What goes together like love and marriage? Bridal wear and the clothing industry, of course. Without brides, fashion would barely exist - never mind the wedding guests, who, along with the all-important bride, keep the couture sector afloat. Since the credit crunch hit, the global wedding industry has barely experienced a blip in profits. A recession might have affected the number of invitations sent out but the wedding gown remains as highly prized (and priced) as ever.
Right now, French ateliers such as Givenchy and Dior are putting the finishing touches to spectacular gowns, many of them destined for Middle Eastern weddings. But you don't have to go as far as Europe to find something equally fabulous. Bridal shows such as the one held recently in Abu Dhabi or The Bride Show Dubai (which finished yesterday at the International Exhibition Centre) are held regularly to bring you up to speed with the very latest in bridal trends.
Not surprisingly, wedding gowns also featured at last week's Dubai Fashion Week, which boasted designers such as Michael Cinco and HSY, whose fashion businesses thrive as well as (and because of) their bridal reputation. "There is no such thing as 'the latest trend' anymore," says Omar Ponsot, the Emirati designer responsible for creating many royal wedding dresses in the Gulf. "If you compare the wedding dress at Armani's last show, which was a long, puffed dress made of sparkling white jacquard organza with no veil or hair accessories, with Chanel's short, white dress made out of crunched and pleated plain tulle, worn without a veil but with little sparkling fingerless silver gloves, or Dior's New Look-inspired grey and pink ball gown, you see how completely different bridal gowns are. This is the trend: original ideas."
Michael Cinco, a Dubai-based wedding designer who has been a popular choice with Gulf brides for 15 years, says, "It's not so much about silhouettes as creating dresses that are so light using impalpable fabrics." Lighter, floaty fabrics such as taffeta and organza are not only easy to layer but more comfortable for weddings, which can last up to 10 hours, says the Beirut-based designer Georges Chakra, who has created wedding dresses for several royals.
Chakra cites the main bridal trends for 2010 as flower embellishment ("from simple, cherry-blossom details to oversized, eye-catching rosettes") and tiered skirts ("layering soft and flowing material in creative, deconstructed shapes using tulle, chiffon, organza or even feathers"). The colours are powder pink, straw yellow and antique whites, he says. "The 2010-style wedding dress is intricately layered and has sculpted fabric details. It all feels very organic and fluid but grand and elegant at the same time. The Grecian goddess style - empire waist with floaty materials - is also popular," says Chakra.
The Syrian-born, Dubai-based designer Rami Al Ali agrees. "I would say majestic, fresh, light and classy is the new formula. Brides are becoming more realistic. They want to look more simple and classic like royalty." "The younger generation would run a mile if they saw heavy duchesse satin mounted with three layers," says Bruce Oldfield, the British designer who made wedding gowns for Queen Rania and Queen Noor of Jordan, Princess Alia Tabbaa Jafar and aristocratic British brides like Jemima Khan and Samantha Cameron. His bridal success led him to open a three-storey wedding emporium above his Knightsbridge atelier last October.
"Brides today want lighter finishes and techniques," Oldfield says. "We've also seen a move away from slim and slinky or bias-cut, towards bouffant. But despite the volume, fabrics are featherweight organza, silk tulle or chiffon." The Dubai designer Furne One, who designs for his label Amato, agrees. "Would-be brides are going for the light, airy look as opposed to heavily embroidered and bulky gowns."
Surface texturing and fabric manipulation are the trademarks of the popular design duo Manzar (Hazarika) and Hirsch (Sharma), whose gowns can be found in Samsaara in Souk al Bahar, Dubai. There, you can find Indian and Pakistani contemporary and traditional bridal wear, and occasionally Indian fashion superstars such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who was in Dubai recently to take bridal orders. "We are finding variations on weddings generally," say Manzar and Hirsch. "One sees it all from the royal Rajasthan galas to Sharm el Sheikh weddings. It's become quite acceptable for guests to weave a week-long holiday around a wedding."
