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Events that are shaping the occasionwear sector

As the bunting comes down and the hangovers clear following the wedding of the decade, retailers and brands are left wondering what the rest of this year holds for the occasionwear market.


Occasionwear figures in the year to February 20, 2011:

Market value £5.38bn

Year-on-year market decline -1%

Sales decline by volume -5%

Sales increase by value 3%

Source: Kantar Worldpanel year to February 20, 2011. Occasionwear market figures include clothing, footwear and accessories

An estimated 2 billion people around the world tuned in last Friday to toast the royal newly weds. The industry has now dissected and scrutinised every last detail of what Kate Middleton and all the high-profile guests wore and will be hoping it will translate into sales, after what has been a subdued year for the occasionwear market.

Negative sales

Sales in the sector fell into negative territory this year, dipping 1% to £5.38bn in the year to February 20, 2011. Sales grew in the previous three years, but growth slowed from a 6.6% rise between 2007 and 2008 to only 3% in the year to February 20, 2010.

According to data from market analysts Kantar Worldpanel, volume sales also dropped 5% in the past year as consumers bought fewer items for special occasions.

The high-profile demise of brands such as Frank Usher, Michel Ambers, Coterie and Dusk - their parent company CDU still languishes in administration - have done little, on the surface, to buoy the market.

However, occasionwear brands and retailers remain bullish about the prospects for the sector and are not resting on their laurels.

While volume sales have dropped, sales by value increased 3% in the past year, following a broader trend for trading up to higher quality, investment pieces.

High street retailers are also backing the category, with the likes of Alexon Group launching an occasionwear range for its Kaliko chain and Aurora Fashions-owned Coast debuting bridalwear last month.

Essential purchase

Those that sell occasionwear agree they have seen a reduction in sales volumes but hope it will be offset by the rise in value.

George Hadji, founder of eveningwear and occasionwear brand Anoushka G, shrugs off suggestions the recession was a key reason for the decline in growth.

He says: “Recession or no recession, occasionwear is a necessity buy as far as I am concerned. When it is an important event not many people are comfortable being in the same dress over and over again. There is a cycle of about three different events you can wear the same outfit to and most people have more than three different events every year. Where people are reducing their buy, they are buying something more special.”

Karen Axiaq, owner of occasionwear indie Fancy Frox in Spalding, Lincolnshire, which stocks brands including John Charles, Bernshaw, Tony Bowls and Dynasty, agrees: “Generally the state of the market is the same as it has been for the past few years. Customers buying four or five dresses at a time doesn’t happen as easily but stuff is still selling.

“What I have noticed more recently is the importance of wearability to people,” she continues. “If people are on a budget but they are spending for a special occasion they want to know if they are going to be able to wear it again. This applies whether they are spending £200 or £600 and, yes, sometimes this might mean they will spend an additional £50 on something if it means they get the right piece that fits well and that they can wear to several occasions.”

Marriage material

The market can also rely on the fact people are still getting married, meaning that, while spending on clothing may have slipped in other categories during the recession, occasionwear remains a key buy in the shopper’s calendar.

Wedding bells

Total number of marriages in UK in 2008 235,794

Calendar spread

January to March 11.8%

April to June 27.3%

July to September 42.5%

October to December 18.4%

Source: Office for National Statistics

“The market has remained stable over the past three years of recession and is obviously directly related to the number of weddings in the UK, which has remained constant,” says Barry Waterman, chairman of eveningwear and occasionwear brand John Charles.

Alexon Group chief executive Jane McNally shares Waterman’s view: “People have been making do with daywear but there is a must-have factor around buying something for a special event.”

She adds that there are also opportunities for retailers to sell occasionwear year-round. “When we were looking at launching occasionwear [in Kaliko] we looked at figures (see table, below) showing the number of weddings throughout the year and it is actually more evenly spread than you would think, showing people will be buying outfits all year round.”

So, will this year’s big event lead to a rush to snap up royal wedding-inspired dresses?

Many are not banking on it. Most share the view that, while the royal nuptials might serve to lift the general mood of the nation, it is unlikely to change shopping habits and prompt people to make additional or unplanned purchases of occasionwear.

Hadji says: “If people are planning to buy new things to wear to a wedding or special occasion they will do so regardless of whether they watched the wedding on TV and what they saw.”

Axiaq agrees: “I doubt the royal wedding will boost sales. It will only be a minority that think to go and buy something new because they have been inspired.”

However, Polly Blakeney-Edwards, owner of occasionwear indie Compton House of Fashion in Wedmore, near Bristol, which stocks brands including John Charles, Linea Raffaelli, Paule Vasseur and Ispirato, sold a John Charles outfit to a customer who was attending the royal wedding. She says: “We’ve been really busy over the last three months so I don’t think people [were] necessarily waiting to see what [was] worn at the royal wedding, but maybe there will be some trends that translate, if people like what they see.”

Where shoppers are buying occasionwear, dresses are the most popular item, far more so than separates such as skirts and tops.

Stacey Booth, chief executive of Betty Barclay International, which also owns occasionwear brand Vera Mont, says: “In particular dresses have been the best-selling style, as they can be worn several ways with a different jacket or bolero.”

Blakeney-Edwards adds: “When I was buying for spring 11, I was worried as I thought there were far too many ruched dresses with bolero jackets, but they are selling so people obviously like them. If I look at all of the brands we stock, they all have pieces in strong colours so that is obviously the trend at the moment.”

Positive thinking

Brands and retailers agree that despite the recent dip in volume, the outlook for the market is good.

The administration of CDU, which cited poor trading for its demise, is not indicative of what is happening in the market as a whole, says Hadji. “What happened to CDU is due to how the business was run,” he says. “I feel very strongly about that and people shouldn’t think it is because occasionwear isn’t selling - it is.”

Waterman says indies are in a unique position to command the occasionwear market. “It is a highly specialised market of a fairly large-ticket item, well handled at present by independent retailers,” he says. “Success in this market is down to old-fashioned values that still prevail.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • With referance to the demise of the CDU Group , I would like to agree with George Hadji , his observation on the management of CDU is correct .
    I was the Irish agent for Michel Ambers for over 20 years ,I think George is too diplomatic , i would cite gross incompetence .This was not due to a lack off sales or demand for occasionwear.

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