In a marriage of discount and dreams, a major retailer wants to prove that a once-in-a-lifetime experience doesn't require a once-in-a-lifetime investment.
So here comes the bride ... in a budget wedding gown from Target.
The gowns, sold through Target.com for less than $200, have appeared in recent weeks on "Oprah" and on the pages of Lucky and Glamour magazines. And they've caused a stir on fashion blogs, where their arrival has ignited a debate about whether there are any boundaries left when it comes to saving money.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before a store like Target decided to get in on one of life's most sacred, ceremonial and expensive undertakings. The nation's second-largest discount retailer pioneered the idea of bringing design and style to the masses in everything from teapots and baby clothes to ottomans and even chocolates.
Marketing to brides is nothing new for the Minneapolis-based retailer, which has operated its Club Wedd registry for more than a decade. Only time will tell if adding wedding gowns to the list is a logical extension or an overreach of the "cheap chic" phenomenon the chain gets credit for popularizing.
"It certainly is quite bold," said Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a New York-based consulting firm that has studied the bridal industry. "It's taking them into an area where you say: `Wait a minute. Is it cheesy to buy your wedding dress at Target for $100?' It's a very delicate balance. If anybody has the brand equity to do it, Target is the one."
Cheap chic -- sometimes also referred to as the democratization of fashion -- has led Americans to expect both thoughtful design and a low price. You can pin the idea on the convergence of warehouse-style stores, an increasingly sophisticated public and a faster-paced economy that now brings the freshest ideas from Paris and Milan to the middle-class shopping mall in a matter of weeks.
Target Corp. is pushing its fashion quotient into new territory just as rival Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, founders in its bid to move beyond low prices to high style. A widely leaked report from a Wal-Mart ad agency last week suggested that the "hillbilly stereotype" of the Wal-Mart shopper is alive and well, noting "our low prices actually suggest low quality." Target, on the other hand, has changed what shoppers expect from a discounter, the report said, and succeeds in making shoppers feel "smart" instead of "cheap."
"It's a badge of honor to say you're on a budget," said Kathryn Finney, founder of The Budget Fashionista blog. "It's about being frugal and fabulous."
Whether Target will succeed in persuading brides to buy their wedding dress at the same place they buy their toothpaste remains to be seen. But the fact that the influential retailer is trying is a good thing, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, cultural historian and media studies professor at the University of Virginia.
"When I got married there was this incredible expectation that you must pay a tremendous amount of money for everything or you're denying yourself the greatest day of your life," Vaidhyanathan said. "Maybe Target's intervention is a healthy sign that we are just talking about a garment."
The cost of the average wedding has nearly doubled since 1990, to $28,000, according to Conde Nast Bridal Group. The typical bride spends more than $1,000 on a wedding gown.
Target isn't revealing how far it plans to take its wedding collection. For now, the items are sold only through its Web site, spokeswoman Amy von Walter said.
But analysts suggest if the experiment goes well, it could move to the stores.
J. Crew Group Inc. has been operating an online wedding shop since 2004. Its prices are higher -- wedding gowns for $295 to $2,450 -- but the concept is similar. The site has "special occasion coordinators" available via a toll-free number to help brides shop for the entire wedding party.
And fashionistas lined up before sunrise last November at H&M stores when the fast-fashion retailer offered 1,000 units worldwide of a Viktor & Rolf designer wedding gown for $349. The dresses sold out in one day.
Bride-to-be Anais Chavez, caught up in the thrill of the event, bought one of the H&M dresses in Los Angeles. But when she got it home, her mother, grandmother and aunt all said, "No way."
"They hated it," said Chavez. "The bow was too big. I'm 5 feet tall and that bow took up half my body."
TOO NEW FOR MANY REVIEWS
The early reviews from customers on Target's Web site are mixed. The ivory silk taffeta and polyester full-ball skirt for $129.99 and lace shell for $69.99 received only one star out of five from the sole customer who reviewed it because it was too short and "the color is more yellow than cream." The ivory silk taffeta and polyester trapunto bell dress for $159.99 rated four stars and was described as "gorgeous" by one bride, while another called it "extremely disappointing."
Target unveiled its first bridal gown collection May 5, just as the high season for weddings began. The collection includes bridesmaid dresses for as little as $30, as well as affordable floor-length veils, white gloves, little clutches, shoes, wraps and sashes. Target even added tuxedos under its in-house Merona brand for under $200.
Isaac Mizrahi, the darling of Seventh Avenue in the 1990s, has won over many shoppers since he began fashioning trendy women's clothing and accessories for the discount chain four years ago.
But brides are a fussy bunch. Bridezillas aside, even the most easygoing bride is particular about how she looks on her wedding day.
"This isn't an everyday purchase," said Karen Rolfe, co-owner of The Bride's Room in Wheeling. "It's not like picking up paper towels and a blender. Nobody likes to pay designer prices, but the fabrics are better and you look better in it."
From Wall Street's point of view, Target's online wedding foray is a low-risk venture. If it works, "it could revolutionize the business," said Stephanie Hoff, retail analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis. If brides balk, Target will have lost little.
That wasn't the case a year ago. In 2006, Target tried too hard to bring high-priced, high-fashion furniture to the masses.
The retailer imported furniture and home accessories from China, Africa and India for its fledgling "Global Bazaar" home decor program. The stunning collection of chairs and lamps and pillows failed to connect with most shoppers. Target wound up taking markdowns, which cut into profits. It has since reined in its edginess and lowered prices, calling the experience a learning process.
"We're going to focus on having greater affordability than we have had in the past," said Gregg Steinhafel, in response to analysts' questions about Global Bazaar during an earnings call last November. "We're going to focus on more category and item dominance, more color impact, and a little less about country of origin and artisan uniqueness."
When Target got into the bridal registry business in the early 1990s, it caused plenty of head scratching. At the time, brides registered for gifts at their local department stores, not at a discount chain. Today, Target's Club Wedd is one of the most popular bridal registries.
Maybe Target wedding gowns will be next.
"There aren't wedding gowns at that price point anywhere, period," said Julie Raimondi, editor in chief of Brides Chicago. "It doesn't exist. It's a completely different model. If it helps people from going into debt, I think it's a great thing."