UK occasionwear brands are evolving to meet the demands of a price-conscious, value-driven consumer, who wants styles she can wear more than once.
Royal Ascot is a colourful reminder that there is money to be made in occasionwear. On 18-22 June, more than 300,000 people made the trip to Berkshire for this year’s race meeting, each wearing a hat, dress or suit more flamboyant and embellished than the last.
Demand for occasionwear remains robust despite the downturn in consumer confidence, research published by Mintel in August 2018 indicates. Retailers continue to expand their ranges, particularly at the lower end of the price scale. Fast fashion brand Quiz, for example, launched its largest collection of women’s occasionwear to date in February. It features more than 60 new styles for bridesmaids, wedding guests, proms, race days and black-tie events, at retail prices from £26.99 to £99.99 .
Nevertheless, occasionwear brands face the same pressure as the wider fashion industry – competition is fierce, and consumers are increasingly price conscious. Although they are typically still willing to invest in occasionwear, they want to see demonstrable value for money in the quality of fabric and level of detailing, putting pressure on brands to step up their game while remaining affordable.
In response, occasionwear specialists are increasing their quality in terms of both fabric choices and decoration to justify higher prices. They are also broadening their offer to embrace slightly more casual styles that can be worn again after the event they were originally bought for – consumers’ growing awareness of sustainability is adding to an unwillingness to splash out on “wear it once” clothing.
Value in vogue
“Our customer is looking for a unique handwriting matched with an affordable price point – essentially good value for money,” says Kirsty Cove, designer for womenswear brands Goddiva and City Goddess, which are stocked by more than 800 independents worldwide, as well as etailers including Asos and Zalora, and the retail price for a dress ranges up to £95. “We work very closely with our suppliers to make sure our quality standards are met, and we can ensure a reasonable price.”
However, she adds that this does not necessarily mean bringing down prices: “We are all a little more environmentally aware, and there is a steer towards customers paying a higher price tag for a piece they consider to be a staple wardrobe garment, rather than throwaway fashion. For the autumn 19 season we’re looking at more embellished pieces, which naturally fall into higher price points. We’re assessing the limits price-wise at the moment.”
Mintel’s research suggests that consumers are as driven by discounts when buying occasionwear as they are when buying everyday fashion – two-thirds (66%) of those it surveyed say they prefer to wait until occasionwear goes on Sale before purchasing: “Retailers need to have a compelling and differentiated range to encourage shoppers to buy full-price occasionwear,” the report states.
However, Carly Hallahan, creative director of women’s occasionwear brand Jarlo, which is stocked by retailers including Asos, Zalando, Lipsy and Bloomingdale’s, says it depends on the item: “People are more price savvy than ever – they’re smart shoppers. If there’s a dress with a lot of detail, or high-end lace, people are happy to pay more money for it. If it’s a simple shape, something that’s not that different to something you’d see on cheaper websites, I don’t think people would want to pay [a high price] for that.”
Sue Reid, managing director of women’s occasionwear brand Adrianna Papell, whose stockists include Next, John Lewis and House of Fraser, agrees: “Our most expensive dresses have sold exceptionally well this season – the £350 beaded dresses flew out at Next – so we’ve increased our options for beaded and more expensive dresses for next season.”
This applies to menswear, too. Andrew Sager, co-founder of men’s formalwear brand Twisted Tailor, whose key stockists include Asos and Zalando, says it is pushing its prices “slightly” higher, but adds: “You have to offer something unique or customers won’t buy it. Asos and Topman do velvet blazers for around £60, ours are about £140. We have to show ours is better quality – that we’ve made more effort in terms of trim.”
If the product is right for a true occasion dress, people will spend what they can to look perfect
Gio Najar, Chi Chi London
Gio Najar, CEO and co-founder of womenswear brand Chi Chi London, says today’s occasionwear shopper is savvier, particularly online: “They shop around a little bit before they come back, and we’ve noticed more [basket] abandonment.”
However, he adds: “I think if the product is right for a true occasion dress – for a prom, the races, or a wedding – people will spend what they can to look perfect. It’s about the detailing. They want to see and feel the value.”
Najar points out that the rise of credit facilities in fashion is encouraging consumers to continue spending on higher-priced occasionwear items, knowing that they can pay for them later. Chi Chi London is stocked by Next, which allows customers to pay for items in three monthly instalments, and it launched on Shop Direct-owned site Very – which offers customers credit on purchases – in January.
“[Credit] makes it viable for shoppers to get a dress they can’t usually afford. That’s where the market has changed, and it’s worked well for higher-priced brands.”
As well as reviewing pricing, many brands have observed a growing appetite for a more relaxed occasionwear aesthetic – outfits that could be dressed up with heels for a wedding, or worn with trainers for brunch at the weekend.
“Everything has to have a dual purpose,” says Sameera Azeem, creative director of Ghost London, which sells a mix of women’s ready-to-wear and occasionwear, including bridal, and is stocked by Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. “It’s not about structured dressing – it’s a bit more relaxed. The customer has shifted away from spending money on a dress they’ll wear once.”
To that end, Azeem is redesigning the bridal collection ahead of a relaunch in September: “It will be in the same handwriting, but slightly more relaxed – not so formal and traditionally bridal, and a bit younger and cooler.”
Goddiva’s Cove says the younger occasionwear market is still heavily influenced by celebrities, but has “moved forward with a lot more experimental styles” such as tassels, high shine and bright colour and print combinations.
She adds: “There is also a lot more emphasis on desk-to-dinner styles, but with experimental mixes of prints with classic shapes, driven to serve multiple occasions. I think a lot of girls don’t want to go full-on glam. People are looking for staple items that have wearability.”
Mother-of-the-bride (or groom) styles are changing, too. Specialists point out that there is no longer a “typical” mother of bride – they vary in age and taste, and many want more fashionable options than the traditional structured dress and matching jacket.
“We sell such a variety of outfits, many of which can be worn again, which we are being asked for more and more,” says Denise Sherwin, director of independent retailer Dressini in Market Bosworth, Leicestershire. “As there are more overseas weddings in hot climates, we try to source outfits that are more lightweight – but you have to be careful that mum doesn’t look like a guest. Mothers of the bride or groom need to stand out and look special on the wedding day.”
Hilary Haresign, owner of independent Snooty Frox of Harrogate, agrees: “Mothers of brides are becoming younger and they want to be more fashionable. Dresses with jackets have had their day – women want a floatier, softer look. When spending a lot of money, they like to get wear out of it.”
This changing approach has been driven by the rising popularity of field- and farm-based weddings, says Steve Taylor, owner of Bournemouth boutique Fab Frocks: “Weddings are not as formal – the reception might be in a marquee or a field – and women want a dress that is special, but also practical in that environment.”
Like the wider fashion industry, the occasionwear market faces challenges around convincing customers to pay full price, particularly at a time when confidence is generally low. However, brands and retailers are getting around this by offering demonstrable value for money, and adapting their styles to suit a dual purpose.