During her 20 years in the bridal retail space, Flora Petakas noticed an essential segment of clientele being underserved at best, ignored at worst.
"Once we were finalizing the bride's [dress] decision, the mother would come to me and ask — confidentially, away from the bride, so as to respectfully not take any time from her appointment — 'Where can I go for myself?,'" says the Union Square Couture founder. "I never had the right answer."
The wedding dress shopper's trusted confidante, often the mother (we'll get to semantics in a bit), can peruse restrained evening wear in department stores, visit boutiques in-person, filter through a staggering sea of choices online. More often than not, though, the offerings are less than inspiring.
"It's really boring, and it feels very dated. I've done that research," says Francesca Miranda's Daniela Jassir. The Marketing Director of the Colombia-based luxury bridal and evening wear house pinpoints another way the industry doesn't cater to this demographic: "The experience is not anything special. And you're the mother of the bride."
Never mind that this group of overlooked consumers — largely Gen X women — are ready to spend. In 2018, a study from the Coca-Cola Company and Mass Mutual found that a group of American women age 50 and over hold over $15 trillion in spending power, with Forbes referring to the cohort as "super consumers... the healthiest, wealthiest and most active generation in history." Still, the group is generally ignored by marketers in favor of the coveted millennials and Gen Z.
The glaring white space, combined with the Great Wedding Boom of 2022, created the perfect opportunity for Petakas. "There was this pent-up demand, and there was going to be a flurry of weddings," she says.
After two years of pandemic-planning, the Vera Wang and Monique Lhuillier alum opened Flora on Madison in April. Sharing a space (and synergistic customers) with bridal brand Anne Barge, the boutique is a destination not just for chic, on-trend black-tie fashion, but also for a luxury, in-person shopping experience for the cherished advisors, usually referred to as "mother of the bride."
We should address the terminology, which, in 2022, does feel limiting. It excludes aunties, close family friends and future in-laws; it genders the betrothed couple; and it narrows the marketing (and sales opportunity).
"'Mother of the bride' is a term that will become less relevant as traditional norms continue to be redefined, not only regarding family and relationships, but also gender and identity," writes Laura Yiannakou, Senior Strategist at WGSN Fashion, in an e-mail.
Agreeing that the term is "passé" and "outdated," Petakas has been test-driving broader nomenclature, like "hostess of the event," while focusing on "evening wear" and "occasion wear" as category descriptors. The Knot uses gender-neutral "attendant of honor," "best person" and "best attendant," in line with the rest of the industry, according to Shelley Brown, the publication's Senior Fashion and Beauty Editor.
But of course, "many people who would consider themselves a 'mother of the bride' are very proud to say that the minute that they walk through the door," says Pantora Bridal designer (and last year's "Making the Cut" winner) Andrea Pitter.
"Mother of the bride" seems to remain the catch-all term for the formalwear category, which is experiencing a spike in interest and demand in line with this year's expected 2.6 million weddings. As of June 2022, Google search for "mother of the bride" and "dresses" reached a record high, with a 20% increase since 2021; the phrase has also been searched four times more than "mother of the groom," from 2004 until now.
Even so, the style choices are only just now evolving (and slowly) to meet the taste and preferences of the lucrative and discerning super consumers, who grew up on Vogue and MTV (and later gleaning style inspo from the Internet and Instagram).
"They know a lot about fashion. They've done their research," says Petakas. "Whereas I would say, 10 years ago, [clients would say,] 'Dress me.' That's not what I have now."
"Historically, 'mother' vibes were a champagne, blue and silver color story and often very traditional — and what I would like to call 'frumpy,'" says Pitter, citing the archetypical midi-length column with beading on the bodice, but covered up with a modest bolero. "Now, they're really operating from a place of 'you only live once,' and are definitely sexier than ever."
Recently, mothers and guests of honor have gravitated toward Pantora's bridesmaid designs, which are full of draped, gleaming fabrics and body-celebrating elements like sweetheart necklines, high leg-slits and peek-a-boo cut-outs. Petakas's clientele are also looking for more "body-conscious" silhouettes. The stigma around what a special guest of an earlier generation "should" be wearing is evolving, too, along with society and the cohort themselves.
