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David’s Bridal goes upscale

Zac Posen works on a wedding gown that is sold at David's Bridal.Zac Posen works on a wedding gown that is sold at David's Bridal.
Zac Posen works on a wedding gown that is sold at David's Bridal.Courtesy: David's Bridal

In the heart of Manhattan’s garment district a team of designer with pedigrees that include the likes of Vera Wang and Bill Blass are in the middle of putting together their 2015 and 2016 seasons. Swatches from European vendors and antique dresses are pinned up for inspiration. Minimalism, softness, and airiness are the themes du jour.

Admittedly, this is not the scene that comes to mind when one thinks of David’s Bridal, the wedding dress retailer better known as a destination for the budget-conscious bride than the fashion-forward. But the largest seller of bridal gowns in the U.S. has been working to alter that image, bringing all of its bridal design work in house and marketing itself as a “house of brands.” At the core of its strategy is a growing number of partnerships with designers like Zac Posen and Vera Wang—a move that has given David’s Bridal license to increase its pricing cap from $600 to $2,000 and, in turn, has brought in a higher-end clientele.

“We want to be known for value at all price points, not just cheap dresses,” says Ann Acierno, the company’s executive vice president of merchandising, design, and product development. “That’s a really different message than the old David’s Bridal, where people used to think of us as the $99 bridal dress store.”

Company executives are quick to point out that they’re not abandoning their core value customer, who is searching for a dress for $600 or below, a price point covered by the company’s David’s Bridal and Galina “house brands.” But management is finding less and less resistance when it adds dresses that ring up at more than $1,000. The design team is currently in the process of launching another house brand called Jewel that’s one level up from the entry level lines.

The key to the company’s growing pricing power is its collaborations with well-known designers, a strategy that debuted in 1994 with Oleg Cassini but flowered in 2010 when the company launched WHITE by Vera Wang. The relationship with Wang, the icon of bridal, helped create a halo effect for David’s Bridal and accelerated its emphasis on original design. The Vera Wang deal was followed by a partnership with Melissa Sweet in 2012 (the same year the company was acquired by Clayton, Dubilier & Rice), and this February the first collaboration with Zac Posen hit stores.

For big-name designers the partnerships are a chance to reach a broader customer base than they could on their own. David’s Bridal, the largest wedding dress chain with more than 300 locations, says one in three brides in the U.S. walks down the aisle in a gown purchased from the company. The design team sketched almost 1,000 gowns for the spring 2015 season and ended up picking 72. The breadth of its assortment stems from its democratic ethos—that any woman can shop there regardless of style, budget, or size (some dresses go up to 26W).

“For me as a designer, it’s an amazing opportunity to translate the aesthetic and really keep the beauty,” says Sweet, “and not have to try to translate into something that ends up looking cheap but to be able to offer such a look at such a great price and reach so many more brides.”

Acierno says designers like Sweet don’t have to worry about cannibalizing from their other lines because they’re reaching a different kind of customer through David’s Bridal. “There’s a certain client that’s just not going to come in,” she explains. “That girl that wants to spend $10,000 is going to go to Vera.”

The David’s Bridal team is able to keep costs down thanks to economies of scale but also by creatively sourcing materials and through design tactics. They might use a synthetic fabric that hangs like silk, for example,  and they’re always on the hunt for new technology that might, say, improve the quality of machine-produced lace. “You could take half of these dresses and put them in Kleinfeld and charge $10,000 and no one would know the difference,” says Acierno. “It’s shocking what we’re getting into these dresses for the value.”

The arrangements with the big-name designers vary. Sweet, for example, comes to David Bridal’s studio a few times a year to work with the company’s design team, which she says is skilled at keeping tabs on trends and customer data. The Vera Wang line is hatched by Robert Barnowske, vice president of bridal design, who used to work for Wang’s company. “I worked with her for so many years that we have a great partnership and collaboration and I know her DNA so well,” he says. Wang always gives her input and signs off on the line.

The David’s Bridal team tries to adapt the big-name designers’ aesthetic for its audience rather than simply producing a cheaper version of an existing dress. Wang will “share with us things that she’s working on and developed in the past that we can translate,” Barnowske explains. He’ll put his own spin on things, such as using a variation of Wang’s flanging technique. In one instance he was inspired by a swatch of fabric that Wang had developed at an Italian mill (with a price tag of more than $50 a yard) and sent it to Asia to produce a new fabric for David’s Bridal at a fraction of the cost.

The bridal department makes up about half of the company’s business, but executives want to develop their stores into a destination for more than just wedding dresses—for prom, homecoming, and other social occasions. “Now that we’ve made this move away from just being under $600 and de-emphasized that end of value,” says senior vice-president and chief customer officer Trevor Lunn, “we can start to slowly de-emphasize that it’s only bridal and start to expand this idea of occasion, events, and party dresses.” That’s easier said than done with a name like David’s Bridal. But Lunn says don’t be surprised if you start to see an evolution of the company’s branding with more of an emphasis on the David’s than the Bridal.