The new reality of wedding dress shopping, from prosecco on Zoom to virtual fittings

When I’d imagined what searching for a wedding dress might be like, I can’t say it had ever crossed my mind that, on my first appointment, I’d be wearing my slippers and the designer would be warning that her four-year-old son, dressed as a dinosaur, might roar into the room at any moment. But such is the new reality of the search for the perfect look. 

Weddings may have been suspended since March, but the bridal style industry is still in full swing, confirms Kate Halfpenny, renowned for her modern spin on bridalwear, who is preparing to re-open her Bloomsbury boutique in the coming weeks, ready to welcome 200 brides who are awaiting fittings. In the meantime, she’s been using Zoom to consult with new clients. 

I got engaged in February and, as a fashion editor, my thoughts naturally turned to what The Dress might look like, well, years before that. Yes, I’ve had a little secret stash of inspiration pictures on my phone for a while but just as I had an excuse to start making my ideas a reality (as well as making a commitment to the man I love, obviously) lockdown hit. All vague thoughts of plans have been on hold since then, so it was oddly – if, on reflection, unsurprisingly – emotional to finally speak with Halfpenny earlier this week and cautiously float some ideas. 

Kate Halfpenny’s ‘Manet’ cape and ‘Oliver’ dress

There is no official word yet on when weddings might be allowed to resume but there is some hope that early July – when churches, pubs and restaurants are slated to reopen – might be a logical time. In Northern Ireland, outdoor ceremonies with fewer than ten guests are back from Monday June 8. Of course, there will be no gatherings of dozens of people, shoulder to shoulder in pews or crammed onto dancefloors, but the simple yet monumental possibility of saying I Do is a ray of light on the horizon.

 Just look at how news that front line NHS workers Jann Tipping, who was loaned her beautiful vintage-style gown by her local bridal shop, and Annalan Navaratnam had been able to marry in the chapel at St Thomas’ Hospital in April filled the nation with as much joy as a royal wedding or how American author and editor Elaine Welteroth’s marriage to Jonathan Singletary on the steps of their home in Brooklyn, New York, went viral on Instagram.

‘In conversation with brides, many have commented that finding their dream dress is an even more significant experience than ever. A symbol of getting through the tough times and looking ahead to new beginnings,’ says Rebecca Goodwin of The Dress Tribe, a service matching women to bridal designers. ‘Brides have been turning to support groups to discuss their postponed wedding plans, with many commenting that they will be willing to spend even more on their dresses thanks to an increase in saving capabilities during this time.’

‘I think everyone is going to want one hell of a party when this is over,’ confirms Halfpenny. The extra time that the lockdown delays have given her clients means that many have decided to make their looks more extravagant than they had first planned. ‘We’ve had brides say, “sod it, I’m adding a veil”, they just want to go all out’.  Even with nothing yet set in stone, during my chat with Halfpenny I go from thinking that I’d like something simple and sleek to contemplating just how many bows could possibly adorn one dress or debating the merits of adding one of her Manet tulle capes – a striking alternative to a veil – to the look. ‘I’m finally getting excited again,’ I message my mum afterwards.

A look from Phillipa Lepley’s 2020 collection 

The next morning, I have a virtual chat with Phillipa Lepley, bridal couturier to the high society set, who is in her Kensington boutique unpacking PPE supplies. It may not be the usual garb you’d see in her pristine oasis of sumptuous bridal luxury, but it will be essential when she reopens on June 15. The personalised service offered by bridal designers works well for social distancing, even if Lepley has had to think about crucial but unexpected details, like how seamstresses won’t be able to pass pins to one another or how brides may arrive to fittings a little sweaty having come by bike (she’s providing bike racks to encourage this). Both Lepley and Halfpenny plan to replicate the experience of bringing friends and family for fittings by setting up iPads so they can be present – prosecco in hand – via Zoom. 

