Will the bridal market continue to embrace the virtual world post … – Harper's Bazaar UK

The wedding industry was forced to adapt, but did it change for good?
Every single business in the world has been somewhat impacted by the coronavirus crisis, but you could argue that the wedding industry has faced one of the most dramatic setbacks.
With as many as 70 per cent of UK

weddings postponed in 2020 (and large-scale events still banned for the foreseeable future), many bridal boutiques, wedding venues, caterers, florists and wedding photographers saw their entire year’s business wiped out in front of their eyes, while the companies who did have future weddings to prepare for had to find new and alternative ways to make their businesses work.
When it comes to bridalwear – unlike much of the fashion world (which has long embraced the online model) – there was a new challenge: provide brides with the same level of high-end experience that they have come to expect for one of the most special shopping moments of their lives, but do it from afar.
Although selling bridalwear online is not unheard of and many brides have certainly warmed to more modern ways of finding their wedding dresses in recent years, the in-person bridal appointment – complete with family members, friends and glasses of champagne – is something which is treasured and has become a firm fixture in the wedding-planning calendar for many women.
However, a national lockdown meant that shops were forced to close, many ateliers had to shutter and the chance of having an in-person bridal appointment was all but impossible at what is often the busiest time of the year for bridal designers. Of course, as many businesses across the world pivoted to their new circumstances, so did many wedding dress brands, embracing the virtual world for the very first time. But how exactly did brands make this brave new world work for them, why hadn’t it been embraced before and will this new fixture remain long after lockdown?
“As a bride, your wedding day is something you’ve dreamt about since you were a little girl,” Hamish Shepard, founder of wedding-planning app Bridebook tells us. “Fuelled by films, books and what we saw our parents do, there is definitely an idealised view of wedding-dress shopping in real life. You bring your friends, your family, you pop open the bubbly and you have that moment when it feels like you’ve found ‘the one’. You’re shopping for an item that becomes part of your history – it’s a very special moment and most people don’t want to do it online.”
New York-based wedding-dress designer Danielle Frankel agrees that the tradition of the experience is what has previously held many women back from considering the online world when it comes to choosing bridalwear.
“Shopping for a wedding dress is traditionally something that is always an in-person experience. Women are not only looking for the gown, they want to sip on champagne, invite their mother and feel fabrics in person, rather than just clicking an item online.”
Meanwhile, Jess Kaye, co-founder of East London bridal boutique The Own Studio, believes that many brides have avoided online shopping due to the lack of options.
“There aren’t many places where you can get an incredible made-to-measure service online and so I think the confidence factor is important. A wedding dress is an expensive, one-of-a-kind purchase, so you need to make sure it’s right.”
Certainly, the trust involved in spending so much money on one item of clothing (in many cases, the most a woman will ever spend on a dress in her life) is immense. It’s no surprise then that brides want to really see, feel and try on these dresses before parting with any money. For this reason, many bridal brands and stores have found new ways to offer a high-end online experience that goes far beyond traditional Internet shopping.
For designer label Roland Mouret – which launched a new bridal collection this summer – the customer experience was just as key to the brand’s approach as it would be in store. The brand chose to work with luxury concierge service Toshi, which delivers the pieces, offers a try-and-wait option, as well as fitting and alteration services. Mouret says he wants the experience to feel “seamless and very special for each bride from start to finish”.
Other brands embraced the virtual appointment, stepping into their client’s homes on Zoom and attempting to recreate the magic they can normally deliver from their showrooms. Couture wedding dress designer Phillipa Lepley described these video meetings as “very popular” with her clients.
“Brides love the hands-on experience they get with a dedicated, expert team member who guides them on their search using images, videos and sketches. A large number of our brides come to us because they want to create a completely bespoke couture dress, so they don’t necessarily need to try on a specific dress in the shop anyway to start the process.”
For many brands, including Phillipa Lepley, the virtual appointment was already a reality before the pandemic, but it was simply accelerated to accommodate all brides, not just those who couldn’t visit the store because they lived internationally. And this, of course, is one of the biggest advantages of virtual wedding-dress shopping – brides now have more choice than ever before; they are no longer restricted to where in the world they live and are far more likely to discover labels they never would have if confined to just one local bridal store.
“A more digital landscape has huge advantages,” Shepard explains. “For brides, the ability to shop around, not only for the best prices but for the best choice for their bodies and personalities is a huge win. Brides will have greater exposure to alternative wedding ideas, paired with the ability to order more easily, leading to much more unique weddings.”
“It’s brilliant for emerging designers like us,” Kaye says. “We have brides all over the world who wouldn’t have seen us or be able to buy their outfit with us if we didn’t have a collection online. For businesses, it gives you access to a much wider network and for brides, it helps you discover designers that you otherwise wouldn’t have seen or been connected with.”
Even for more established brands like Phillipa Lepley, this increased reach has huge advantages.
“Virtual appointments mean that brides can choose from the best of the best designers internationally, all from the comfort of their own home. It is not only practical but it is incredibly exciting. The whole creative process has opened up and there are no limits. As a designer, I find it very inspiring to get to work with so many brides from different corners of the globe.”
This new model requires designers and their brands to embrace a new way of working, but also to develop new skills with their clients, Lepley says.
“Working this way takes a lot of time and careful planning; staff need to be highly expert and so well informed to be able to deliver a high-quality service, but it is a magical and very rewarding aspect of the job to design and create a dress virtually for a bride.”
