“The shape of the bra cup is built into the dress,” says Chen Yaping, marketing director at Galatea Bridal Boutique in Beijing, pointing to a rack of well-endowed white wedding gowns. “It doesn’t matter how big you are.” Galatea, which takes its name from an ancient Greek myth, is one of numerous bridal shops launched recently in China’s capital, catering to a fast-growing bridal industry—estimated at $57 billion by the China Wedding Industry Development Report—that now mixes Western precedents and local characteristics. A display case within the store exhibits jeweled tiaras next to towering 9-inch, rhinestone-encrusted silver platform heels.
One significant change Chen has noticed since Galatea opened in 2006: China’s urban brides have become much more selective. Each month, the chain’s three locations (two in Beijing and one in Shanghai) sell about 300 dresses, ranging in price from 2,000 renminbi to 50,000 renminbi ($325 to $8,100). Seven years ago most brides would obediently listen to the staff’s “expert” advice on dress selection. (For instance, Chen advises that women with angular faces wear plainer fabrics; those with rounder features can pull off floral embroidery or busier patterns.) But “today’s brides come in with their own opinions,” she says, adding that the rapid growth in Chinese wedding magazines and bridal websites has fast refined tastes and stoked desires.
China’s modern wedding industry is roughly a decade and half old. While their parents tended to get married in simple ceremonies, today’s urban 20-somethings and early 30-somethings—the first to come of age after the enactment of the one-child policy—are accustomed to being the center of family attention and have high expectations. Li Xiang, who graduated this spring with a master’s degree from Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, is an avid reader of international bridal websites as she prepares for her wedding in November. She plans to travel to Hong Kong to buy two dresses for the ceremony: “a traditional one and a Western one,” she says.
Chinese middle-class weddings now commonly fuse elements of traditional culture (the toast to elders at the tea ceremony) with Western conventions (white gowns and wedding rings) with “a bit of showbiz,” says Du Yongzhe, a professional wedding planner at Purple Crystal Dream Weddings in Beijing. His company provides full event-organizing services. On his iPad, Du shows me video clips of tuxedo-clad young men clasping microphones decorated with roses: Brides can select a “host” to emcee the services (in lieu of an officiating priest, as Chinese weddings have no religious component). According to Du, another popular wedding trend is renting misting machines, a staple of music and fashion videos, “to provide a romantic atmosphere. Couples want to be the star of their own show.”
Each year 10 million couples get married in China, and as the middle class grows, so, too, does bridal spending. In the U.S., meanwhile, the annual number of marriages has been slowly declining for two decades. In 1990, 2.4 million American couples held weddings; by 2012, the figure was just under 2 million. According to Gary Wright, founder and chief executive officer of Weddings Beautiful Worldwide (WBW), an event planning company in Richmond, Va., the falloff stems partly from demographics (the cohort following the baby boomers is smaller) and partly from a rise in U.S. singletons and changing expectations about marriage. The upshot is that, although Americans continue to spend heavily—in 2012, the average price tag for a U.S. wedding and honeymoon was $31,681, according to WBW—it’s still an industry with a ceiling. “It’s hard to make a business grow when the basic units or sales transactions stop growing,” says Wright. That’s why he has recently turned his attention global. “The middle class isn’t growing in the U.S., but it’s growing quickly in China. You can bet your boots that the wedding business in China will continue to grow.”
In partnership with a Chinese celebrity-wedding planning company, Weddings by Ling, WBW launched a course for training wedding planners in China in 2011. The 12-day syllabus, which costs 18,000 renminbi ($2,920), covers everything from catering to accounting and also helps students develop “a library of contacts—without contacts, event planners can’t put anything together,” says Raul Vasquez, president of Weddings Beautiful China in Beijing. He sees the industry as maturing quickly. “As more Chinese brides have disposable income, they require better service from vendors, planners, and photographers.” Some überwealthy families throw in sundry extras, such as Rolls Royce motorcades or brides arriving via helicopter. One of his associates helped plan a 2012 wedding in Huludao, in Liaoning province, that was held in the main city plaza to accommodate an 800-person guest list. “A wedding is an occasion to show off wealth and status,” he says.
Meanwhile, some affluent couples are opting for less glitz and more refinement and personalized touches, says Elizabeth Haenle, founder of Elizabeth Haenle Weddings, a custom wedding planning company in Beijing. Haenle previously spent eight years as social secretary in the office of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, where she helped plan entertainment for heads of state. “Now in China, the sky is the limit, if you can think of it and afford it,” she says. Popular venues for wedding ceremonies and banquets in Beijing include the Four Seasons Beijing and Ritz Carlton Beijing, which recently built a chapel with stained-glass windows and a new banquet hall.
As such magazines as China Cosmo Bride, launched in 2007, have become popular, Chinese women have more exposure to Western luxury brands associated with weddings. “Vera Wang is the No. 1 requested designer we receive, probably partly because of her Chinese ancestry,” says Haenle, adding that Oscar de la Renta and the Chinese designer Guo Pei are also popular bridal dressmakers. Tiffany & Co. (TIF) and Cartier are among the most sought-after brands for bridal jewelry. “Until recent years, the Chinese haven’t done engagements like in the West,” says Haenle; now, however, “Tiffany’s stores in China focus on bridal jewelry.” The company reported that sales in the Asia-Pacific region were up 14 percent in this year’s first quarter from last year’s, largely due to sales growth in China. This spring Tiffany’s opened a new store in the western city of Xi’an, moving outside the traditional wealthy centers of Beijing and Shanghai as China’s middle class expands.
Still, one aspect of Western weddings hasn’t been adopted in China: the gift registry. It’s still traditional for guests to give money in red envelopes, known as hongbao. That seems unlikely to change .