During lockdown, Lepley has been busy continuing to deliver consultations virtually. She was au fait with this way of working already, thanks to her international client base. ‘Our brides love these calls, I’m there sketching away, grabbing samples and dresses to show them,’ she explains, scuttling across the shop to bring an example of the impeccable lace available on her timelessly exquisite designs up to the camera lens – it’s as good as seeing it in reality. Her virtual model is now so well honed that even measurements can be taken over a video call; a tape measure and instruction sheet is sent and then the bride dials in and follows it while one of Lepley’s team observes and guides to ensure the figures are precise. Examples of bespoke embroidery options and fabrics have also been sent in the post so a huge amount of the process can happen remotely; several American brides have placed orders during the pandemic without ever having seen a dress in the flesh. In the coming days, she begins her biannual sample sale which will be hosted virtually with prices starting at £2500 (see PhillipaLepley.com for details). 

At Emilia Wickstead – the dream designer for brides seeking swan-like elegance – it has been as much about being a comforting presence in uncertain times. ‘During lockdown we’ve been keeping in touch with our existing bridal clients, offering them reassurance and taking close note of any changes to their plans. For any new bridal enquiries, we’ve been operating in much the same way, with advice on styling and helping them plan for the next steps in creating their dream dress,’ says Wickstead. ‘Our bridal relationships are often deeply personal. We have loyal ready-to-wear clients who we’ve known for years come to us for bridal, or clients who refer their friends, daughters or granddaughters, and keeping in touch at this time, even if plans are on hold, has been so important.’

‘Ariane’ co-ord, £599, Whistles

If, for many brides, Covid-19 has evoked yearnings for the most elevated wedding look possible, others might feel the opposite way – wanting something more informal for a scaled-back ceremony or budget. On the high street, Whistles, H&M, Reformation and Ghost have more affordable wedding lines or there’s the vintage option; Retold Vintage has launched a service to find the perfect designs for those with minimalist tastes, Oxfam, Etsy and Heavenly Vintage Brides are other good places to look.

Pre-pandemic, Matchesfashion.com had identified how weddings were evolving, sometimes becoming multi-occasion extravaganzas or otherwise being understated celebrations, and created an edit to suit – Molly Goddard’s smocked tulle dress with velvet ties is high on my wishlist.

Matches Fashion’s edit of bridal wear

Feather trim coat, £1995, Christopher Kane at Matches Fashion

‘Whilst things have changed in the sense that attending big events isn’t possible, people are able to have small registry office ceremonies and make future wedding party plans, so a special outfit is still important,’ notes Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director. ‘We have seen a +23% lift in the past three weeks in our wedding edit category (vs the previous 3 weeks.) The most popular areas are occasion dresses which are (+45%) year on year, tailored jackets (+150%), high heels (+170%) and evening tops (+170%).  The key factor to consider is to invest in something timeless that you can wear again, whether a beautiful tailored coat from Christopher Kane or a Broderie-Anglaise cotton dress from Batsheva.’

For American label Love Shack Fancy, an upscale take on Laura Ashley bohemia, the launch of its wedding line could, in a way, not have come at a more appropriate time. ‘What’s ideal about launching the collection right now is I always saw my bride being a more laid back, free-spirited, unfussy girl having a relaxed wedding in her back garden or on the beach so with most weddings now being cancelled, the back garden really is the only option and our dresses suit that so well,’ says the brand’s founder Rebecca Hessel Cohen. Her collection comprises romantic, floaty lace creations with a nod to Victorian and Edwardian silhouettes. ‘Our dresses are perfect for last minute weddings or low key affairs just with a handful of friends and family. You can buy it now and have it two days later. It’s appropriate for the times we are living in and you can wear it again as it doesn’t feel traditional or you can easily dye it.’ There is certainly huge appeal in the idea of keeping things simple in the Austen-esque ‘Viviana’ dress. 

Viviana Dress, $1995, available from 25th June at Loveshackfancy.com

What’s evident from speaking to purveyors of bridalwear of all styles and prices is their uplifting determination to be a source of joy and hope. In fact, I think the fact that Halfpenny was fitting my consultation in around homeschooling – and my inability to get Zoom working for the first few minutes of our conversation – make the start of the wedding dress hunt all the more memorable. 

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