And, while adapting to this new way of working may have been tricky for some brands, it will be difficult not to include these services going forward.
“The pandemic has shown brides that visiting a boutique is not the only way to shop for a bridal outfit – they can try samples at home or have virtual appointments with stockists across the world,” Kaye explains. “Now that these options have been switched on, it’s not as simple as just turning them back off. Businesses will need to continue to innovate and service this new way of bridal shopping.”
For brides who are, as Kaye describes them, “savvy and incredibly decisive”, they will now demand the option of being able to buy their wedding gowns online. This is a trend that has been predicted at Bridebook too, Shepard explains.
“There’s a good chance that due to the ease of virtual appointments, many within the sector will be reluctant to move back to all in-person appointments. Many brides, especially those who don’t live in major cities, have loved the wider availability of virtual appointments and having orders shipping straight to them.”
Frankel too agrees with this notion and explains that her company will not be eliminating their virtual appointments just because the showroom is back open.
“I think it is fair to say that the pandemic has changed the way people shop, invest in certain aspects of their wedding and navigate planning. For us, at-home appointments will continue until the end of the year, and most likely thereafter as we work with many international clients who cannot travel to New York.”
There are clearly huge advantages for bridal brands to open up their businesses to the virtual world, but this certainly does not mean that the in-person appointment will be going anywhere anytime soon. It seems inevitable that women will have different priorities with the experience and these will be accommodated for.
“It feels like there are two types of bride and bridal business; one is much more confident and comfortable with shopping online and the other is much more traditional in their approach and still wants to go and visit a physical store,” Kaye says. “I think the future of the industry lies in a combination of the two – this was the case before the pandemic but of course it has definitely accelerated the trend towards online shopping.”
For many women, the in-person bridal appointment will still be key to their wedding-planning experience, and even for a modern bridal label with an online presence, the team at The Own Studio believes that you can’t beat a real-life appointment.
“While there are many benefits to buying your wedding dress online (convenience, pricing, transparency, to name a few), I personally don’t think that virtual appointments are substitutes for meeting with real people,” Kaye says. “That applies to all sectors of course, but especially for the wedding industry, which relies on creating a special brand of magic. Technology has made so many things easier and more efficient but there are still some moments that you really want to savour, and choosing your wedding outfit is one of those moments.”
Shepard also believes that our reliance on the virtual experience will diminish somewhat once normal life resumes.
“Although virtual shopping may be the norm for a long while yet, there is something to be said about bringing your bridal party and family to sip on bubbly while you play dress up – and that will definitely make a comeback when the time is right. Part of the wedding process is that we want to share it with our nearest and dearest so in-person shopping will return again.”
For the online bridal model to truly boom then, the ultimate challenge for bridal designers and stores is to recreate that in-person experience in a virtual setting. This is not impossible, but the concept certainly isn’t perfect yet.
“The challenge to sell online is to find ways to preserve the magic and keep the experience memorable for brides,” Kaye says. “Buying online should still feel special. Ultimately that is down to the designer and the way they work with their customers.”
“For the fashion industry as a whole, this time has led to great reflection on how digital shopping can still be an exciting and emotive experience,” Shepard adds. “Brands like Prada and Loewe have proven that online shows and showrooms can still create this – and it is likely that this will filter into the bridal showrooms as well.”
And the opportunity is certainly there. With so many weddings rescheduled to next year and lockdown having seen a bumper number of engagements (Bridebook estimates that 38 per cent more couples got engaged in June 2020 compared with the same month last year), 2021 is going to be the year of the wedding with an estimated 400,000 ceremonies set to take place. After the toughest and most challenging few months for the industry, wedding brands will hopefully see a big year for business – and many of these brides will likely now expect virtual appointments to be a part of the process, while others will still favour the more traditional approach – but that choice, it seems, is here to stay.
Thinking of buying your wedding dress online? Here are The Own Studio’s top tips.
It might sound like an obvious one, but if you’re looking to buy a dress from a brand you’ve not heard of before, make sure they are reputable and have a good track record. Requesting real bride images and testimonials is a good place to start and make sure you are able to talk to a real person – just because you’re buying online, doesn’t mean it can’t be a personal experience.
Not everyone will offer this, but it’s worth asking if you can try a sample before you commit to your purchase. We offer a sample postage service so brides can try pieces in the comfort of their home before making a decision. If you’re ordering a made-to-measure dress, keep in mind that the sample might not be the perfect fit (just like in a boutique) but it will give you huge amounts of confidence in the quality of the garment and whether it suits your complexion or body shape.
As helpful as pictures are, it doesn’t always show you the quality or movement of the fabric. It’s always useful to ask for a fabric swatch so you can physically feel the quality and weight of the fabric against your skin. Watching videos of the dress in motion will also really help you see how the fabric moves and drapes. We also offer video consultations with brides so they can see the dress over Skype on a mannequin or a model, as well as a fabric swatch postage service.
If you are buying a made-to-measure piece, you will need to provide your measurements (and even if you’re buying ready to wear it’s really useful to compare your measurements to the brand’s size chart). We provide brides with a step-by-step video guide on how to take measurements at home to make things super easy. You can also ask any good local dry-cleaner or seamstress to take them for you too.
Generally speaking you can expect a quicker turn-around time when you buy online, even when it comes to made-to-order or made-to-measure, but make sure you ask for a clear timeline on when you can expect your finished piece. All our bridal and bridesmaid styles are made in London, which gives our brides an extra piece of reassurance that we have complete oversight of production.
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