In the early stages of planning her wedding, Molly Kang religiously scooped out gowns on Pinterest, but quickly grew frustrated when she realized the items she pinned were either impossible to find or significantly outside of her budget.
Fueled by exasperation, Kang decided to create Floravere, an online bridal company that sells luxury-style dresses for less using a direct-to-consumer model. Borrowing tactics from retailers like Stitch Fix and Trunk Club, Floravere gives shoppers the option to select from a wide variety of styles and have stylists curate looks for them, which are then shipped in a “Bride Box.” If the bride likes a dress, she works with the Floravere team on alterations and it will be sent back to her within the next 3-4 months.
Though the bridal industry is particularly bound in tradition, it hasn’t stopped the influx of bridal startups like Floravere from trying their hand at shaking up the industry and vying for a piece of the $119 billion bridal market. While brides of the past would partake on days-long expeditions to “say yes to the dress,” the modern bride now has more options than ever at her disposal. Today, these options are increasingly coming from emerging digitally native companies with products in the low- to mid-price range.
The decline of mass market bridal
This next phase of affordable bridal comes as the mass market for wedding apparel is on the decline. After a surge of popularity for new, affordable collections hailing from mass and fast-fashion brands like Topshop, H&M and Asos, interest is starting to wane. According to data from Edited, in 2018, 40 percent of bridal dresses online are retailing in the mass market, compared to 63 percent the year before.
At the same time, companies like J. Crew and Gap are parting ways with their bridal businesses after lackluster sales. Following J.Crew’s announcement that it would no longer offer bridal in November 2016, Gap Inc., followed suit when it shared last month that it would exit its business with Weddington Way, the e-commerce bridesmaid dress brand it acquired in 2016. The move will effectively close the 13 pop-ups held in Banana Republic stores in the U.S.
In an email, a Gap spokeswoman wrote that the relationship with Weddington Way was allegedly experimental from the onset, and ultimately the brand decided it did not want to pursue bridal. “The brand is a small acquisition we made to explore new types of community-based e-commerce. While the business is performing well, we determined that Weddington Way would take time to scale in an impactful way for Gap Inc,” she said.
Now with a dearth of options from traditional brands, brides looking for affordable options are turning to startups and young companies. In additional to Floravere, companies like Brideside, Anomolie and Borrowing Magnolia are introducing bridal consumers to retail models like direct-to-consumer and rental, which have already been prominent in the traditional apparel sector for several years.
“Bridal is growing online, [but] not specifically mass market bridal. And as it grows, the market’s cadence is shifting, too,” Edited analyst Katie Smith wrote in a report last month. “…Brides aren’t about to descend upon the mass market for their dress, but there are categories ripe for mass market price points.”
For companies like Floravere, the ultimate goal is to bridge the gap between eyeing a style on Pinterest — a platform 64 percent of brides consult for inspiration, according to Edited — and translating that to a reality. To do so, Floravere asks consumers to share Pinterest boards and sources of inspiration to help inform the design process.
The next step is designing the dress with the help of a team she recruited from brands like Vera Wang and Monique Lhuillier in an effort to better emulate high-end aesthetics. Kang said she is able to keep costs low — the average price of a wedding dress is $1,500, while traditional luxury brands often sell for well over $10,000 — by using more cost-efficient materials sourcing, cutting out middlemen and reducing customization that leads to “decision paralysis.” On the latter note, she compared giving consumers too many options to going to a grocery store and selecting from 12 different varieties of Cheerios. Instead she focuses on quality design and materials, as well as designing samples for women that go beyond size 12.
“Historically what has made online bridal so difficult compared to other traditional players is [dressers were] not equipped to try on before they buy,” Kang said. “We’ve been laser focused on creating the best, coolest, chicest designs, and really enabling customers to try on the gown and envision it, while providing a dedicated stylist offering her tips and support.”
The wedding industry embraces digital
The rise of digital-driven models for bridal apparel mirrors trends percolating across all aspects of the wedding planning process. Largely led by millennials, young couples are increasingly experimenting with new forms of tech in the form of sustainable lab-grown diamond engagement rings or using mobile apps to craft the perfect wedding registry.
Fresh off a $100 million Series D funding round, Zola is one such registry platform. Unlike traditional methods of registering for wedding gifts, by selecting items at one department store or home goods location and directing guests to their sites, couples compile and personalize registries by selecting from a range of brands that guests can buy directly through the platform. It allows them to bypass the “painful shopping experience” that can happen on department store registries, said CEO Shan-Lyn Ma.
“When you think about millennial couples today, they are unlike any previous generation. They’re getting married at a much older age than ever before,” Ma said. “They tend to live together before they get married. They live on their mobile devices. These things mean that what they want from a registry and planning a wedding are fundamentally different than anything else out there.”
In an effort to meet the needs of millennial couples, Zola is looking to increase its capabilities to help couples through the entire wedding process, taking a cue from services like XO Group’s popular wedding planning site, The Knot. Last year, XO Group repositioned itself from a traditional publisher to a technology company, introducing new products and apps that transcend weddings and extend into other life stages, like home buying and pregnancy.
Still, Ma was quick to point out that Zola differs from sites like The Knot, given its approach of “an e-commerce company disguised as a wedding company” that eschews editorial. In addition to word of mouth, she said what has been particularly conducive to Zola’s success has been its mobile-centric approach and ability to reflect what young couples want. “We spend a lot of time thinking about how to build products customers love and looking at how can we create a registry that is simple, fast and fun for couples and their guests,” Ma said.
Ultimately, a digital approach to wedding planning may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, though Kang said there’s value to visiting a “fancy store on Fifth Avenue with fancy champagne” to find a dress, it’s not for everybody. At the end of the day, her goal, like Ma, is to capitalize on streamlining the process of wedding planning.
“Our goal is to make luxury bridal radically accessible from a price, location and sizing standpoint,” she said. “It’s exciting to see other people in the bridal and wedding space doing similar things to change the status quo.”