The Bridal Bait ’n’ Switch

It was a recent early evening on the sixth floor of Bloomingdale’s, and the gift registry was thronged with purposeful couples fresh from their engagements, efficiently combing through the aisles in a kind of upscale Supermarket Sweep. But it seemed some of the brides-to-be were assessing those Nambé trays and Kosta Boda vases with a glint of mischief—or were those dollar signs?—in their eyes.

“We don’t want to wind up with, like, tacky gifts that we hate,” said a petite 30-year-old television producer who gave her name as Kelly and resembled Reese Witherspoon, pre– Vanity Fair. “If we register here, people can get us stuff that we know where it came from. I’m sure 80 percent of the stuff we’ll keep—but I bet you 20, at least 20 percent of the stuff we’ll return. And if I return it and I get a credit, I’m definitely buying clothes.” Kelly batted her wide blue eyes up at her fiancé, Scott. “Are you going to get clothes?” she cooed. “You can have some of our credit too, for clothes.”

“I’m gonna get 10 percent of it,” said Scott, 41, a television editor with salt-and-pepper hair.

Surveying customers of the big B’s of Manhattan retail—Bloomie’s, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman—such subterfuge seems common, though none of these stores would provide statistics.

“Everyone I know registered at Bloomingdale’s so they could return,” said Michelle, a 33-year-old home stylist who scored a $1,000 credit to spend on clothes after registering at Bergdorf Goodman. She said the administrators of the registries are partly to blame for the custom. “They’re so disorganized that you end up getting more than people really bought you—like two of the same things because they didn’t take it off the registry,” Michelle said. “And you’re not going to keep it. And you exchange it for shoes! So who wouldn’t do that? Right? Everybody does it. Everybody! If someone tells you they didn’t do it, they’re lying. That’s my opinion.”

Elizabeth Quarta, a spokeswoman for Bloomingdale’s, professed innocence toward the practice, saying that the store’s policy toward registry returnees was the same as that for returning regular items. “We offer to put the credit on a Bloomingdale’s charge (if they have one) or we give them an electronic gift card,” Ms. Quarta wrote in an e-mail. “As for how often this happens (someone returning an item from the registry): we would have no way of measuring this.”

It doesn’t stop with getting clothes instead of china from the department stores. Couples have discovered that at Crate & Barrel and Bed, Bath & Beyond, gifts with a receipt can be exchanged for actual money.

“They get cash on the spot,” said Lisa Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Bed, Bath & Beyond.

“As long as they have that receipt, they can get a check,” said Joe Dance, a spokesman for Crate & Barrel—though “I can’t imagine that many people do it,” he added, with touching faith. “That kind of behavior could give brides a bad name.”

But Cory Kahaney, a fortysomething comedian on Last Comic Standing, had no qualms about using her Bed, Bath & Beyond registry to pay for her wedding at a friend’s house in Lenox, Mass. “O.K., maybe I didn’t keep the silver icebucketand tongs—butthe band got tipped!” saidMs.Kahaney.(Or should we call her”Robin Hood”?)”As the wedding got close, it got insane,”sherecalled.”‘Hmmm, Prosecco or champagne? Let’s see, I have the Noritake bowls that can go back!’”

The return policy at upscalecookingchain Williams-Sonoma is less lenient, but a sales associate at one Manhattan branch said that it’s very common for couples to return all of the items they received, to “cash” them in for, say, a $500 espresso maker that no guest wouldbuy them outright.

“Someone came in once and they returned $1,500 worth of merchandise, and they came in a week later when they got all their credit through the mail,” said the employee, who refused to be identified by name. “They had this whole pile of merchandise credits, and they were calling them ‘Williams-Sonoma food stamps.’ It was really funny.” (Perhaps not quite as funny for the people who actually need food stamps.)

One magazine editor of 40 might take the cake on the bridal bait-’n’-switch, cashing in approximately $8,000 worth of gifts purchased at Felicite.com, a Web site that allows couples to register for items at the stores of their choice, receiving a check for the ones they “change their mind about.” About an eighth of that bonanza went toward a pair of large Ted Muehling turquoise earrings. “That’s the only purchase I remember,” said the magazine editor, who lives on the Upper West Side and requested anonymity, presumably out of shame. “I just bought all crap for myself. Probably clothes. I think I got some expensive salon treatments for myself. I spent some time at the Red Door. Nothing for the house, nothing for our life, nothing like a down payment for our apartment. Nothing. Who knows where it went? I may have well set it on fire. It was my last totally selfish, single New York girl act when I got married.”

