full display because a wedding was often a merger of powerful families. It should be said, though, that not even royalty expected to wear this gown for merely the wedding day alone. Read about dyeing YOUR gown after the wedding.
from The Marriage of Queen Victoria (1840), by George Hayter via Wikimedia Commons
Depression Era and Wartime
America in the thirties and forties necessitated a more restrained wedding, and the majority of couples may not have invested in new formalwear for the occasion at all. The well-to-do who wore a bridal gown were in slim and uncomplicated silhouettes. Modesty ruled the day, with sophisticated high necklines and long sleeves.
Mid-Century Icons and Advertising
Grace Kelley and Jackie Kennedy are two brides that likely paint a picture of this era's style. The fifties and ballgowns were nearly synonymous. With television and radio becoming more ubiquitous, we start to see the idea of a wedding as the biggest, grandest party a family will ever host. You might be familiar with the DeBeers' Diamonds story, but we fail to recognize the massive messaging impact and utter redefinition of weddings as an entitlement, rather than a luxury for an elite few. Interesting to note, that David's Bridal, a small Florida store in 1950, was expanding franchises mostly into the early 70s. Now-defunct Alfred Angelo was expanding in the 80s.
Modern Era and Globalization
From the sixties until now, the industry has really taken an turn toward democratizing the "big, white dress" concept. Big box bridal and their multi-million annual advertising budgets, mass manufacturing, and vertical structure* created a price that changed the public's perception of what a "reasonable" gown should cost. In the example below, you can see why David's can afford to sell a gown for half what a traditional, independent bridal boutique can. (I feel ethically required to mention that there are huge differences in customer service strategy AND sometimes other quality and/or human rights corners being cut. Product and experience are not apples to apples. Anyway...)
*Vertical companies manufacture and retail their own product, sometimes skipping wholesale ("middle man"), which necessarily adds an tier of markup.
Traditional Apparel Retail:
|Cost to Manufacture (Brand pays factory)||250|
|Wholesale Price (Store Buyer)||500|
|Retail Price (Bride)||1000|
Vertical Manufacturer Retailing:
|Cost to Manufacture (Brand pays factory)||250|
|Retail Price (Bride)||500|
So it's understandably confusing for brides, trying to find the difference between a $500 gown and a $1000 gown. Without a knowledge of apparel construction, business structure, offshore manufacturing ethics, and staff training investment, how is a consumer to see a difference at all? I get it.
Disclosure/clarification: Renegade offers custom design to brides as a vertical company and wholesales our collection to full-service bridal retailers nationwide.
Filling the Budget Bride Void
So as we watch David's Bridal marketing their way through bankruptcy recovery, still jaded by the recent sting of Alfred Angelo's abrupt demise, the question I think we should be asking is "what if?" I think there are a few possibilities.
1. Bridal is un-democratized.
In a return to eras past, the version of bridal fashion that we've come to accept as accessible to all ceases to exist at a budget price point. I vascillate back and forth on if this would be an entirely bad thing. If Americans start to gravitate back toward domestic manufacturing, this is a possibility. I think this is less likely than the other possibilities and depends hugely upon the media messaging at that moment. I also find myself curious if any product has EVER reverted to a luxury once it's become so widely accessible. It could happen, though to which extent, we'll have to wait and see. I think retail buyers will be the deciding factor.
2. Brides opt for "just a great little (white) dress"
Brides start to look less for boning and crinoline and gravitate to, essentially, white maxi dresses. Department stores and formals become a solution. We have to acknowledge, too, that trends in recent years have been normalizing color again. I don't see that changing, especially if brides feel limited by affordable white options.
I say "further" because there are already brands producing shockingly affordable gowns. Some shops opt not to carry those collections. There are also consignment bridal stores, which I love as a solution for the ethical and budget-conscious bride, and I can see them having terrific success.
3. Traditional bridal retail adapts further, consignment grows
4. Online and big box swoop in
The most certain of any of these options are that we continue to see big brands work their way into this industry. Target tried in recent years. I'm calling it now; I see Wal-Mart coming for this void if David's is out of the game. I won't pretend to know what that would look like, either. Online purchasing will become increasingly normalized, too. Check out our new DIY Design Lab with combinations from $650 (launching in Jan 2019).
So my thoughts on David's and other big box bridal retailers might be clear, but I don't deny they hold a significant place in the market. They disrupted and changed the game, truly. Whether that was all for the best or not is up for debate, but it has never been my conclusion that they're the only option at that price. Without a dramatic change to their customer experience, they're going to have to work that much harder to message otherwise, too. Tell your friends; they're not the only game in town. They just spend a LOT of money to make you think so.