There's an adage that finding the perfect wedding dress is like finding a perfect partner: You want one that hugs your body, offers support, lifts you up and makes you feel beautiful. So wouldn't it be great to get a dress from a brand that, like your future spouse, you trust to give you these things on an average Wednesday as well as on what's supposed to be the most memorable day of your life?
That seems to be the philosophy behind the slew of major mass-market retailers now offering bridal gowns. It was an idea popularized by J. Crew, which launched its Weddings and Parties collection in 2004 after noticing women were buying some dresses in multiples to use for bridesmaids or in white to use for themselves. The notion then grew to include Isaac Mizrahi's Target dresses, Viktor & Rolf's design for H&M and others.
The trend seems to be exploding now, tapping today's market of more budget-conscious brides with gowns from the Limited, Ann Taylor and, shipping out July 1, White House | Black Market. Next spring, bohemian brides-to-be will be able to sift through Anthropologie's wedding gown selection, while discount divas with their eyes on luxury names can check out Vera Wang's designs for David's Bridal.
And there are lines like BCBG Max Azria, which doesn't have an official bridal line but has figured out why its loyal customers are fighting over the last off-white column strapless dress in their stores. The company has added to its website a "wedding shop" dedicated to its more formal dresses, including white ones that can pass for bridal gowns.
"These gowns are completely specific to their brands," says Heather Levine, fashion editor at wedding website TheKnot.com. A wedding gown from J. Crew "has the same vibe as any piece in the store," she says. "These companies are creating designs in their own brand. You're getting the same product from [these stores] as you would from your local salon boutique, but what it really comes down to is your style. If you want something really over the top and ornate, you're not going to be shopping at these online retailers."
J. Crew doesn't break out wedding dress sales from its overall revenue, a spokeswoman said. But the company has seen enough business to add five or six new designs each season and it opened a full-on bridal store in May in New York. It also has in-store salons with limited selections at outposts across the country (including the Grove in Los Angeles).
BCBG Max Azria usually has items in stores, and White House | Black Market showcased samples of its dress in some stores so brides could try them on ahead of the July launch, but they will be for sale only by phone or via the store's website. In fact, for the most part, the mass market gowns are available only to brides embracing the Web, but Levine says shopping for them online shouldn't be a problem.
"While we would never recommend buying a couture gown online, these gowns are more true to size, so that you can feel more comfortable about making that purchase online," she says. Plus, she says, you'd probably have to make alterations — like sewn-in bras for added support — to boutique store gowns too.
The mass-market phenomenon is more than just a case of brand loyalty. Brides spent an average of $1,134 on their gowns in 2009 (making this an estimated $1.7-billion annual industry), according to the more than 21,000 couples who answered TheKnot.com's annual survey. Dresses from these mass-market retailers can go for less than half that.
"We are back-peddling away from this wild fashion party that we've been enjoying until the recession hit," says David Wolfe, creative director of New York trend forecasting firm Doneger Group. "Everyone recognizes that people are not willing to go into massive debt for a wedding dress. … We have a lot of young women who don't want to dress in a really establishment kind of label. It's sort of modern, hip and cool to dress in your favorite everyday wardrobe."
He adds that in the giant retail landscape of bridal wear, these trusted brands offer a jumping-off point.
"If you know you're an Anthropologie sort of girl, then that's where you're going to gravitate," says Wolfe. "Those brands have their own integrity."
But is a reasonably priced, easy-to-buy dress too good to be true? We asked some local brides-to-be to give some samples a test walk down the aisle. (One note: We included women from a variety of incomes and ages planning different kinds of weddings, but readers might notice their waistlines don't vary as widely. Though sizes in the double-digits are available for purchase, smaller sample sizes were often the only ones available for our test run.) Their opinions follow: