Bridal Gown Shopping 101:Exploring Salons

 What’s the first thing a bride usually does when the engagement is set?  She heads out for the salons with hopes of finding the right dress.  Of course, salons vary. Some feature apparel solely for brides; others branch out into special occasion and formalwear sections. In metro areas the focus gets more intense. Boutique chic lofts offering edgy innovations serve a different bride than the wall-to-wall plush of department stores like Bonwit Teller.

All these places work in a like way though. Most keep a stock of designer samples in house. Once you decide on a gown, you're measured; any special requests are made (if the designer/manufacturer offers any) you put down a deposit then the order is placed with the designer or manufacturer. Turn around time for delivery runs 4-6 months. This means once your order reaches the designer's workroom, eventually the gown is made according to your measurements. Upon delivery the salon can arrange (for a price) any necessary alterations. This is of course optional. You can take your dress to any outside seamstress you want.

So the typical salon works by placing an order rather than simply wrapping up your gown, ringing up the transaction and sending you out the door with it. In other words, for all good things one must wait. So before you reach into your wallet and put down the proverbial deposit, here's a bit of inside info worth checking out.

QUESTION:
I love the top of one dress. Its perfect for me except the skirt is way off what's ideal for my proportions. I do however like another version of skirt the designer offers on another gown. Is there some way I can exchange these pieces to get what I want?

Did you know for an additional price, some manufacturers can customize your gown? Contrary to popular belief, your favorite designer's sample may not be the only version it comes in. That's right. If you love the top on one gown and the skirt of another, you may be able to switch them as long as that particular designer/manufacturer does what's called a 'swap' or 'change out'. Take into account the components do have to be from the same designer's collection for this to work. Designers vary though. Some may not swap components at all, offering modifications on color, sleeve or train lengths instead. All the same, this could be the opportunity to make inquiries about adornments they may offer: lace options, embroidery, etc. But be warned. Too many changes and/or additions and suddenly, cha-ching! Keep in mind too that designers don't like to rework their original concept too far off the mark. As one put it, "Jean Harlow's dress into Marie Antoinette's is asking just too much . . . ."

MORE "LOVE THAT GOWN BUT IF ONLY. . . ." ISSUES

#1 Love that gown but if only it wasn't a bridesmaid dress.

QUESTION:

I found this great dress online. It's a simple, strapless sheath that's perfect for wearing under that white organza I'm having designed. The problem is, it's a bridesmaid dress and the lightest color it comes in is tan.

Believe it or not, stumbling across that bridesmaid dress broadened this bride's options. She'd planned on designing a sheath to go under the nearly finished organza dress but she hadn't decided on the exact style yet. That is, till she saw the abovementioned sheath online, which, incidentally, she found out did come in a white silk dupioni and cost a fraction of what most salons or custom designers would have charged.

Wearing a bridesmaid dress when you're a bride is less of a mum's-the-word sort of thing than it usedtobe. Check out The Knot and you'll find a whole section devoted to bridesmaids. Also notice bridesmaid dresses don't look so much like those Muriel's Wedding atrocities anymore; most have morphed into simple, unadorned styles, making them the perfect backdrop for customizing into a bridal gown. The bridesmaid dress option is the way to go if:

1.)    You're using it as a foundation on which to customize with other adornments.

2.)      You want a more low- key or informal look, sans the train, lace and beadwork.

3.)      You want color.

4.)     You're price conscious. Bridesmaid dresses cost a fraction of what a bridal gown costs.

For brides who don't want to be in white or ivory, bridesmaid dresses are perfect. They come in just about as many colors as Crayola crayons from the palest pastels to deepest jewel tones.

Once you start looking online, keep in mind not all manufacturers use first-rate fabrics and/or construction (see my FYI designer recommendations below). Try to find styles in high-grade silk or silk blends. Especially if you plan on customizing, where you'll need as clean and pure a background as possible. And always remember, the simpler the dress, the more perfectly it should be made.

FYI: Here are my recommendations for bridesmaid designers offering the best in styles, fabric and construction: Lazaro Bridesmaids, Alvina Valenta Bridesmaids and Ann Taylor Celebrations. You'll find these on www.theknot.com

FYI: Most bridesmaid dresses can be ordered through your salon. Allow 3-4 months delivery.

#2 Love that gown but if only it didn't have such a high price tag? QUESTION:

I saw a dress online and thought I'd finally found The One. But once I checked out the price, I almost fell over backwards. The person who emailed back said the fabric was one of those hard to get imports and that's the reason for the high price. My question is, can I get this dress made in a less expensive fabric?

Some designers are willing to swap fabrics. Imagine that imported 100% Italian silk peau de soie A-line in a less expensive rayon satin. This option works as long as you're not a fabric purist. If you're more prone to basing your decision on the overall silhouette instead of the fabric, go for it. That A-line going for $3500 could sell for a lot less in a synthetic alternative.

