Luke and his fiancé are getting married at the Foundry in Long Island City this weekend. Like many of the New York couples tying the knot in this uncertain economic climate, they are still going all out for the big day.
“We just said, ‘Let’s hang the cost because it’s only going to happen once right,’” said the British native.
His American-born fiancée’s parents have thrown in $30,000 from their 401(k) to help foot the bill for the 125-person reception. The newlyweds will cap off the celebration with a two-week honeymoon in Bali, which Luke just bought new scuba gear for.
Based on reports from about a dozen of the city’s bridal retailers, the economic slump has done little to dilute the appetite for lavish weddings. Like Manhattan’s luxury real estate market, the wedding industry here not only appears to be impervious to a recession, but also has been buoyed by Europeans taking advantage of the almighty euro.
The co-owner of the couture bridal emporium Kleinfeld’s—where TLC’s reality show about the woes of wedding dress saleswomen "Say Yes to the Dress" was filmed—Mara Urshel said profits are up 15 to 20 percent in 2008.
“I have been hearing that bridal is flat in the rest of the country; that people are making fewer appointments, and fewer brides are getting married,” she said. “But for us, it’s not the same. We have brides coming from all over the world. With the value of the dollar, Europeans see us as a bargain now.”
Granted, Kleinfield’s is an “exclusively” high-end store. Dresses run an average of $4,000 to $5,000, and you won’t find anything for less than $2,000.
Ms. Urshel is cautious but optimistic about the future.
“I think that we’re quite insulated,” she said. “When things get difficult, people get more oriented towards family and family occasions.”
This is certainly true for wealthy people shopping for weddings at the high end of the spectrum. From florists to custom-stationers, no link in the ever-lengthening bridal supply chain has registered a dip.
“I haven’t noticed in any way that we’ve been impacted [by the recession],” said event caterer David Ziff. “The last thing people want to cut back on is the wedding of their child. We still have the same rules given to us by parents of the bride. They never say they don’t care about cost, but they get a base price and they keep adding.
“I keep waiting for that shoe to drop in the catering business, but it hasn’t happened.”
Most of caterer Marcey Brownstein’s clients signed on at least six months ago, well before the economy was in the dumps. But even new clients “are not cutting back.” Coquilles Saint Jacques, Foie Gras Morels, mini-beef Wellingtons and Lobster Thermidores are a few hors d’ouvres she served up at a recent lavish city reception.
“A wedding is the one place that people can splurge," Ms. Brownstein said. "If they can afford to spend $200,000 on a wedding, they are not going to spend $50,000.”
Some caterers, however, have had to tighten their belts to cover a spike in overhead. All operating costs from rent to food have gone up about 20 percent in the past six months since gas prices started to rise, said Ms. Brownstein. The company is already among the most expensive caterers in the wedding business, so she has been reluctant to pass on the cost to her customers. She won’t be able to absorb the cost forever, though.
Nicky Reinhard, the co-owner of David Reinhard Events, agreed that none of her customers are skimping, but she has noted some forgoing a few extravagances in “consideration of what’s going on.”
“Our clients are never over-the-top; they prefer a tasteful elegance, and that has been consistent,” Ms. Reinhard said. “Some people may think the caviar is a little much this year, but they still want to give their daughter a great wedding.”
In another nod to the shaky economy, fewer couples are opting for destination weddings. One bride Ms. Reinhard is working with who had always dreamed of marrying in Spain chose to host the reception in New York instead.
“It’s a lot to ask guests to fly to Europe and pay for hotels, especially with the euro as strong as it is," Ms. Reinhard said, "so we’re seeing more weddings in the States and even the Caribbean.”
Ms. Reinhard has noticed clients taking a little longer to sign on with a planner and commit to a venue; but, once they do, no expense is spared.
Aside from the Plaza since it reopened, David Reinhard does not organize many hotel weddings and throws one a year in a loft space at most. The Four Seasons is popular, and Ms. Reinhard said she is working on two upcoming receptions at the New York Public Library.
