Virgins this way

Confused soon-to-be-weds need help. Enter Richard Branson, marriage counsellor
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you thought you'd missed your chance of ever being a virgin bride, think again. Help is at hand from Richard Branson, whose latest wheeze is a one-stop wedding shop designed to smooth the anxious bride's passage to the altar. Virgin Bride opened yesterday in central London, promising to provide everything the harassed couple needs. And if on their honeymoon flight they find themselves on a Virgin Atlantic plane, drinking Virgin cola and thinking of investing their dowry in a Virgin Pep, all well and good.

From the day the engagement ring is bought, Virgin Bride aims to make the whole process as pain-free as possible. Unsure where to get married? Richard's crack team of matrimonial consultants is at hand, fully briefed on the latest legal and social etiquette. "Gone will be the days of visiting hundreds of different stores," he promises, "flicking through brochures for months on end and feeling that you are being pressurised, as a result of lack of choice, into a traditional wedding when, in reality, that is the complete opposite from what you and your partner want."

His store offers bridal wear (everything from traditional bodices and bustles to a black PVC dress), grooms' wear designed by the company who made the costumes for Four Weddings and a Funeral, and accessories including costume jewellery from Butler and Wilson. Brides can enjoy facials, manicures and a deep foot-to-knee massage which promises a "feeling of well-being" to calm those pre-wedding jitters. There is wedding stationery, and you can even book your honeymoon on the spot using an interactive holiday booking system developed in partnership with travel agents Page & Moy: no more browsing through piles of brochures; instead, you watch videos and can be connected live via video link to a travel consultant.

The pick'n'mix approach comes with the promise of a truly personal service. "This is something we feel has previously been ignored by the wedding industry, which remains for the most part a segmented cottage industry," explains Ailsa Petchey, who came up with the idea. A former Virgin Atlantic air stewardess, Petchey thought up Virgin Bride after agreeing to help organise a friend's wedding. "By the end of my first week I was exhausted," she says. "I realised there was definitely a need for a new type of service - to take out the hassle." It was truly an immaculate conception: the flight attendant sold The Boss on the idea, and Virgin Bride was born. (So keen on the concept was Branson that he shed his familiar jumper and facial hair to appear in make-up, high heels and a mini-dress at the store's launch event yesterday.)

The basic concept of Virgin Bride is very simple, Petchey says: "To provide as much information and as many props as we can, all under one roof, to allow the bride and groom to actually enjoy themselves." And, of course, such thoughtful pampering is designed to encourage punters to spend more. It's all very Branson - not least in the way it offers itself as a Nineties solution to a problem many couples might not realise they actually have.

"It sounds ideal ... if you don't know what you want," says Lesley Hannaford- Hill, 33, who got married last September. "For me, part of the fun was working towards the day. It's bad enough when you go to John Lewis or Peter Jones to do the wedding list, and find you're just one of hundreds."

Adds Katie Dinnage, 27, who is getting married next May: "I wouldn't have thought you'd want to be seen as `The Virgin Bride' walking up the aisle - with the same dress, accessories and honeymoon as everyone else. You want it to be special."

Not a problem, Petchey counters: every client gets her own, individual consultant ensuring a truly personal service. And therein lies the strength of the Virgin Bride concept, according to Andy Milligan, a director at branding specialist Interbrand. "Like everything else to do with Virgin, it's about attitude," he says. "People love Virgin because they see it as standing for people who do things. Virgin is all about taking on the world and doing it differently. It's a buccaneer. It's 100 per cent Branson."

Having already challenged the established giants in a broad range of businesses from airlines to cola, financial services, cinema, the Internet and, from next month, the railways, Branson's plan is clear. He intends to leave a lasting mark on thousands of couples' Big Days. And if things go awry, rest assured he'll have the answer. Next up, the Virgin Divorce? Watch this space