Brands and retailers are hotly anticipating a boom in occasionwear as Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle draws nearer. Drapers speaks to buyers and designers to find out how they are preparing for a potential surge in demand.
When news of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle broke last November, the stage was set for an occasionwear renaissance. The Saturday 19 May wedding is expected to match demand generated by Prince William’s 2011 marriage to Kate Middleton. Kantar Worldpanel found that the UK occasionwear market grew by 1.1% between between 20 March 2011 and 18 March 2012 on the back of the nuptials, after a 1% decline the previous year. Now the Duchess of Cambridge, Middleton continues to influence occasion clothing alongside her sister, Pippa.
Harry and Meghan’s upcoming nuptials will provide a welcome boost to the occasionwear sector, which Kantar Worldpanel says has showed signs of lagging after sales fell 5.6% in the year to January 2017. Brand valuation consultancy Brand Finance predicts Markle will boost the British fashion industry by £150m in 2018, while the wedding is expected to generate more than £1bn of UK economic activity across all sectors.
The “Meghan effect”’, which earned the former actress a spot in Drapers’ Top 100 2017, is already putting more occasionwear brands on the map.
Data compiled by fashion platform Lyst for its 2018 Wedding Fashion Report found that rumours surrounding the brands Markle might choose for her gown fuelled an 82% spike year-on-year in wedding dress searches for Ralph & Russo during the three months to March, as well as a 43% search rise for Erdem and 38% increase for Roland Mouret.
The statistics, which analysed data from 12,000 online stores and designers, do not include recent speculation regarding Christopher Bailey’s involvement. At the time of going to press, her chosen label remains under wraps.
One certainty is that buyers and designers at brands and retailers will be scrutinising every fashion detail of the wedding – as will their consumers – while hoping it will inspire fresh trends.
Luxury bridalwear designer Kate Halfpenny says: “I always notice how these sorts of events inspire how my clients and their family members dress.
“It might give the British public an incentive to up the ante on their personal styles for occasionwear. A shake-up is needed out there, and I love it when there’s a big event like this that inspires everyone to put their best foot forward.”
Amy Molloy, a buyer at fast fashion brand Quiz’s bridalwear line, adds: “The wedding will mean more inspiration. It will make people think about [broadening their searches] for dresses. Anything to highlight occasionwear will be good for us.”
Halfpenny, meanwhile, brushes off concerns that affordable bridalwear will steal more market share when fast fashion players react quickly to outfits worn on the day: “I’m not at all worried about it. I will just carry on doing what I’m doing.”
The whole market will get a big boost. Lots of retailers will jump on the bandwagon – they’d be silly not to
Sarah Whitwell, Frock & Frill
But as more high street retailers debut bridal ranges – most recently H&M, which released a collection featuring a budget version of Middleton’s bridal gown earlier this month – the number of players hoping to cash in on the event will undoubtedly increase.
Sarah Whitwell, head designer at occasionwear brand Frock & Frill, which is stocked on Asos and Amazon, says: “The whole market will get a big boost. Lots of retailers will jump on the bandwagon – they’d be silly not to. The competition will increase, so we’ve got to stay on top of our game.
“Over the past few years we’ve seen a lot of retailers launching [bridal] ranges. That comes off the back of seeing younger couples – in the same generation as Harry and Meghan – putting off marriage mainly because of cost. But romance will be in the air and could inspire more people to get married, so we are hoping there’ll be a rise in weddings [and therefore sales volumes].”
She adds that Frock & Frill has been quick to tap into the fervour around the royal wedding, and will react quickly to each component of Markle’s look, from fabrics down to her nail varnish choices.
“When [the date was] announced in November, we were already working on ranges that were quite regal, looking at vintage royal weddings for inspiration, and considering adding veils, capelets and trains for more demure looks.
“Some components will be super-fast, while others will be in next season’s ranges. It’s about reacting very quickly to what consumers will pick up on.”
Molloy says Quiz’s quick lead times and ability to react in season places the retailer in good stead: “Once any [wedding images] come out, the designer and I will go through and highlight anything we think is relevant – the textures, prints and colours that guests are wearing – and develop that into something that is commercial for us.”
Brands expect styles influenced by Markle’s wedding dress to emerge for spring 19, as such purchases are more considered, but they are gearing up take advantage of a surge in instant demand for styles similar to those seen on the bridesmaids and guests.
Womenswear brand YAS, which is owned by Danish fashion house Bestseller, is among the brands keen to ensure that enough of its occasionwear will be stocked at its key retailers to meet “immediate” demand on 19 May and the days following.
They have made the wedding more accessible to the public by holding it on the weekend
Andrea Wood, YAS
Andrea Wood, key account manager for YAS’s UK operations, says: “Our market will be looking for these dresses – we’re very prepared for that.
“They have made the wedding more accessible to the public by holding it on the weekend, which opens it up even more for the industry, because [shoppers] who might have been at work can get on their phones immediately to react, and search for styles.”
YAS launched a bridal range in January, and expects its sales to be heavily influenced by the wedding. Wood cites a rise of around 18% in customer searches for tailored suits shortly after Markle wore one in February.
Meanwhile, one buyer at occasionwear specialist Coast, who did not wish to be named, says that although the retailer does not offer bridalwear, it will keep an eye on other outfits relating to the occasion, including what may be worn on the honeymoon, or on the day after the wedding: “We will be looking to see if any new trends emerge and what the colour themes are, as well as what the overall attitude towards dressing up will be from both the wedding party and the guests.”
In keeping with Markle’s status as an agent of change among contemporary royalty – of African-American heritage, she is an actress and activist, and has been married before – designers hope that she will opt for a gown with modern elements.
“She is quite a rule-breaking, forward-thinking individual, so I think we’ll see that come through in what she opts for in her dress,” says Whitwell.
Halfpenny notes: “I’m sure there’s a limit to how rock ’n’ roll her designer can go with the style, but I’m hoping Meghan really embraces her incredible figure, style and personality with her dress.”
The Coast buyer expects Harry and Meghan’s wedding to bridge traditional and modern styles, unlike the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s celebrations: “Their approach feels less formal – fewer heads of state and a far more diverse guest list. It will be really exciting to see how this impacts fashion.”
With brands poised to take inspiration, the wedding seems certain to buoy the occasionwear market, and could help to define its trends for years to come.