Drapers looks at the growing number of retailers and brands making the move into occasionwear and reveals why affordable dresses are triumphing.
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Topshop, Lipsy and Little Mistress have all unveiled plans to launch bridal collections this spring, becoming the latest in a long line of brands and retailers expanding into occasionwear and following in the footsteps of Whistles, Missguided, Asos and Ted Baker. There has also been an influx of new occasionwear brands offering pretty, trend-driven dresses at competitive price points. So as the category grows in popularity, its price architecture is also expanding.
Carly Hallahan is the founder of occasionwear brand Jarlo, which has become well known for its bridesmaid dresses and is stocked on Asos and Zalando.
She argues that entrepreneurs and large retailers are cashing in on demand for fresher styles at a lower price: “When I first started the brand, occasionwear was full of the same generic shapes that hadn’t really evolved. If consumers wanted something different, like the dresses celebrities were wearing, they really had to pay.
“Even if there were dresses available for younger women, most were dated styles that people had seen time and again in bridal parties and at proms
“Customers wanted high-end styling at a reasonable price point and there was a gap, which is why we’ve seen so many high street retailers jumping on the bandwagon.”
If we’re not offering them something special, they’ll jump on to another site
Gio Najar, Chi Chi London
One business taking advantage of the interest in trend-driven occasionwear is British label Three Floor, which launched in November 2011 and is stocked by Harvey Nichols, Very Exclusive and Asos. The brand features lace detailing and sports-inspired shapes, retailing at £200-£400.
“Three Floor was based on the idea that consumers are increasingly searching for pieces with a distinct aesthetic, which are aspirational in terms of design and are well crafted, but at an accessible price point,” says marketing manager Harriet Dunning. “We’re seeing customers put more of a focus on having something individual. For example, we’ve seen an increase in the sales of two-piece looks, especially multi-functional separates.”
Frock & frill
Dunning also argues that sharing photos on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat has made consumers more aware of what they wear to weddings, parties and events – all prime photo opportunities. Her point is echoed by a number of fellow occasionwear brands. Emma Corfield, brand manager of Frock & Frill, agrees that social media has had a strong impact on the market.
“Customers aren’t scared to experiment and, because of social media, girls are aware of trends much more quickly,” she explains. “We noticed that after Beyoncé’s 2015 Met Gala dress, for example, where she wore a mesh dress, there were immediately a lot of high street versions. Social media does make a difference to what the girls are wearing.”
Customers wanted high-end styling at a reasonable price point and there was a gap
Carly Hallahan, founder, Jarlo
Jarlo’s Hallahan says that customers, particularly young women, are looking to create their own versions of red carpet dresses and high-end bridal, but at a significantly reduced price tag: “Customers will literally take pictures of dresses they see on celebrities or bloggers and say, ‘I want this.’ They want the dresses as detailed as the ones they see on the screen, whether that’s cut-outs, lace or embroidery but they don’t want something that feels or looks affordable.
“It is a challenge to create beautiful occasionwear at a realistic price point. It’s something we manage to do, but it takes a lot of time and looking around for the right fabric and for the right trims.”
Three Floor also works hard to create detailed occasionwear at a more affordable price range.
“We research and review the suitability of a range of fabric and trimmings each season,” says Dunning. “We also work with different fabric suppliers to develop exclusive lace designs in a range of fabric weights throughout the year.”
Chi Chi London’s feminine styles have proved equally popular with the more price-conscious customer.
“We felt customers who wanted occasionwear with floral prints and embroidery at about £60-£80 weren’t being served,” says Gio Najar, one of the brothers behind Chi Chi London. “We understand customers can buy cheaper items from other brands or buy something from a brand such as Ted Baker, which is a lot more expensive, but there was definitely a gap for really strong fabrics and styles at that price point.”
As the market for affordable occasionwear hots up, price is becoming an ever keener issue for customers, adds Najar: “Customers are a lot savvier when they’re buying now, because it is becoming such a competitive market.
The expense of a traditional wedding dress can be huge. Customers often want something more relaxed
Emma Corfield, brand manager, Frock and Frill
“Pricing is becoming more of a concern, because the market is getting more competitive and everyone’s trying to maintain a point of difference. Girls are very savvy and will compare prices and offers across different sites. If we’re not offering them something special, they’ll jump on to another site.”
Frock & Frill’s Corfield adds: “The expense of a traditional wedding dress can be huge. Customers often want something more relaxed, fun and with some more bohemian touches. Girls often don’t want to spend a fortune, especially if they’re going abroad for a beach wedding.”
But despite the number of high street retailers making the leap into occasionwear, the outlook for the market is shaky.
Kantar Worldpanel reports that sales of women’s occasion clothing grew 2.9% year on year in the 52 weeks to 17 January 2016, but fell 5.6% in the subsequent year.
Glenn Tooke, consumer insight director for Kantar, explains: “The main driver is that the frequency with which customers are buying occasionwear is declining, which is linked to lower consumer confidence and the fact most customers no longer buy in advance. Customers have also been trained to wait and Sale shop – an issue that is affecting the whole fashion industry.”
Occasionwear brands are also looking to maximise customer spend to counter increasing competition by expanding their product offers and ranges. Chi Chi London, for example, is looking to grow its casualwear and outwear collections, launching a denim line on Asos later this season. Frock & Frill launches its Curve collection on Asos this month, to be followed by tall, petite and a full bridal range. It also has a vintage-inspired bridal collection, Amelia Rose, and bolder partywear range Starlet, designed for younger women on a night out. Both are sold on Asos.
“We know girls of different heights and shapes are looking for the perfect dress and struggling,” says Corfield. “With beaded dresses, you often can’t adjust them or have them taken up, so you’ve got to give them the choice and as many options as possible.
With a glut of retailers and brands now offering everything from party and bridesmaid dresses to bridalwear, those hoping to remain a favourite among wedding guests will need to focus on detailed styles at a competitive price point to maintain their sparkle.