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Women are seeking that special something

Last year’s royal wedding proved to be a match made in heaven for occasionwear sales, and shoppers’ love affair with these investment pieces keeps getting stronger.

Occasionwear numbers

A little over a year ago, an estimated 2 billion people around the world tuned in to watch the royal wedding. But the spotlight wasn’t just on Kate that day – from the praise for Carole Middleton’s choice of Catherine Walker for her elegant mother-of-the-bride outfit to Princess Beatrice’s headwear, every guest at the wedding was in the global spotlight, bringing the occasionwear market into sharp focus.

And despite the royal wedding being a year ago, interest in occasionwear hasn’t waned. Figures from Kantar Worldpanel show the UK occasionwear market grew 1.1% between March 20, 2011 and March 18 this year after a 1% decline the previous year.

According to Nicky Dulieu, chief executive of womenswear chain Hobbs, which launched occasionwear sub-brand Hobbs Invitation last December on the strength of continued demand for the category, consumers are looking more for “special” pieces.

She says: “We could see from the more occasionwear-type pieces we had in our mainline Hobbs London range that people were looking to have something a bit special, which is what prompted us to launch Hobbs Invitation.”

Annie Gowanloch, sales manager for occasionwear brands Condici and Ispirato, agrees there has been an increase in demand for “really special” pieces over the past year: “The royal wedding gave people something to look up to and people aspire to dress in a certain way. When people have a really important event to go to they are definitely prepared to invest in something new.”

It is this investment aspect of occasionwear that has led to the growth in the market. Volume sales of occasionwear, in terms of the actual number of garments sold, has actually declined by 0.2% over the past year, meaning the growth has been driven by an increase in the value of the sales. Total UK sales for the occasionwear market were up 1.4% for the year to March 18.

Glen Tooke, client executive at Kantar Worldpanel, says the increase in the value of sales is because people are looking to buy an outfit that will serve more than one purpose and are prepared to pay slightly more for it.

“Consumers now think more about their budgets and are buying more multi-use clothing as opposed to clothing for a single occasion,” he says.

“In the current economic climate consumers are having to justify their spending even more, and while the occasionwear market is in overall growth, purchasing a product specifically for one event may not be as easily justifiable as in previous years.”

Those selling occasionwear agree that women tend to justify their purchase by saying they will wear it to more than one event.

However, Nigel Hughes, director of Apt Collections, the agent for occasionwear brand Linea Raffaelli in the UK, points out that for some special events price is not an issue.

“People shopping for something to wear to a special occasion always want to buy the nicest possible thing and, in that case, price becomes less of a factor. If you are the mother of the bride then you want to look your best and price becomes less of a factor,” he says.

Louise Way, co-owner of occasionwear indie No 25 of Bourne End in Buckinghamshire, which sells brands including Condici, Linea Raffaelli, Paule Vasseur and Ann Balon, says: “There is every chance that someone might buy a mother-of-the-bride outfit for a wedding but then wear it again in a slightly different way, perhaps without the jacket and the hat, to another event.

And it’s not only weddings that people are buying outfits for. According to Hughes, shoppers are investing in occasionwear for a variety of events including the races, weddings and christenings.

“It is a great English tradition to dress up for events,” he says.

Deborah Kidd, owner of bridalwear retailer Swoon in Byfleet, Surrey, says programmes like Big Fat Gypsy Weddings have fuelled interest in occasionwear. She says she has seen a big increase in girls buying dresses to wear to their school proms: “Prom dresses are big business for us now. We’ve increased the number of styles of prom dresses this year. I definitely think there is a big opportunity in this area.”

Those in the sector agree that the occasionwear market is about providing excellent service to the customer. Independents are in a good position to capitalise on this by providing a level of service not always available on the high street.

“Independents do well with our collections because they spend time with the customer showing them how to wear the complete look,” says Gowanloch.

For both Way and Dulieu, this service element also extends to the environment and experience of the store. “It is a really important purchase for people so they really like to take their time,” says Way. “We often have people in our store for two hours at a time and they usually bring someone with them.”

Dulieu points out how occasionwear customers prefer to use Hobbs’ Invitation fitting rooms over Hobbs’ conventional fitting rooms, despite queues. Customers want the full experience, with more luxurious fixtures and fittings and plush seating. 

She explains: “When we opened our Hobbs Invitation standalone store in Windsor there were queues for the fitting area.

“We did offer people the chance to go to our other Hobbs store over the road so they wouldn’t have to queue, but no one wanted to – they all wanted to go in our Invitation fitting rooms.”

She adds: “At the end of the day women like dressing in beautiful clothes. I think occasionwear is going to continue to grow and grow.”

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