A few years ago, if you were a bride on a budget, you could head over to your local chain bridal store, pluck a few bedazzled dresses off a rack, have a meltdown or two in the dressing room in front of your mom and call it a day.
These days, however, there’s a world of options available for brides-to-be, from bespoke wedding dress companies to indie bridal gown designers to — gasp! — choosing not to wear a traditional wedding dress at all. The latest sign of the impending fall of the bridal-industrial complex: David’s Bridal, purveyor of mermaid wedding gowns and distinctly vulvar bridesmaid dresses, filed this week for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The company’s bankruptcy won’t necessarily affect customers: According to court records, it has reached a deal with lenders to substantially reduce its debt by $400 million, which will allow its 300-odd locations across the country to remain open. Yet the company has been in financial trouble for quite some time, as have other traditional bridal retailers: The national chain Alfred Angelo, for instance, shut down last year, leaving many brides scrambling to find dresses. And industry analysts suggest that the dreaded millennials may be responsible.
For starters, millennials are increasingly delaying or eschewing marriage altogether, opting to cohabitate or focus on their careers instead of walking down the aisle. As of 2017, the median age of a first marriage is 29.5 for men and 27.4 for women, up from 23 for men and 20.8 for women in 1970. Between 2012 and 2017, the marriage rate dropped slowly but steadily at a rate of 1.2 percent per year, according to a 2017 report from the industry and market research firm IBISWorld, thus “limiting the pool of customers seeking bridal gowns and other wedding accessories.”
Even those millennials looking to get married aren’t necessarily interested in buying off the rack. Generally speaking, there’s been an industry-wide “push toward customization,” says Meghan Ely, owner of OFD Consulting, a wedding publicity firm in Richmond, Virginia. “Couples are a little bit older when they get married. They’re a little bit more established,” she said. “So they have a desire to have these wedding celebrations be a reflection of their personalities ... [they’re] a little more informal in their 30s, and they have no desire to walk down the aisle in a big poofy dress.”
This trend toward customization has led to the advent of indie designers and bespoke wedding dress online retailers like Anomalie, which aspire to serve a hipper clientele than David’s Bridal. The Anomalie website features a diverse array of slender young couples gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes in Valencia-hued promotional shots. It’s an eminently Instagrammable aesthetic that retailers like David’s Bridal have tried to imitate in their own marketing materials, to mixed success.
There’s additional evidence to suggest that brides are also becoming more averse to traditional bridal gown price tags. According to a 2017 survey from the Knot, budget-conscious millennials are spending less money on their weddings in general, and they’re also allocating their budgets differently: Instead of spending money on a dress, they’re splurging on cool venues or unique guest amenities (see: post-reception food trucks or cornhole) rather than spending money on a dress.
Ely says that brides are increasingly opting for rental services like Rent the Runway’s recently launched wedding concierge program or recognizable brands like Anthropologie and ModCloth (which both have their own wedding lines) in favor of traditional bridal boutiques. “People are saying, ‘Listen, you don’t need to stick to a particular formula for what you’re spending. At the end of the day, pick what’s most important to you and spend your money there,’” Ely said. “So we’re seeing as a whole a huge increase in attendee experience.”
It’s also worth noting that younger people don’t necessarily conform to the gender stereotypes that have traditionally been the currency of old-school bridal retailers. Same-sex and gender-nonconforming couples getting married aren’t necessarily interested in conventional wedding styles, which has led to increasing demand for nonbinary wedding attire.
“Personalized styles are much more embraced than they were even just a few years ago — on hetero and LGBTQ, alike,” said Brittny Drye, editor-in-chief of Love Inc. magazine, which published a nonbinary wedding fashion issue in 2015. “A bride wearing a pantsuit would have been considered ‘offbeat’ seven years ago, whereas today, celebrities are constantly wearing them for their weddings and the styles are being featured in major wedding magazine fashion editorials.”
While the IBIS report notes that some vendors have responded to increasing competition in the bridal space by “offering to provide bridal apparel to plus-size individuals, same-sex couples and consumers who wish to purchase nontraditional dresses or accessories,” traditional retailers have been relatively slow to meet that demand — or at least, that’s the cultural perception.
David’s Bridal does currently offer a fairly wide range of options for plus-size brides, as well as pantsuits and jumpsuits. But Drye says it might not have been enough for the brand to combat its reputation as a “traditional” wedding dress vendor, “even though their collections offered more modern and fresh silhouettes and collaborations with well-known bridal designers.”
At the end of the day, it does seem that the image of the ethereal blushing bride that traditional retailers have pushed for years has lost sway over millennials, who are increasingly viewing their weddings as experiences rather than as mandatory rites of passage. That’s bad news for David’s Bridal and other retailers that have profited from traditional bridal tropes. But it’s undeniably good news for brides who are interested in bucking old-fashioned traditions in favor of creating brand new ones.