Bridal Gown Shopping 101: Exploring Salons (Part 1)

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Bridal Gown Shopping 101: Exploring Salons (Part 1)

What’s the first thing a bride usually does when the engagement is set? She heads out for the salons with hopes of finding the right dress. Of course, salons vary. Some feature apparel solely for brides, others branch out into special occasion and formalwear sections. In metro areas the focus gets more intense. Boutique-chic lofts offering edgy innovations serve a different bride than the wall-to-wall plush of department stores like Bonwit Teller.

All these places work in a like-way though. Most keep stock of designer samples in house. Once you decide on a gown, you’re measured, any special requests are made (if the designer/manufacturer offers any), you put down a deposit, and then the order is placed with the designer or manufacturer. Turn around time for delivery runs 4–6 months. This means once your order reaches the designer’s workroom, eventually the gown is made according to your measurements. Upon delivery the salon can arrange (for a price) any necessary alterations. This is of course optional. You can take your dress to any outside seamstress you want.

So the typical salon works by placing an order rather than simply wrapping up your gown, ringing up the transaction, and sending you out the door with it. In other words, for all good things one must wait. So before you reach into your wallet and put down the proverbial deposit, here’s a bit of inside info worth checking out.

Q: I love the top of one dress. It’s perfect for me except the skirt is way off what’s ideal for my proportions. I do, however, like another version of skirt the designer offers on another gown. Is there some way I can exchange these pieces to get what I want?
A: Did you know for an additional price, some manufacturers can customize your gown? Contrary to popular belief, your favorite designer’s sample may not be the only version it comes in. That’s right. If you love the top on one gown and the skirt of another, you may be able to switch them as long as that particular designer/manufacturer does what’s called a “swap” or “change out.” Take into account that the components do have to be from the same designer’s collection for this to work. Designers vary, though. Some may not swap components at all, offering modifications on color, sleeve, or train lengths instead. All the same, this could be the opportunity to make inquiries about adornments they may offer: lace options, embroidery, etc. But be warned. Too many changes and/or additions and suddenly, cha-ching! Keep in mind, too, that designers don’t like to rework their original concept too far off the mark. As one put it, “Jean Harlow’s dress into Marie Antoinette’s is asking just too much …”

Love that gown but if only it wasn’t a bridesmaid dress …

Q: I found this great dress online. It’s a simple, strapless sheath that’s perfect for wearing under that white organza I’m having designed. The problem is, it’s a bridesmaid dress and the lightest color it comes in is tan.
A: Believe it or not, stumbling across that bridesmaid dress broadened this bride’s options. She’d planned on designing a sheath to go under the nearly finished organza dress but she hadn’t decided on the exact style yet. That is, until she saw the abovementioned sheath online, which, incidentally, she found out did come in a white silk dupioni and cost a fraction of what most salons or custom designers would have charged.

Wearing a bridesmaid dress when you’re a bride is a mum’s-the-word sort of trend going on now. Check out The Knot and you’ll find a whole section devoted to bridesmaids. Also, notice bridesmaid dresses don’t look so much like those Muriel’s Wedding atrocities anymore; most have morphed into simple, unadorned styles, making them the perfect backdrop for customizing into a bridal gown. The bridesmaid dress option is the way to go if:

1)  You’re using it as a foundation on which to customize with other adornments.

2)   You want a more low-key or informal look, sans the train, lace, and beadwork.

3)   You want color.

4)   You’re price-conscious. Bridesmaid dresses cost a fraction of what a bridal gown costs.

For brides who don’t want to be in white or ivory, bridesmaid dresses are perfect. They come in just about as many colors as Crayola crayons from the palest pastels to deepest jewel tones.

Once you start looking online, keep in mind not all manufacturers use first-rate fabrics and/or construction (see my FYI designer recommendations below). Try to find styles in high-grade silk or silk blends, especially if you plan on customizing, where you’ll need as clean and pure a background as possible. And always remember, the simpler the dress, the more perfectly it should be made.

FYI: Here are my recommendations for bridesmaid designers offering the best in styles, fabric, and construction: Lazaro Bridesmaids, Alvina Valenta Bridesmaids, and Ann Taylor Celebrations. You’ll find these on The Knot.

FYI: Most bridesmaid dresses can be ordered through your salon. Allow 3–4 months delivery.

Love that gown but if only it didn’t have such a high price tag …

Q: I saw a dress online and thought I’d finally found The One. But once I checked the price, I almost fell over backwards. Whoever emailed back said the fabric was one of those rare imports and that’s the reason for the high price. My question is, can I get this dress made in a less expensive fabric?
Some designers are willing to swap fabrics. Imagine that imported 100 percent Italian silk peau de soie A-line in a less expensive rayon satin. This option works as long as you’re not a fabric purist. If you’re more prone to basing your decision on the overall silhouette instead of the fabric, go for it. That A-line going for $3,500 could sell for a lot less in a synthetic alternative.

If you’re placing an order through a retail salon there’s a catch to fabric swapping. Few designers offer this option. When and if they do, it may only apply to certain gowns in the collection. Add to that the overseas labor/competition/marketing issue and swapping fabric is on its way to becoming a lost art. The most successful swaps have more to with the relationship between your salon and the manufacturer. Chances are if they’ve been solid through years of swapping, customizing, etc., then your salon may be able to swing you a deal. Just make sure you and your consultant have decent same page communication since you’ll never interact with the designer actually making your gown.

Part 1 | (Part 2)