Bridal Market Sees Opportunity in Recession

NEW YORK — Amid the flailing economy, footwear brands are finding opportunity in the bridal category.

Several women’s brands, from Payless ShoeSource to Mary Norton, have launched new bridal collections this year and are looking to make wedding shoes permanent additions to their lines.

“There’s always going to be a buyer for bridal, and there’s always going to be a market for it,” said Patricia Pao of Pao Principle, a retail consultancy in New York. “The second a girl gets engaged, she starts looking for the dress, and shoes are the natural progression.”

While Payless has long included dyeable dress shoes in its business, the retailer is now pushing bridal more heavily with Unforgettable Moments by Lela Rose, a capsule collection of kitten, slingback and T-strap heels priced between $25 and $45. It debuted in February at 2,600 Payless stores.

“Even though it’s just started, it’s an integral part of the business,” said Payless CEO and President LuAnn Via, noting she intends to place the collection in more Payless stores and will add new looks each season. “I don’t have an end goal in mind, but it’s certainly a key business to us.”

In addition, the Topeka, Kan.-based company debuted an Unforgettable Moments Website in April to build the line independent from the other Payless collections.

Cole Haan, meanwhile, launched a bridal collection this spring, following the debut of its DressAir line, which uses Nike Air technology to create comfortable dress shoes. “Bridal was a natural segue for Cole Haan,” said Chief Marketing Officer Michael Capiraso. “Every woman can appreciate a high heel that is comfortable.”

The eight-style collection of white Italian silk and satin ballet flats and heels retails for $298 to $428 at Colehaan.com, select Cole Haan stores and New York-based bridal shops Kleinfelds and Gabriella. The line, Capiraso said, will continue to grow from season to season.

Smaller brands are also turning out capsule collections of wedding-day accessories.

Mary Norton, whose Charleston, S.C., hometown is one of the nation’s most popular wedding destinations, unveiled a fall ’09 bridal collection to tap into the trend.

The line, sold online and at the designer’s Los Angeles and Charleston shops, is priced between $395 and $795, and coordinates with handbags for $495 to $995. The collection also includes a variety of bright colors, targeted to bridesmaids.

And while white reigns supreme as the wedding-day color, New York-based Nina Shoes also has embraced color options.

Earlier this month, Nina, known for its embellished heels and special-occasion footwear, launched the Design Your Own program, which allows brides and their bridal parties to handpick their shoe style, heel height and color combinations.

“A lot of brides don’t want just the whites anymore,” said Patti Cohen, Nina’s SVP of marketing and corporate affairs.

Shoes in the Design Your Own program retail for $199. More options will be added in upcoming seasons, Cohen said, and could include embroidery and crystal detailing.

The program comes on the heels of the February launch of Nina’s online bridal boutique, which features eight of the brand’s bestselling silhouettes in ivory, white and powder-sand, and includes options for bridesmaids, mothers of the bride and flower girls.

While more footwear players are betting on bridal, Pao cautions that there are only so many brands and designers that will be able to step into the category. “There won’t be room for [a lot] of players to sell bridal shoes because the audience is finite,” she said. “The market is still pretty tiny compared with the total population. What’s concerning is how much the market can really bear.”

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