More and more Irish brides-to-be are baulking at ridiculously overpriced meringue dresses for their big day. Nathalie Márquez Courtney spoke to three women who bought their dresses at reduced prices – and got a more original and understated look for the money.
Tying the knot is hard to do. Never mind the venue, the favours, the food or even the man – all these quests pale in comparison to finding the one, the dream dress. You need Ghandi’s patience, Roy Keane’s will of steel and Denis O’Brien’s wallet.
I called a South Dublin boutique recently to check their opening hours and mentioned I might pop in to have a look at their collection. I was immediately greeted with a barrage of questions – when was I coming, what time, I really should have made an appointment, when was the wedding, what was my price range, was I planning on bringing my bridesmaids/flower girls/mother and even, to my mortification, a reminder to wear comfortable supportive underwear and very little make-up. All this before I had even told the informative and well-intentioned girl that I wasn’t actually getting married.
For even the coolest, most understated bride-to-be, shopping for a wedding dress can be a stressful and intimidating experience – and that is before you look at the price tag.
Along with the rising and falling value of property, SSIAS, and the M50, weddings have become an exhausted pub couch/dinner table topic.
We are familiar, perhaps overly so, with the bride-to-be stereotype. Thanks to shows like Bridezillas and Brides of Franc we envision obsessive, bitchy Celtic tigresses that single-mindedly claw away at their husband-to-be’s sanity in a quest for bridal perfection. They want a day of couture gowns, helicopter rides, and fireworks at sunset. No asking price is too high, no cake too iced, no dress fitting too long, if it results in a fabulous hitch-free hitch. They want everything their mothers didn’t have, and more.
We are not so familiar with the working fiancée. In her late 20s or early 30s, she has a hectic, demanding job that doesn’t quite pay enough to cover the costs of a dream home and a dream wedding. She is realistic and prudent, willing to shop around to find the best deal. She plans her wedding at home in the evening, fires off emails during her lunch break and is adamant that she won’t be ripped off by our multi-million euro wedding industry. Yes, she too fantasises about an elegant, romantic and unforgettable day, but is realistic enough to know that not everybody can afford to sip champagne and try on Vera Wang gowns.
This is a more accurate depiction of the kind of Irish bride-to-be that’s out there. Like so many pub banter topics, the talk and the walk are two extremely different things.
BILLION $ BRIDES
A few weeks ago, Kilmainham Castle housed Billion Dollar Brides, a wedding dress ex-season and sample sale that offered savings of as much as €2,500 on designer dresses. It is the brainchild of Colette O’Loughlin, the woman behind the popular Irish wedding site simplyweddings.com. “I pitched the idea to Kate Nobellius, organiser of Billion Dollar Babes, and she loved it,” she says.
While fashionistas picked up bargains at the Billion Dollar Babes event, brides-to-be upstairs perused rails lined with over 650 dresses, in all shapes, styles and sizes. A chic and modern bias-cut number by London designer Ben de Lisi hung next to a stunning silk and lace floor-length gown by renowned Parisean couturier Catherine Puget.
Colette’s face lit up as 31-year old artist Eilis O’Toole stepped out of the dressing room, beaming and clutching her prize. “If ever a bride deserved a dress!” she exclaimed. Eilis is getting married in Waterford this coming November. Over the course of a few hours, she had tried on 12 different dresses before finally finding the perfect one. Its original price tag read €1,625 but she got it for just €695.
For 27-year old marketing consultant Michelle O’Keeffe this was her first bridal shopping excursion, ahead of her wedding next June in Dubrovnik. She didn’t buy a dress in the end, as she felt she had nothing to benchmark the styles or discounts against. “After speaking with some friends I am beginning to regret my decision!” she later admitted. “The value there was great and I really liked three dresses, particularly the one you pictured me in.” She wears a gorgeously luxe David Fielden gown, reduced from €2,680 to €900.
A few years ago, the trend of lavish and extravagant weddings floated over from the US. Now, with the success of Billion Dollar Brides, another North American trend seed has been firmly planted. In New York, where sample and end-of-season sales are a regular occurrence, it’s a bride-eat-bride world. Dresses are picked well in advance and the lovely bride arrives with a ‘tag team’ of girlfriends with matching t-shirts (I kid you not) and a strict plan of action – girl A pushes her way in, grabs the dress, passes to girl B, who shoves her way to girl C who is already queuing at the till with girl D. While not a regular occurrence here, word of the bridal sale is spreading fast.
Canadian-born Amanda Doyle lives in Dublin with her Irish-Canadian husband and got married last September in Vancouver. She didn’t look for a dress in Ireland as she discovered that many Canadian bridal stores hold annual ‘trunk sales’ to make room for new collections. It was thanks to one of these sales that Amanda found the gown that made her teary-eyed. “It was exactly what I was looking for but I could have never have spent what it would normally cost,” she says. She paid roughly €600 for a dress which just a few weeks earlier would have cost €5,000. “Be open minded,” she advises. “If you do find an amazing deal on a dress which is maybe a bit dirty, the drycleaners can generally get it spotlessly clean, and it is so much cheaper than buying one in perfect condition. With time and planning there are many ways to save money without compromising on your dreams.”
A cursory glance at wedding forums shows that Irish brides are coming up with many cost-cutting innovations. They share tales of how they bought their dresses on Ebay or, cunningly, how they try on wedding gowns in bridal boutiques and then contact the dress designers directly, sometimes saving as much as 40 per cent. Other brides post pictures of themselves in their dresses, selling them on at a discount. An un-altered size 12 La Sposa Gaudi ivory dress, professionally dry-cleaned and from the 2007 collection, had cost €1,500 but was going for €700.
Like all trends, it didn’t take long for the market to sit up and take notice. High-street heavyweights like Debenhams and Monsoon have launched extremely successful bridal collections. In the UK, Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf produced a wedding dress for H&M that cost £219.99 and sold out within a week. Just a few weeks ago, Marks & Spencer unveiled a bridal range that starts at just €185.
The charity chain Barnardos also offer a wedding dress service. A spin-off from their ‘Brand New’ collection, they ask wholesalers and retailers to donate their end of line, change of season and sample stock. Their wedding boutique in Dun Laoghiare offers the same personal and professional experience that one would expect from a regular wedding store, except with discounted prices. “It has been a huge success for us, the growth in revenue has been exceptional,” says Colette Miller, the store’s development manager. “People get to save on the cost of their wedding and support Barnardos’ work with children and families across Ireland at the same time.”
The wedding dress has long been viewed a status symbol, a social sign of the times. But the times are a-changing. Flashing the cash and flying the helicopter are no longer considered the IT options. Not one of the brides I spoke to had any qualms about buying their dress at a discount, and this is a telling indicator of the kind of dress, and wedding, that is becoming more popular – understated, elegant, modern, unpretentious and original.
After all, the universal rule of dresses is still going to apply – the more expensive the dress, the higher the chance of spilling wine on it.