She said her friends encouraged her, in a kind of you go, girlfriend kind of way—”They told me that because you worked so hard to get the man to marry you, you needed to treat yourself”—but fears that this man, now her husband of two and half years, might divorce her if he found out the extent of her splurge.

“I wouldn’t do it again,” said the magazine editor. “Let’s put it this way: I’m more mature now.”

—A.S.M.

The New Vera Wang?

As pink-lipsticked and pearl-clad bridal editors and buyers crowded into Gotham Hall for the Monique Lhuillier fall 2005 fashion show on Oct. 10, there was nary a meow-worthy comment to be heard. Rather, an excited frisson swept the hall as the lights dimmed and necks craned to see the latest looks from the bridal designer who, seemingly overnight, has gone from being the one with the hard-to-pronounce surname (it’s LOO-lee-ay, F.Y.I.) to a veritable Queen of the Aisle—a title long held by former figure skater Vera Wang.

After 23 looks came down the runway—each a study in luxurious creams, champagnes, lace and bustle—a happy sigh settled over the darkened room.

A few days later, Ms. Lhuillier, who is 33, sat in the lobby of the Bryant Park Hotel, sipping peppermint tea next to her husband and business partner of nine years, Tom Bugbee, also 33, a former consultant at Deloitte and Touche (they met on a blind date). Clad in a dark brown lace top of her own design, gray trousers and a cardigan, Ms. Lhuillier was all almond-brown eyes and honeyed skin as she contemplated her brand’s sudden success. “I guess the last six months, the name really has gotten out there,” she said.

Hello, understatement! At the Emmy Awards on Sept. 19, four prominent actresses—The Soprano’s Jamie-Lynn DiScala, Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally, Nip/Tuck’s Famke Janssen and The West Wing’s Allison Janney—all proudly quarter-turned their Monique Lhuillier gowns on the red carpet. The previous evening, pop star Britney Spears had married back-up dancer Kevin Federline in a top-secret ceremony; by the end of the week, there was a splashy 12-page spread in People that prominently showed off Ms. Spears’ two different Monique Lhuillier gowns: one estimated at $26,000 for the ceremony, and a shorter, racier one for the reception. The designer also provided frocks for five bridesmaids and the mothers of both bride and groom.

“You hear people talk about how their wedding isn’t real,” Mr. Bugbee said of the cheesy couple, “but we were in a ton of fittings with them, and they were just so excited and in love. You can’t understand why people say such things.”

Ms. Lhuillier nodded vigorously. “I wanted to defend her,” she said. “I never once experienced a single negative moment with her or her family.”

A little over a week later, 300,000 viewers logged on to vote for the wedding dress for the annual Today Show’s betrothed couple. Forty-two percent of viewers voted for Ms. Lhuillier. “We were watching the show, and when I heard Matt Lauer say, ‘I was butchering her name all week long …,’ I knew that I won,” she said.

It’s not just Hollywood that has taken notice: Manhattan socialites Tinsley Mortimer, Inez Rivero and Emilia Fanjul have all been lovin’ Lhuillier of late.

“She’s wonderful,” said Mark Ingram of the Bridal Atelier by Mark Ingram, an intimate midtown store that specializes in high-end bridal wares. “Her look is so fresh and appealing, and yet there’s always something a little bit sexy about a Monique Lhuillier dress.” He said his profit this year has jumped 50 percent thanks to her dresses alone.

Born and raised in the southern Philippines city of Cebu, Ms. Lhuillier was influenced early on by her glamorous Filipino mother and French father. “My parents entertained a lot,” she said. “Dressing up was a part of all that.” After attending a Swiss boarding school, Ms. Lhuillier ended up in Los Angeles and at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. But it wasn’t until she designed dresses for her own bridesmaids in 1995 that she sensed the possibilities of the market. With her new husband heading up the business end of things, they began arranging trunk shows.

By 1996, they’d earned a small but devoted following and, in 2000, they introduced an evening line. Currently, 2004’s retail sales are on track to gross $15 million. The couple has no solid plans yet to open a New York store, but the line is carried in Saks and Kleinfeld’s, and business at their Beverly Hills boutique is booming.