If you're placing an order through a retail salon there is a catch to fabric swapping. Few designers offer this option. When and if they do, it may only apply to certain gowns in the collection. Add to that the overseas labor/competition/marketing issue and swapping fabric is on its way to becoming a lost art. The most successful swaps have more to with the relationship between your salon and the manufacturer. Chances are if they've been solid through years of swapping, customizing, etc., then your salon may be able to swing you a deal. Just make sure you and your consultant have decent same page communication since you'll never interact with the designer actually making your gown.

FYI: Private designer establishments are ideal for this sort of customizing, providing they have a collection you can look at either online or in house. They frequently work with clients who want to swap not only fabric but in some cases, entire silhouettes. However, if you're that price conscious, private designers may not be the way to go.

SAMPLE SALES

Suppose your wedding is next month and you need that gown now? Or suppose you love the sample but it's just been discontinued? Or else you love the sample but can't afford to special order it? You do realize next season a whole new stock will be arriving? This means your salon needs to get the old out of the way. And all those gowns with full skirts just hanging there take up space, or haven't you noticed? While sizes are limited and samples mostly run sizes 6-8-10, the good news is, sample markdowns usually go half off, sometimes less. Some salons have sample sales they advertise a couple times a year while others offer marked down stock continually. Absolutely love that gown you just tried on? Offer to buy it. Yes, that same gown. Ordinarily samples are not for sale but this may be the time they're moving in all those spring confections, especially if it is in less than perfect shape, which, more than a few samples tend to be.

Now, a word about wear and tear: Before you start bargaining, check out how much or how little that soon-to-be-yours gown has been tried on by others. This means really looking at it inside as well as out. Is it ripped, stained, the hem soiled and need cleaning? The overall condition of most samples has a lot to do with how the salon takes care of their stock. Still, figure on dry cleaning whether the gown looks like it needs it or not. After a good clean and press it will seem revived both inside and out and take on a new life of its own. So the question is, who pays the cleaning bill? In some cases, the more service oriented the establishment, the more accommodating they'll be. As for alterations, you might save them for when and if you have your gown customized. If you are customizing, any nipping in of the waist or shortening of the hemline might have to wait anyway.

TRUNK SHOWS

Suppose you're in love with one particular designer's collection. Unfortunately, due to space and overhead issues, your salon can only stock one or two of her samples-not her entire collection. Still, you want to actually get a real live look at those 20 other gowns you saw online. In that case keep a lookout for her trunk show. A trunk show is when a designer like Reem Acra makes a personal appearance at a nearby salon or department store, say Friday and Saturday only. What's great about this is she or her representative will be there along with the entire (yes entire) collection. So all those gowns the salon doesn't carry in sample form you can finally get a look at. In addition, you can actually meet and pick your favorite designer's brain-ask about any changes in fabric, lace, color, etc. The result: your best opportunity to get your dress customized.

Keep in mind, just like Cinderella's Ball, trunk shows have a time line. You pretty much have to know what you want and make your choice before the weekend is over. Therefore trunk shows are not ideal for the browsing phase of your search. Hopefully you've shopped prior and at length so you know for sure that this is it, this is The Gown.

If you think you'll be placing an order at the trunk show, be ready. Bring along the shoes and kind of underwear you'll be wearing your wedding day in order to have measurements taken correctly. And do make an appointment. Just imagine if Vera Wang showed up this Saturday at Saks. Enough said.

FYI: Though this is an in-store event, gowns at trunk shows are rarely reduced and typically go full retail.

FYI: Miss that trunk show last week? Or maybe no salon in your area carries the designer you want. If you absolutely love a particular designer consider traveling to her flagship store. There you can see her complete collection. Also, if you want something custom designed, think about becoming one of her private clients. True, you'd have to invest much more time and money, traveling to New York or LA. But if you happen to in be the metro area of your favorite star, do check into this. Although you won't hear it publicized much, most top designers have a flagship store as well as custom clientele they cater to.

WHAT TO EXPECT ONCE YOUR GOWN IS DELIVERED

Not long ago, the retail bridal salon not only offered alterations once a gown was delivered, most had customizing services available. Customizing services consisted of everything from making hand-rolled rosettes adorning a bodice, to adding layers of gossamer fabric over a train. Special effects and personal touches were the pride of many salons as well as designers and seamstresses practicing their craft there. Once the standard, its hard to find a salon these days willing to customize past the alteration stage. Figure your salon will alter your gown and most likely do a professional job of it. But generally, after that you're on your own.

So what's the difference between an alteration and customizing? An alteration is a necessity. You have your first fitting and find the waist too big once you get the gown on. Nip, tuck, and stitch. Customizing on the other hand is not a necessity. Customizing is ornamental. Customizing is a highly skilled artistic craft.

There are a few salons, typically the boutiquey smaller ones-that will do some sort of customizing if you buy a gown there. My final words on this: Customizing is better left to specialists and sometimes a salon can recommend you to one. If you plan on customizing once your gown is delivered, get advise on whether the alterations should be factored in with the price of customizing.