"With body acceptance and age acceptance, they're living their [best] selves," says Pitter, whose own mom wore a strapless, fully-beaded Pantora Maids gown to a red carpet event. "Historically, people have wanted to follow tradition, but the most beautiful thing about tradition is that we have the opportunity to create our own — and Gen X and millennials are very serious about breaking breaking rules. When you do break the rules, you get to tell the story on your own."
The relaxation of traditional etiquette and expectations from the couple, plus the collective pandemic-fueled desire to celebrate the momentous occasion, may also encourage a less rigid dress code — or lack thereof.
"In the past, there was this idea that a 'mother of the bride' garment had to be very conservative, muted, understated — in some cases, kind of frumpy," says Brown. "Now, people are really free to express themselves and not feel as though they have to fade into the background."
Petakas says that her clients are looking for some sort of self-expressive statement element — like texture and eye-catching embellishments — to convey their significance in the wedding party: "She wants to stand out. She doesn't want to be another guest at her event in a black dress." Flora on Madison carries a range of high-end designer labels and aesthetics, from Greek goddess-meets-red carpet glam from Athens-based Costarellos to lavish, sculptural ballgowns by Gemy Maalouf.
Galia Lahav, founder and designer of Galia Lahav, recognizes that the "mother of the bride" clientele has "become more daring." They're currently interested in ethereal flowing gowns, with "a twist," like a statement sleeve, a longer dramatic train and, yes, high leg-slits. (The Tel Aviv-based bridal and evening wear house known for dazzling embellishments, sultry silhouettes and body-baring details.)
WGSN's Yiannakou observes that the intention behind traditional offerings are also "out-of-touch" with the demographic's consumer behavior. "They don't wish to shop for a single event, and are instead driven by quality and longevity — pieces that can not only be worn again, but can also interchange with existing pieces in their wardrobes," she says.
Francesca Miranda's Jassir says that her bespoke Gen X clientele are gravitating toward solid colors in plush silks and taffetas — and not just because it's a style preference: "It's a good piece that you can keep forever, and you can style it differently [in the future]."
Since Spring 2022, Amsale has continued revitalizing and exponentially growing its occasion wear offerings, directly in response to inquiries from attendants of honor — usually moms — in the Madison Avenue flagship. "The wedding guests were really struggling with where to buy these fashionable dresses," says Chief Creative Officer Sarah Swann.
Until this year, the heritage design house founded by the late Ethiopian-American designer Amsale Aberra offered a small capsule of evening wear. Due to intense demand — especially for the supersized wedding season — Swann and Head Designer Michael Cho expanded the collection from 25 to 50 "statement" looks for Fall 2022. The updated offering allows guests of honor to express their individuality with "unique jacquards from Italy" and eye-catching hues, like bold fuchsias and "a really bright lime moire," says Swann, excitedly.
Amsale's marketing for Fall 2022 also speaks directly to the knowledgable and fashion-starved target audience through a stylized lookbook. Gauzy, dramatic lighting and editorialized photography catch the movement of, say, a halter midi dress with a watercolor-like beaded pattern or a shoulder-baring, wide-leg jumpsuit in a rich emerald.
"'Let's shoot it in the most elevated, beautiful way, so that people go, 'Wow. What is that? I want to see more,'" says Swann, recalling the creative process. "It caters to a large group of people, too. Let's just design exciting dresses that inspire people to want to come and see them and try them on."
As a high-profile example, Victoria Beckham made her own headlines in a slinky gunmetal slip dress with shimmering floral French lace embroidery for son Brooklyn's wedding, an update of one of her own collection pieces (which she also wore to Edward Enninful's wedding). But these days, attendants of honor don't need to be a former Spice Girl or world-famous fashion designer to express their true selves (and celebrate the special occasion) through what they wear to a loved one's wedding.