She may not be Kate Middleton, but this bride is a sassy, sexy, forty-something businesswoman seeking the perfect wedding dress on a generous budget. So how did she fare in London’s top bridal destinations? Were there any Save the Date reminders? Who served champagne? With a decent five-figure price tag at stake, it’s time to get personal with the capital’s bridal boutiques.
My Most Cosmopolitan Girlfriend is getting married. Amanda is a high-flying Global Director for one of the world’s biggest PR agencies. She’s beautiful, polished, poised, elegant and well rewarded for the large slice of life she spends advising world class businesses on their communication strategies.
Amanda is planning her (first) Big Day, which takes place on the 1st October on the Greek island of Spetses. For my sins (and together we’ve clocked up quite a few) she’s asked me to be her Maid of Honour a task not without responsibilities, the first of which was to be Wedding Dress Advisor and Companion over a two day shopping expedition around London’s finest bridal boutiques.
Our 48 hours were meticulously organised to take in six stores, two lunches and a few well-earned vodka martinis. We met for breakfast at the Charlotte Street Hotel before heading to Browns Bridal on Hinde Street, W1. Amanda’s confirmation call the previous day to the main boutique had been handled badly (“can’t you find the right number on the internet?”) so it was in anticipation of more apathy that we approached the rather grand entrance.
Our misgivings were dispelled, however, by a warm welcome and as Amanda simultaneously removed her coat and completed a phone call I scanned the rails, my eyes alighting on something with a little sparkle and a lot of class; pointing animatedly, I swung it in front of my friend, who already looked rather overwhelmed at the sheer number of gowns on offer.
Enter Sam, Browns Bridal Manager whose kind and interested demeanour eased us into a more relaxed state; we gave her the brief. She turned and without hesitation, picked the same dress. “This is the one,” she said.
We spent over two hours in high-pamper-factor Browns, feeling like Goddesses, sipping pink champagne, with Sam expertly editing a collection of timelessly beautiful gowns, her instinct as evident as her experience. The first choice was pinned, tucked and moulded to perfection over Amanda’s slim, gently curvaceous frame. We all agreed, however, that in love as we were with it, we must continue the search. With lighter heads (but pocket still intact) we made our way to our first Bond Street destination: Dolce & Gabbana.
Here, the assistants were more coolly welcoming but no less helpful; although the Italian lace that Amanda had set her heart on was not available, our consultant fetched and carried, suggested, prompted, mixed and matched, maintaining an easy but unobtrusive conversation with us both. We emerged triumphant with an elegant lace dress for the Night Before and something dazzling for the midnight transition from Bride to Party Wife.
And so to the small but elegant Sotheby’s café, where the super-charming maitre’d served the chilliest champagne and deliciously light and tasty dishes. For the Lady at Lunch, no venue could better this. Somewhat reluctant to leave, we realised we were ten minutes late for our appointment at Pronovias, “the leading company in bridal fashion”.
Our reception here was chillier than the champagne we had just enjoyed; we were told in no uncertain terms that “you don’t have an appointment now”. Amanda realised that the variety of time zones through which she had passed whilst making our appointments had resulted in error: we were not due until 4pm. Her apology had no impact on the stringy blonde who, resplendent in white t-shirt and faded jeans informed us that we couldn’t see anyone earlier because “our consultants are very busy and work to a strict diary”.
We hoped to be invited to peruse a catalogue and perhaps the rails, but the indifference of the Pronovias staff propelled us to the door. Their very important consultants were doubtless twiddling their thumbs for two hours later that afternoon, but no one called to invite us back which is just as well; we had no desire to return.
And so to Vivienne Westwood on Conduit Street where we were thankfully back in the world of service and smiles. No wedding dresses here, but we found my Maid’s frock: an immaculately tailored, dramatically decolletaged signature Westwood. Two beautifully trained male assistants made the slight adjustments needed to achieve a perfect fit; you know you’ve got it right when the other clientele stop, look and ask for the same dress in their size.
Flushed with success, Amanda and I entered our final destination; there is no warmer welcome than at Claridges; no more appropriate place from which to review and plan one of the most important shopping events of your life. And they know a thing or two about vodka martinis.
Alberta Ferretti’s Sloane Street store boasts the most expertly designed and edited fashion collections we had seen; her talent for colour makes even taupe shine like a jewel. Upstairs in Bridal, a quietly confident young assistant quizzed Amanda on her brief and made suggestions, which we supplemented with some of our own.
Bridal fashion instinctively tends towards the younger end of the market; every girl has a childhood dream of her tulle, train and tiara but with age comes the tempering of that dream and embracing of sophistication. The Ferretti Bridal Collection was not for us, but impressed with everything we saw, decided to return another day.
We arrived at Jenny Packham an hour early having again fallen foul of the time-zone hitch, but an understanding assistant explained that each Bride is given the utmost personal attention for which reason, maybe we’d prefer to go for lunch in the meantime? We did and reconvening at the correct time, met a knowledgeable, friendly professional consultant and saw a wider selection of beautiful grown-up gowns, although disappointingly a number of the showroom samples suffered from frayed edges, loose threads and worn fabric. We called Browns. “I thought you’d be back,” Sam said. “Come now.”
The Monique Lhuillier Dress was waiting in our safe and hallowed private space and we spent another hour enjoying Browns’ signature expertise, professionalism and pink champagne. Concluding the purchase, we headed East for celebratory cocktails closer to home.
Exhausted and happy, the Bride and her Maid mused over the last 48 hours. Given the budgets involved in a major life event so loaded with expectation and underlying emotion, we concluded that London’s Bridal industry providers have largely settled for mediocrity in either product or service (or both). Champagne and privacy were offered only once. No boutique confirmed our appointment with a Save the Date card – easily combined, even on e-mail, to promote other services so there are opportunities being lost here too.
Miss Middleton will no doubt have had the whole process crafted to perfection on her behalf; other London brides are not so lucky and deserve better. To the capital’s bridal providers: you can and should do justice to the event and clientele of all ages … and if you don’t know how, just go and talk to Sam.
© Giovanna Forte