Enter the bride, all fat and wide

Ellis Bridals must stay up to date or die. So now it offers a gown for expectant mums, reports Chris Arnot
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ON THE Tube taking me to the north London premises of Ellis Bridals, I read about a wedding that had taken place the day before in the Hacienda nightclub, Manchester. The best man wore a white loincloth and little else. The bride appeared in a swirling number, covered in hoops, hearts and holograms.

When I showed the story to Richard Ellis, the managing director, he smiled inscrutably and muttered something about weddings like that being an exception. "The new legislation relaxing where people can get married is more likely to give the industry a boost," he added. "If the ceremony takes place in a beautiful garden or a stately home rather than a register office, the bride will want a traditional dress."

This is more than wishful thinking. To survive in the 1990s a manufacturer of traditional bridalwear needs to be keenly aware of social trends. Hence the media scrum at the Harrogate "Bridal Fayre" when Ellis Bridals unveiled its wedding maternity dress, designed to draw attention away from a bulging stomach towards a lavishly decorated bodice. It has been selling well since, even to brides who are not pregnant. And those who are?

"We consulted with the editor of Brides Magazine who assured us that there's no stigma any more. As for the Church, we haven't heard a peep," said Mr Ellis. What his grandmother would have said is another matter. She started the family firm 90 years ago in the East End. It was a typical tale of Jewish immigrant enterprise. First she sold her own wedding dress. Then she started sewing others on her kitchen table. Eventually, she had to take on staff and move to bigger premises.

When Mr Ellis's father returned from the Second World War, he set up his own label next door to his mother. The company thrived. It was well- established, with little competition, in a market where young women (or their parents) were prepared to throw financial caution to the wind for a special day.

Times had changed by the 1980s. Traditional white weddings were in decline. More couples were living together or exchanging vows before registrars, both wearing suits. Competition had increased, ensuring that the price of a formal wedding dress today is not much more than it was 20 years ago.

American agencies were flooding the market with cheap exports from Taiwan. The growing enterprise culture at home was also leading women to follow the lead set by Mr Ellis's grandmother. "Everyone with a sewing machine thinks they can make these dresses," he said. "Ten years ago there were five bridal manufacturers. At Harrogate there were 170."

Mr Ellis, now 42, joined his father's firm 12 years ago. A trained chartered accountant, he brought financial and organisational discipline that was unlikely to make him popular with staff used to a more paternalistic regime. But it probably ensured the company's survival. "First I went out on the road with the agents, where I found that some were working effectively and others not." Those who were not were replaced. Sales rose by 25 per cent in one year.

Mr Ellis moved from one department to another and took over when his father died seven years ago. "He always found it difficult to delegate. I found that 40 employees were reporting directly to me. The company is much more structured now and tightly controlled."

Recently, Ellis Bridals moved out of the East End of London to Wood Green. A computer system enables Mr Ellis and his partner, Barry Waterman, to study which ranges have sold well. And where. Turnover is around pounds 3m and exports have risen from 40 per cent to 70 per cent of the business. "You've got to keep looking at yourself critically," he said, "and target new markets."

In parts of the world, perhaps, where a traditional British wedding dress still counts for something and a pregnant bride could be accompanied up the aisle by a father carrying a shotgun.