When asked about the strain of being partners in both marriage and business (see under Spade, Kate and Andy), the couple exchanged telling grins.

“Got another tape we can use?” Ms. Lhuillier asked, tapping the recorder on the table.

When it came to the inevitable Wang comparisons, she was sugary-sweet, as befits her profession. “I only get uncomfortable when they knock her down,” Ms. Lhuillier said. “That’s when I get weird about it.”

—S.V.

The Kindest Cut

Forget square-shaped and pear-shaped: The diamond cut du jour is cushion-cut: a stone in the shape of a fluffed-up square with rounded corners. And Manhattan women are sinking right in and saying Aaaahh! “People always ask me, ‘What kind of cut is that?’” said Allison Aston, 30, who happily accepted a large cushion-cut engagement ring from her husband Jay Aston (a portfolio manager at Neuberger Bermann and the son of prominent plastic surgeon Sherrell), when he proposed in May. “I love it,” she said. “It’s not your same-old-same-old. It really does stand out.”

The stone’s top is crowded with triangular facets—so many that looking at it produces a dizzying kaleidoscopic effect. Even with its bling, it has a slightly raw, Romantic, “diamond-in-the-rough” quality that harks back to its origins in the 1800’s, when, as Fred Leighton saleswoman Alma Continanzi pointed out, not every New Yorker had electricity. “They were cut so that they could pick it up by candlelight,” she said in her Croatian growl, showing off an 8.7-carat version. In olden times, she said, people believed the diamonds could be cut very deep, “because it mean depth in the relationship.”

But these days, women might be attracted to the cushion cut for considerably shallower reasons. The actress Ashley Judd owns one. (“The particular cushion I had at that time really spoke to her,” said Beverly Hills–based jeweler Martin Katz, who designed it.) So does Wonderful Town’s new star, Brooke Shields. And The O.C.’s Mischa Barton wore one to this year’s Emmys.

Some of the world’s most famous antique diamonds are cushions: the Hope, the Regent, the Cullinan II. Now, dealers have again started cutting them fresh to handle the demand. “A few years ago, they were barely a blip,” said Esther Fortunoff, the executive vice president of Fortunoff Fine Jewelry. “I would say that they’ve doubled and tripled in the last five years.” Independent jeweler Daniel Koren got into the cushion action about two years ago. “It has an Old World feel with it,” he said.

There is a certain old-money, unostentatious aspect to the cushion cut. Because the stones are often cut so deeply, large-carat weights can be hidden. “It’s discreet, in its own way,” said Alexandra Kimball, 31, a publicist for Oscar de la Renta who got a cushion from her husband, an executive producer of The Al Franken Show, a year ago. (She didn’t care to share the number of carats.)

The labor-intensive cushion is the spiritual opposite of the emerald-cut, a flat rectangle whose full carat weight is visible from the top, like the 29.4-carat honker that Elizabeth Taylor got from Mike Todd in 1957 and subsequently likened to an ice-skating rink. “Emerald-cut doesn’t waste a lot of diamond,” said Mara Leighton, a partner at Fred Leighton. Cushions, she said, are “really hard to cut—quite wasteful.”

“Emerald was so hot, and everybody had it,” said Ms. Aston with some disdain. “It’s the most bang for your buck because it has the biggest surface area. Emerald was huge. I literally looked at Jay and I was like, ‘I never want an emerald. Never, never, never. Because everybody had one.”

Those who want a substantial-looking cushion will have to pony up for one with serious heft, making it perhaps the most undemocratic of diamond cuts. “It is our fashion girls, our preppier girls, our Connecticut girls” who go cushion, said Claudia Hanlin, who runs the Wedding Library, a bridal consultancy. “We don’t see a lot of small cushion cuts. It doesn’t look that great if it’s a small one.”

Sharon Herbert, a 23-year-old advertising account executive, could be found admiring her big cushion the other day—a gift from her husband, who works in marketing for the vinyl industry. “People think it’s a princess, and then they’re not sure if it’s an Asscher,” she crowed, referring to other popular cuts as she gazed at her 4.25-carat rock. “It looks more like three and a half. It’s not as obnoxious.”

—A.S.M. The Bridal Bait ’n’ Switch