“Our clients want something different,” she said. “The Natural History Museum is a great venue. There’s nothing better than having your first dance as husband and wife under the whale,” Mrs. Reinhard said of the giant blue whale hanging from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. The space accommodates 1,000 people for a seated dinner, and 800 for a dinner dance, according to the Web site. It says “price upon request,” though the event-planning department referred us to the marketing department when we asked for a quote.
The Public Library is “getting more and more popular,” said the woman who answered the phone at event-planning there, but refused more questions. The 70-foot-long, marble Astor Hall and the domed Bartos Forum each rent for $30,000 for a five-hour evening slot that begins once the library is closed to the public. Many couples opt for a $50,000 package of cocktails in Astor Hall, followed by dinner in Bartos Forum.
Lisa Hoffman, the owner of custom-stationer Ceci New York, said couples on a tight budget are forgoing the “bells and whistles” on their invites, as is the case every year regardless of the economy.
“It is making some people be more cautious," she said, "but at the same time it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event so there’s a strong impulse to get what they want because they’ll never have a chance again."
Invitations start at $22 and run upward of $500 per set; most couples spend an average of between $300 to $500 a set.
More Europeans are coming to the city from Europe to buy high-end designs, Ms. Hoffman said, while plenty of New Yorkers are still hosting extravagant weddings, with invites to match.
A New York-based couple recently commissioned Ceci to design the invitations for their wedding in the Capucine ruins of Guatemala recently. They are one her many recent clients who “did not hold back." The first of three mailings was a 13×10-inch, custom-silk-screened, Plexiglas invitation with two original drawings by Ms. Hoffman inspired by the island where the wedding took place. Arriving in a black crocodile case with custom stamps, the invite doubled in size when opened. A second mailing followed with a guide of activities for guests to do in Guatemala.
Another symbol of the undiluted demand for wedding excess is the popular grooms’ cake. Half a decade ago grooms cakes were not a de rigueur ingredient of a New York City wedding, but now they account for about one-third of Cake Studio’s total sales, said owner Jill Adams. Wedding cakes are the only product she hasn’t seen customers cut back on lately.
“In general a lot of regular clients who never think to ask about price and used to always do really elaborate things are asking how much things cost now,” she said. “They are spending less on things like birthday cakes, but people are always going to spend a lot on their weddings. I mean we specialize in grooms’ cakes, which are totally unnecessary for a wedding, and I still haven’t noticed any impact from the recession.”
Couture bridal boutiques like Angelo Lambrou, favored by what manager Laura Calamita characterized as an “eclectic bunch” of more budget-conscious brides-to-be, are seeing signs of frugality.
“We don’t have any Bridezillas or hall-on-Long Island brides here,” she said.
“I had one bride who had a wedding planner who would have wiped her butt for her, but she cost $20,000. Most of [the customers] like small weddings or destination weddings.”
Angelo Lambrou is popular with students or professionals, most of whom earn between $40,000 to $75,000, she said, and a lot of them are engaged to “ethnic men.”
Since most of the weddings on the spring/summer wedding roster have been planned for at least a year, Ms. Calamita only recently began noticing a few signs of belt-tightening. One woman chopped the reception tab in half by gathering 10 friends for a trip to Hawaii, but she still bought a custom-made dress. Most are sticking to dresses in the $2,000 range, and compared to last year, fewer women are willing to splurge on a $3,000 to $3,500 dress these days.
Maria Martin sipped a glass of white wine at the Angelo Lambrou boutique on Seventh Street and First Avenue Wednesday evening after a dress fitting. The American-born law student fits the profile. Her fiancé is Chinese. She has a subtle nose ring.
They are getting married in July in Hershey, Pa., in an informal ceremony followed by a barbeque for 150 people (at $30 per head).
The $2,700 she spent on the dress is more than a tenth of the total wedding budget—an unheard of price tag for a Manhattan celebration.
Ms. Martin and her fiancé started planning in August and have not changed anything to reflect the recession.
“Our concern is that it will impact our guests because of gas prices or plane flights, but so far we have not had any cancellations,” she said.