The Royal Wedding: Waiting for the dress

The Royal Wedding: Waiting for the dress
New York:  When Kate Middleton strides down the aisle at Westminster Abbey on Friday, millions of Americans watching at home will be transfixed by her gown.

Few more so than Don O'Neill.

Mr. O'Neill, the creative director of Theia, a bridal house in Manhattan, expects that Ms. Middleton's dress (or a much more affordable version of it) will be coveted by brides-to-be on this side of the Atlantic. So sure is he, in fact, that he has already designed, and plans to sell, a gown he thinks will emulate her choice. Slender and long-sleeved, its decorously scooped neckline encrusted with crystals and silver bullion thread, it will boast a five-foot train.  

"We're calling it The Kate," Mr. O'Neill said. "It's very precious, very regal and suited to a princess, if only in my head."

Not every bridal designer is so farsighted -- or so brashly confident. But many believe that Ms. Middleton's dress, like the bouffant gown Princess Diana wore in 1981, will be a game changer, inspiring replicas or adaptations at every level of the marketplace, some within weeks or even days of its debut.

"We're all holding our breath for it," said Janet Lyons-Brooks, the owner of Leontina Gowns, a bridal house in Imlay City, Mich., and its companion site, Mybigfatbeautifulwedding.com. "My factories are standing by."

The tricky part, of course, is that no one knows what the dress they are poised to copy actually looks like. With the Great Event only days away, Ms. Middleton's gown remains a closely guarded secret, its designer's identity a mystery. (The latest rumor pegs Ms. Middleton herself as the creator.)

But that hasn't stopped  dozens of bridal houses from marshaling reserves of sketch artists,  pattern makers, lace manufacturers, cutters and embroiderers, all standing ready to make last-minute tweaks to existing gowns, or to copy the royal gown outright, funneling imitations into the market at warp speed.

Already retailers are fielding inquiries from customers wondering if, and when, a Kate-inspired gown will be available. "We've had enough curiosity that we have decided we are going to pay close attention to the wedding," said Dan Rentillo, the vice president for design for David's Bridal, the national chain. He plans to have a prototype in the works by the following weekend.

Many are banking on the premise that Ms. Middleton will be influencing bridal trends for years, even decades, as did Princess Diana, whose dress is still inspiring knockoffs in the $2 billion bridal gown market. That gown, it should be noted, with its infanta dimensions and 25-foot train, drew its share of ridicule, better suited, some sniped, for a Disney princess.

Not that it mattered. "Before Diana's wedding, you couldn't find a dress anywhere that was all billowy," said Susan Glick, the vice president for women's apparel for New York International Bridal Week, a trade organization. Afterward, Ms. Glick said, the market was glutted with voluminous look-alikes.   

The gowns that Ms. Middleton's dress will loose on the market will no doubt be more subdued. Learned speculation based on royal etiquette (modest cut, no cleavage or bare arms, if you please) and the bride's taste predicts that this gown will be slender, flared, mermaid style, and low key. (The last a concession to the ailing British economy.)

Tradition dictates that brides order their gowns four to six months ahead, allowing plenty of time for unforeseen production or shipping delays and alterations. But that makes the royal couple's timing inconvenient for high wedding season in the United States.

Jane Wang, the owner of an upscale bridal house in Midtown Manhattan, is prepared to modify dresses already in her line to meet a projected demand,  charging a rush fee of 15 percent of a retail price of roughly $3,000 to cut her delivery time from a customary 12 weeks to 4 to 6.

Mr. O'Neill of Theia is leaving nothing to chance.  Should his house be besieged by last-minute orders for June brides, he will leap into the fray, shrinking his usual lead time to offer a style that is similar, though not identical, in as little as two to four weeks.  His lace manufacturer in Rhode Island is on call, as are his embroiderers in India. "They're going to hate me," he said. "They'll have to do double and triple time to get all those waistlines and necklines stitched."

In the race to be first with a look-alike, no hurdle seems too daunting, certainly not copyright laws, which permit "interpretations," to borrow an industry euphemism, in the cut or details of a garment, so long as subtle modifications are made.

"When that dress hits, we'll be right on it," said Jim Hjelm,  a bridal designer in New York.  "We'll be on the computer that afternoon, sending a sketch."  The company's factory in China will return samples for approval within 24 hours, Mr. Hjelm said. Equipped, like its competitors, with high-tech computer programs, the factory can approximate a design from a sketch or a Web page, with no need to pull apart the seams of an actual garment.

"We'll probably gamble and have a dress or even three styles out before October," said Mr. Hjelm, for shipping to stores in February. "But there are plenty of people who will have the dress within a day."

LightInTheBox.com, an Internet retailer, will submit a design almost instantaneously. "Our online marketing team will start to prepare the visual materials needed for pushing the dress online overnight," said Steven Lin, a company spokesman. Assembling an actual garment will take about a month and shipping an additional three to eight days, he said -- well in time for mid- to late-June nuptials.

Even in the prom market, designers see potential. Seema Anand, whose company, Blue Plate, makes inexpensive runway-inspired clothes for stores like Macy's, Bloomingdales and Forever 21, will offer knee-length prom-worthy variations in as little as three weeks

In the bridal industry, there has long has been precedent for speedy turnarounds. Mr. Hjelm, a veteran of the industry, recalled that when Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, "by the end of that day they had a Grace Kelly look-alike in Filene's window in Boston."

With its high neckline and ballroom skirt, Ms. Kelly's dress, made by the Hollywood costumer Helen Rose, inspired an avalanche of knockoffs.

As did Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's slip-like bias-cut gown in 1996, which, as Millie Martini Bratten, the editor in chief of Brides magazine, pointed out, became the quintessential wedding dress of the era.

Even Chelsea Clinton, who has never been known as a style setter, inspired a trend last year when she wore a Vera Wang strapless wedding gown, spawning rafts of copies.

The grande dame of bridal trendsetters was none less than Queen Victoria, whose choice of a white dress for her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840 established a precedent that has been honored ever since. "These women were celebrities," said Ms. Glick of International Bridal Week, who went on to predict that, like the young women brandishing magazine tear sheets with photos of their favorite film stars, legions will be storming retailers next month, demanding Kate's dress. "After all," Ms. Glick said, "Kate Middleton is a celebrity, too."

 Not just any celebrity, of course. Her middle-class roots (her father is a former flight dispatcher, her mother was a flight attendant) lend her a Cinderella status that is in itself a potent emotional trump card. The millions of young women watching as she alights from her coach (or car) "will get to see a real live girl become a princess," Ms. Martini Bratten said. "What could be more powerful?"

Or more apt to launch a thousand looks?
Story First Published: April 25, 2011 14:57 IST

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