"More functions and ceremonies mean everyone needs more and varied ensembles, which has led to brides experimenting with silhouettes, colours, styles and hemlines." The Paris-based couturier, Stéphane Rolland, who is also a popular choice with Gulf royalty, says, "I suspect shorter dresses are coming back as per the 1960s (think Brigitte Bardot's wedding) and 1970s styles. "There also seems to be a thing for the mermaid shape with a strapless bustier," says Rolland, whose opulent styles have in the past required eight maids of honour just to hold the train. (Turn to page 6 to see his latest bridal creation.)
"Brides themselves have changed," explains Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, the Pakistani designer behind the international bridal speciality house HSY Studio. "They are now more aware, individualistic and not afraid to experiment with colours and cuts. Today's bride wants her outfit to be about her, a reflection of attitude and choice." With their lavish embroideries and panelled layers, which emphasise a sensual, feminine silhouette, his gowns reflect the requirements of the (affluent) modern Asian bride.
"The whole wedding concept has changed," Ali says. "Now you have wedding planners taking care of the slightest details and there are themes and concepts." Ali feels bridal dresses now reflect the changes, with less embellishment and more focus on tailoring and fit. "Crystal is still in but it's used more for glitter and shine effects. It's intricate and dense in detail." Ponsot says, "People of the Gulf, particularly the UAE and Qatar, have developed their own fashion taste when it comes to wedding gowns. Now there's a tendency to simplify and put more focus on fabrics and concentrate less on crystals and heavy embroidery, which used to be essential."
Cinco explains, "It takes two weeks to create the simplest bridal gown. Some of my lace and tulle comes from Paris and Switzerland. Most is my own fabrication, which features delicate embroideries that can take 480 hours of work, all by hand. My clients want something couture and unusual." For all the tradition involved in the making of their dresses, modern brides are inevitably influenced by modern times. "Some of our wedding dresses are inspired by wedding scene outfits in Bollywood movies," say Manzar and Hirsch. "Certain period costumes keep coming back, be it from Mughal-e-Azam (the 1960 classic) or Jodhaa Akbar (the 2008 epic)."
Celebrities and pop stars are occasionally to blame for trends, too. "Rihanna wore one of my dresses to a recent awards ceremony and inspired many requests," says Rolland. "We've made a point of enticing Pixie Lott and Jamelia to wear Bruce Oldfield evening wear because this is who young women recognise," says Oldfield, "even if their mothers feel Queen Rania (an Oldfield client) is the real deal."
And it's not all about the gown; what should a bride wear with it? Diamonds or pearls? A billion years in the making, diamonds are the ultimate symbol of love, believes Jeremy Morris, the creative and managing director of the family-run fine jewellers David Morris, who are renowned for creating bridal pieces for Gulf brides. Recent commissions include tiaras with diamonds the size of Gobstopper sweets and a 10ct Burma ruby necklace inspired by the Maharajas of India.
"Clients from the UAE tend to be knowledgeable about rare gemstones," says Morris. Their latest bridal collection, entitled The Amira (Arabic for "princess"), includes natural pearls, white Golconda diamonds, Kashmir sapphires and Burma rubies. "Bespoke jewellery is a vital part of the wedding dress," Oldfield says. "When you've gone to the trouble of having a dress created that is utterly unique, the accessories must be just as special. I recently designed diamond earrings for a Kuwaiti bride which popped another Dh110,062 on the bill - not that money is ever discussed."
Modern technology, especially the internet, has also impacted trends. "I did a society wedding in Beirut recently and have since had three girls show me images of it on their iPhones," Oldfield says. "My former assistant, who now works for Givenchy in Paris, tells me young brides in Qatar are his biggest clients." No doubt many have been influenced by online catwalk images. "The modern bride is totally wedding-literate," agrees Rolland.
"There's also a focus on avant garde creations so the bride won't have some random guest steal her day," say Manzar and Hirsch. That's not always a good thing, of course: "Once a bride came to me saying she wanted to be different from any other that had ever been and insisted her gown be a very dark brown," remembers Ponsot. "'I do not care if it is the ugliest dress you can come up with,'" she said. "'All I want is to be different.'"