Selling a Dream

December 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


KELLY HARDWOOD: Do you like it?

RAY SUAREZ: Kelly Hardwood is one of 2.3 million brides who plan to marry in the next year. She was shopping for a wedding dress with her mother and grandmothers.

KELLY HARDWOOD: Well, I always dreamed of it as a princess day and a little bit different than the traditional bride.

RAY SUAREZ: Hardwood spent six months looking for the reception site.

WOMAN: The wedding is next August at Pine Hollow.

KELLY HARDWOOD: I was just looking for that perfect setting and I wanted more of like a castle feel.

RAY SUAREZ: When you said “princess,” you weren’t kidding.

KELLY HARDWOOD: I wasn’t kidding.

RAY SUAREZ: Making a lifelong dream into a wedding is expensive. If the bridal business were a corporation, it would be number six on the Fortune 500 list.

It’s a $120 billion industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people, from musicians and wedding planners to hairdressers, seamstresses and photographers. Millie Bratton, editor-in-chief of Bride’s Magazine:

MILLIE BRATTON: People demand individuality, and they want brand new things. And there are many creative, talented artists and craftspeople who will make those for them at a cost.

They go to fancy restaurants and they see food presentation ideas, and suddenly they want that at their wedding. And for others, it’s hiring the most phenomenal florist in town.

RAY SUAREZ: Not too long ago, a wedding was simpler and cheaper. Today, the average celebration costs $22,000, or half the average income of an American household. And it’s not just the father of the bride footing the bill for what’s becoming an elaborate multi-day affair.

Thirty percent of new couples finance their wedding themselves. Another 50 percent pay for part of the event. Bride’s publisher Nina Lawrence says a new generation, baby boomers’ children, are driving the cost.

NINA LAWRENCE, Publisher, Conde Nast Bridal Group: They’re called the “echo boom,” and they’re the most affluent, educated, sophisticated group of young women ever before. She makes more money than she ever has before and she is entirely willing to spend it on herself.

SPOKESMAN: They want to be “buff brides.”

RAY SUAREZ: To educate engaged women about the art of the possible, television programs, the Internet, regional bridal shows and celebrity “how to” books seem to be everywhere. This fall the Conde Nast Bridal Group held a bridal show of all bridal shows — “The Wedding March on Madison”– three days of seminars and events on New York’s upscale Madison Avenue. Registration fee for a 48-hour infomercial? A mere $135.

SPOKESPERSON: Brides, listen to me very carefully. Ignore your well-meaning mother.

( Laughter ) She’s had her wedding. This is all about you.

RAY SUAREZ: There was wedding event designer Colin Cowie, best known from the Today Show’s “Race to the Altar.”

COLIN COWIE: This is the actual dinner tent. Lavender and eggplant was kind of the theme on the color scheme.

RAY SUAREZ: There were Sylvia Weinstock cakes; Margaret Braun and her cakes; French chef Daniel Boulud with his menu of a lifetime; and some bracing talk about the bottom line from wedding and celebrity event planner David Tutera.

SPOKESPERSON: How much do you charge?

DAVID TUTERA: My fee starts at $35,000.

SPOKESPERSON: That’s your fee or the wedding has to be a minimum of?

DAVID TUTERA: My personal fee is 35.

SPOKESPERSON: Even if you brought that down to a realistic base level where we can relate to it, it’s still, I mean, the cost of a wedding is astronomical.

RAY SUAREZ: A small group of brides-to-be and friends took a break in the middle of their wedding march on Madison and compared notes.

ROCHELLE PARRIS: It’s going to be two years until we get married because the time to dedicate to it — I can’t leave my job.

RAY SUAREZ: Bride Magazine’s Nina Lawrence says the need for more time to plan has lengthened the engagement period to about 16 months and created a pool of young shoppers prepared to drop serious money setting up a new lifestyle.

NINA LAWRENCE: They read a lot of magazines, they watch a lot of television. They’re the ratings group that most advertisers want to talk to. They go to work, they do enough work so they don’t lose their job, and they’ve become completely and utterly obsessed with wedding planning.

RAY SUAREZ: According to Conde Nast market research, engaged couples buy five times more in a year than a settled household. So it isn’t surprising that Crate and Barrel borrowed a couple of hundred registry scanners from other stores and opened early for their wedding march event.

NINA LAWRENCE: Registry, actually, is a vital component to Crate and Barrel, and actually to most retailers at this point in time. Every retailer in the world, almost, has a registry.

RAY SUAREZ: The restraint a consumer might bring to other purchases seems tougher here: An industry is dangling a dream in front of a young woman’s nose and stressing this is not a time to say “no.”

RAY SUAREZ: Has there been, for any of you, a moment of sticker shock where you said, “Gee I didn’t realize it cost that much”?

WOMAN: A Vera Wang wedding dress! ( Laughter )

WOMAN: Like, how are so many people wearing these things?

RAY SUAREZ: All the wedding experts we spoke to agreed that the desire to be “unique” coupled with celebrity inspiration has created a guaranteed luxury market. At Kleinfeld’s in Brooklyn, a palace for princesses-in-waiting, the price of a wedding dress has gone up about 50 percent in the last decade.

CAROLYN HAX: The more media saturation we have, the harder that image is to resist of the woman having her moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Carolyn Hax writes the syndicated advice column “Tell Me About It.” She is read by millions of men and women in their marrying prime: Their 20s and 30s.

CAROLYN HAX: A lot of sane, rational, healthy people can get caught doing this without realizing it, because you’re with somebody you love. You’re feeling ready. You’re tired of dating. That whole bridal-industrial complex beckons. And what are you going to do? Are you going to say no? A lot of the stuff that shows up in my in-box is all about people who can’t say no or can’t hear no.

RAY SUAREZ: And battle-scarred veterans of wedding waterloos aren’t hard to find. They explain to debt consolidation companies how they got in trouble.

WOMAN: We probably applied for ten credit cards to try to help ease the shock of all the wedding expenses. Everything needed for a wedding is roughly three times the cost of anything else.

WOMAN: Thought I would just be making payments on my $5,000 engagement ring. I didn’t realize how much was interest. Then other expenses came along that we didn’t think of.

RAY SUAREZ: Elizabeth Singer’s parents wanted to give her anything she wanted, until they began shopping and the bridal gowns were $3,000. Then, she says, reality set in. She bought her dress secondhand on the Internet and her mother made her veil from $10 worth of Wal-mart tuille.

ELIZABETH SINGER: Somewhere, someone along the way figured out just how much money you can make out of convincing little girls that one day they’re going to have this wedding that is just, you know, the grandest, most fantastical night of their life.

RAY SUAREZ: Elizabeth Singer and her new husband Chris say even with a budget-conscience approach they spent double the amount they originally thought they would. Almost half of all couples admit to spending more than they planned. Carolyn Hax says it’s a potent fantasy that gets people to spend what could be a down payment on a house for a few days of parties.

CAROLYN HAX: There’s a massive collective losing sight of what is important. How many of those people look back on that $22,000 party and think, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten so caught up in how I was going to celebrate. Maybe I needed to think about what I was celebrating.”

RAY SUAREZ: But Conde Nast’s Nina Lawrence says that one amazing day is worth it if the new couple remembers.

NINA LAWRENCE: Stay in it with your partner. Look in each other’s eyes as you’re walking down the aisle, and then it’s all worthwhile. You remember it, you have an emotional moment, and everything is worth it, and it won’t feel so bad when you get that credit card bill.

RAY SUAREZ: Nina Lawrence says the wedding has become a time for “aspirational” spending, so she’s looking for the trends toward more expensive weddings to continue, even if the economy is soft.