Bridget Herschap, daughter of a prominent South Texas oil executive, was not the kind of bride one would expect to cut corners on cost. After all, her June destination wedding in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, was lavish, replete with fireworks, mariachi bands and private haciendas for special guests. Yet when it came to the bridesmaid dresses, Herschap chose a lineup of flowy raspberry frocks from J. Crew, each one a wallet-friendly $250.
Catherine Fabrizio also turned to J. Crew to dress her 11 attendants, even though, as an associate accessories buyer for a major New York department store, she had such designer labels as Vera Wang, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera at her finger— tips. “The J. Crew dresses didn’t look froufrou,” says Fabrizio, who wore an ivory wedding gown by Anna Maier Ulla-Maija Couture. “I didn’t want them to be overdone.”
Becoming a bridesmaid favorite came as a surprise to J. Crew’s chairman and CEO, Millard “Mickey” Drexler, who, upon hearing from sales associates that a flood of engaged women were choosing the firm’s dresses for their attendants—the most popular, a strapless, embossed style—decided to connect the dots. “I didn’t know much about it, but we chatted a bit and the next day we said, ‘It might be fun. Let’s do J. Crew wedding,’” Drexler recounts. With that, seven bridesmaid dresses, along with one wedding gown and a few men’s suits, were introduced in February 2004. (For spring 2009, J. Crew upped its bridesmaid dress count to 25; they retail from $165 for a crinkled chiffon style to $395 for a high-collar silk shift.) Cost, a key component when the collection launched, is even more important today, given the economic climate. “Any customer is always evaluating whether something is worth it or not, and this market only reinforces that,” Drexler says. “I think we are rightly priced, and my opinion is that [our competitors] are overpriced. We’ve seen this enormous inflation in designer pricing and demand, and I think more than ever the customer is looking at the combination of style, quality, design and value, because that is the new standard.”
While price was a bonus for Herschap, the cute factor was, she notes, a larger selling point. “My biggest fear was that people were going to think, God, that bridesmaid dress is so ugly,” she says. “J. Crew dresses were the sweetest-looking, and I didn’t think they looked too bridesmaid-y. I thought they could wear them again.”
That’s music to the ears of Jenna Lyons, J. Crew’s creative director. When she set out to design the company’s wedding garb, she took the bridesmaid-dress-that-doesn’t-look-like-a-bridesmaid-dress approach. “Every single season, every time we look at a dress, we look at the girl and say, ‘Okay, if you saw her at a party or a picnic, would you think she looked ridiculous or would you think she looked cute?’ We don’t look at bridal as just wearing it to a wedding. We look at it as you could end up anywhere,” explains Lyons, who makes sure the cuts are simple and sticks with fabrics such as cotton and silk blends, while keeping bows, sashes and other adornments to a minimum.