Banana Republic is peeling off its in-store bridesmaid business, and in doing so it’s revealing a lot about the way today’s bride thinks.
As in: less fluff, more freedom. The impending royal wedding aside, today’s soon-to-be brides and bridesmaids are less willing to invest small fortunes and several afternoon fittings into yards of extravagance that will, after a brief outing, be carefully packed away. Wedding dress worship is heading for the doors like a young bride with second thoughts.
The latest evidence is in the shuttering of Weddington Way, the bridesmaid dress shops that have since 2011 operated within Banana Republic stores. Parent company Gap Inc. in mid-April said it would shutter the shops and is only guaranteeing online orders to June 11.
It isn't the first national retailer that flirted with and then abandoned the bridal business—J. Crew did two years ago. David’s Bridal, meanwhile, is struggling. The Gap’s decision may be less about a bad fit, however. It appears to reflect a deeper shift in how consumers approach the Big Day—or not.
No Royal Influence
As The Knot explained in its “Real Wedding Study,” which shows the average cost of a wedding dipped in 2017 for the first time, year-over-year (to $33,391 from a record high of $35,329 in 2016): “Couples are prioritizing different details, namely personalization, guest experience and cultural elements.”
Among those less-prioritized details, apparently, is bridal wear. The average cost of a wedding dress in 2017 slipped to $1,509. In 2016, it was $1,564.
Could Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle, with an estimated price tag of $45 million, cause would-be brides to splurge more in 2018? Trends in the bridal wear industry indicate otherwise. Several changes, from who is footing the bill to redirected spending, are cutting into the dress.
These four cultural events provide some insight into what the bride is thinking.
Quick-shifting fashion tastes and more competition from non-bridal stores have led many brides and bridesmaids to retailers that provide at-the-moment styles more quickly, and with less fuss. This availability has supported a growing casualization of the wedding celebration that extends to lower-priced, ready-to-wear dresses.
So while Banana Republic’s Weddington Way is pulling back, other retailers are stepping up to offer less expensive and trendy (not traditional) selections. H&M, for example, introduced a collection of affordable wedding dresses for brides and bridesmaids in March, with gowns for as little as $129. Others include BHLDN (operated by Anthropologie), ASOS and Reformation.
The bride is doing more of the planning, and financing, on her own. Even Kate Middleton paid for her six-figure Alexander McQueen gown, worn in the 2011 royal wedding to Prince William, and Meghan Markle is expected to pay for her gown as well.
As for the planning part, women are increasingly seeking options that bring the service to them, much like direct-to-consumer groceries, prescription eyeglass and used automobiles. The websites Anomalie invites shoppers to design their own dresses at predetermined budgets and get them fast—in about three months, compared with up to a year for a traditional custom dress. Similarly, the website Azazie removes the middleman so future brides and bridesmaids can personalize dresses from hundreds of options for as little as $200.
Besting the guests
Brides and grooms on average paid for more than 41% of their wedding celebrations in 2017, according to The Knot. While a smaller portion of those budgets was earmarked for the dress, more was allocated to the guest experience. The average cost per guest reached an all-time high of $268 in 2017, as couples invested more in wedding-day entertainment from live music to selfie stations to lawn games.
Formal ceremonies, meanwhile, declined in favor of more creative venues that are less expensive, such as barns, art galleries and public parks. In short, the dress is becoming secondary to its surroundings.
Also taking a back seat: great-aunt traditions such as garter belts and bouquet tossing.
Fewer “I Do’s”
More women are putting career and other interests before wedding bells—temporarily or for good. The median age of a woman entering her first marriage was 27.4 in 2017, according to the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who never married has risen over the decades—to one in five among those 25 and older, according to the Pew Research Center. The decline is due in part to an increasing number of adults who choose to live together, including having and raising children, instead of getting married. In such cases, couples are replacing retailers such as Weddington Way with those that meet household needs. And then there’s the niche trend of self-marriage, where no partner is desired and the dresses are optional.
The shuttering of Weddington Way’s physical stores should be viewed not as the fall of an industry, but the emergence of a new era in an age-old institution. Retailers that correctly recognize what is important to the bride-to-be are those that see the world through the eyes of a complete woman with many responsibilities and choices—including pants.