For years, on these shores at least, there was "fashion" and there was "bridal" and never the twain would meet. But with a UK wedding market worth billions and an increasing desire to make a statement of personality and individuality with the big day, the market has changed drastically.
Caroline Burstein, who founded Browns Bride in 2004 to address a gap in the market, has seen a huge change in the attitude towards weddings. Formerly the creative director of Browns boutiques, the independent chain founded by her parents Joan and Sidney Burstein in 1970, she was perfectly placed to hear the bridal desires of their fashionable female customers. "I always noticed that girls would come in looking for wedding dresses, or alternative wedding dresses, and so many of them said, 'I wish you did wedding dresses,'" says Burstein. "They were just desperate; they said there was nothing that corresponded to who they were and what they wanted."
The sense of identity that is key to choosing the right wedding dress is something that has stayed with Burstein through 10 years in the bridal business. "It's about living your fantasy, having the dress of your dreams and feeling and looking at your most beautiful. It's a very special day, getting married – it's the end of one era and the beginning of a new one for ever, even if the marriage doesn't last that long."
That fine balance between romance and pragmatism is something that has served Burstein well: "There are a lot of high emotions going on in the bridal shop. We've always got the tissues at the ready and even we can get emotional. It's just such a special, extraordinary moment, and it's joyful, but there's a stress, too. On the whole, we don't have too many dramas."
While any kinks in the process have long been smoothed out, there were a few teething issues when Browns Bride first opened its doors in 2004. Despite her vast experience in luxury fashion and retail, Burstein quickly discovered that bridal is a very different beast. "My vision was quite narrow," she admits, "and I had to learn to broaden it. I had a very 'fashion' sense of what I wanted, but I had to listen when the customers were telling me what they wanted.
"Vera Wang was the only really established [fashion] bridal brand at that time, but she already had a retail partner. So, instead, I wanted the designers we carried in Browns – Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Marc Jacobs – to do wedding dresses for me, but their businesses weren't geared up for it. So I was actually buying ready-to-wear pieces from them. I had to learn the business from the inside out. I took a huge dive and then found my way up to the surface. I can't believe I'm even in the bridal business, you know. I am so not that person – I'm a tomboy at heart. I'm not flowery, I can't wear lace. I am just the antithesis!"
Burstein may have been new to the bridal side of the business, but her experience at Browns was invaluable. "My aim was to have a bridal version of Browns, which meant finding the best designers – the best of the best – internationally, and to give them a platform. My mother built the business on that thinking, and I've inherited it." Monique Lhullier, Reem Acra and Johanna Johnson are just some of the names that Burstein has introduced to the UK through her extensive research, much of it focused on America.
"Every culture sees a wedding in a different light," says Burstein. "But I think the way that a wedding has become very much a statement of the happy couple's identity is an American influence. There's nothing wrong with that – they want it to be the most memorable day, one that they want everyone to enjoy. I can understand that."
Bridal trends come and go, and Burstein observes them but doesn't follow them slavishly: "From the bridal magazines, you'd think everybody was getting married in pink this year and, while we do sell a lot of pink, it's a tiny percentage compared to ivory, white and off-white." Trends, it seems, still need to be couched in traditions: the Vera Wang gown pictured here has been created exclusively in fuchsia to celebrate the 10th anniversary. Probably the best-known bridal designer in the world, Wang was one of the designers on Burstein's original wish list, and in 2011 Burstein got that wish more than fulfilled when Wang teamed up with Browns to open her first UK store.
This weekend, the eagerly anticipated Wedding Dresses exhibition will open at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in which the history of the most special of garments is traced back to 1775. Charting the evolution of traditions and superstitions from the 18th century to the present day will be an interesting course, considering that the UK wedding market is estimated to be worth up to £10bn a year, with average wedding costs topping £20,000. Even with such figures becoming the norm, there is no denying that the Browns Bride experience is firmly for the privileged.
"Luckily for us, and for them, our customers are able to make their dreams a reality – and that includes those who have saved up, or their family has, in order to buy the dress a bride wants," says Burstein. "I think it's important the customer understands she's got something that's not just superficially special, it's really special. But our dresses are expensive, even the simple ones. We start at £3,000 and I know for many girls that is more than they could ever dream of spending, and I understand. It's easy to get blasé, but we're not."
Regular sample sales help make dreams a reality. "I love the sales, they're wonderful," says Burstein of the events, which see customers queuing down the road in all weathers in search of the ultimate bargain. "It allows a girl who doesn't have an £8,000 budget to get a dress for £2,000. It's a fun day."
Burstein's own experiences have made her understand the power of "the dress". She says: "I got married for the first time when I was 20, and there was this gorgeous Sonia Rykiel dress: very light, very beautiful, it was my dream dress. I fell in love with that dress and I think that's why I got married too young." When she married for the second time, six years ago, Burstein chose to have a dress made by London-based designer Ashish. "I just loved what he did and thought he was such a great person. I got him to make me a lovely golden sequinned dress – by then I was a granny so it was just long and simple. It was lovely, perfect." A dream come true, indeed.