Justin Alexander is, of course, one of the best-known names in bridal. The international fashion house started as a modest New York-based outfit producing veils and headpieces in 1946, and has grown into a global concern. Jill Eckersley talks to the man in charge today
With five of their own distinctive brands plus two recent ‘partnerships’ – one with Dutch bridal entrepreneurs Viktor & Rolf in 2016 and a similar link up with British designer Savannah Miller in 2018, they would appear to have the bridal market covered. However, they still remain a family business – Justin Warshaw is the third generation of his family to take part in their success and in an era when the bridal industry is changing almost by the day.
Justin joined the family firm back in 2008, at a time when he admits the banking crisis meant that the outlook for young graduates like himself was less than promising.
“My friends were struggling to find jobs,” he remembers. “I always intended to join the company, and never wanted to take the opportunities it gave me for granted.
“I had studied International Business at the University of Connecticut and was always interested in fashion, especially bridal. But I was also interested in business and in marketing so I wasn’t sure where I would fit in best and what I could contribute. Creative, design, marketing, commerce – when I joined the firm I wanted to learn everything!”
Making a difference
Justin now feels that one of the biggest changes he has seen since he joined is that all the company’s marketing is now done in-house.
“When Dad was in charge our marking was done outside,” he says. “We now employ 12 people in our New York office and cover everything ourselves, from design and marketing to graphics and social media. We’re dealing with some of the same issues as we were in 2008. On the back of the financial crisis, fear was driving buying decisions and we had major competitors in the US and the UK.
“We have all had to change and move on since 2008. It’s no longer enough to have a good product, we have to be strong digitally as well. That applies to our company but also to our retailers. Shops now need to offer a full package. It’s no longer enough to have a pretty store. Your ‘digital store’ needs to be attractive as well. If brides like what they see on your homepage and what they hear about you on social media, they will come to your shop. It’s not just about a good product and exceptional service, though of course those things still matter. Bridal boutiques need to be strong in every area.”
With a vast variety of styles in its big portfolio, it is interesting that the company chose to extend its range by forming partnerships with Viktor & Rolf and Savannah Miller. The first are two Dutch designers who introduced their avant-garde luxury fashion house back in 1993 and became known for their unconventional and often provocative designs; the latter, Savannah Miller – described by Vogue magazine as ‘the designer of the moment’ – is known for her boho styles. Savannah was married herself in 2005 and designed her own gown.
So how do these two distinctive names fit in with the Justin Alexander brand, we asked.
“Viktor & Rolf approached us for global distribution and technical help at a show in Barcelona,” Justin says. “Our European headquarters is in the Netherlands anyway and we hit it off at once. The partnership helps to push designers to new levels in a collaboration between fashion and technology. Savannah was looking for a partnership, too.
“These are independent designers, working on their own designs and doing their own shoots. Then we take over and do the rest, from manufacturing to marketing. This arrangement wouldn’t work for every company and it wouldn’t work for us if, for example, they wanted to do a diffusion line which might affect our own products.”
Like everyone working in bridal, Justin is more than aware of the challenges posed by online sales. The company’s gowns are not available either directly from them, or online, but only from one of their 1,400-1,500 retailers worldwide. They have no plans to change this.
“We believe in the bridal shop experience,” Justin says firmly. “We feel that buying a wedding gown needs a dedicated stylist who knows what she is doing and how to fit a bride.
“At Harrogate this year we propose to educate retailers so that they can explain to brides the difference between a gown bought online and one bought from a shop. We will demonstrate the difference in quality, the straight seams, the fabrics. We consider our retailers to be partners, people who can help us to create strong businesses together. We deliver a good product; they are good local marketeers with excellent websites and social media, who know how to service brides the right way.
“We have lots of contact with both retailers and customers. Our designers visit stores to review what is selling and what is not. Some markets move more quickly than others and it’s important for us to know this. We work as a team!”
The company also believes in the global economy and has been working in partnership with factories in China, Myanmar and Vietnam, some for as long as 20 years.
“US factories just could not produce the quantity of dresses we need, at prices which our customers would be prepared to pay,” Justin explains.
“We have a standard ethical charter which all our factory partners have to comply with. It covers labour policy, wastage of materials and human rights so that we know that our workers are taken good care of.”
“When we visit countries such as Myanmar we can see that working for us really helps local people living in difficult conditions. We have created air-conditioned environments for them to work in, we pay them a living wage and we help them to find somewhere to live, so it’s a positive thing and we are proud to be changing peoples’ lives for the better.”
Doing something for the planet
“We are thinking more about environmental considerations too, things like how to reduce our carbon footprint. We’re looking at more efficient ways to transport product by reducing double shipments, introducing biodegradable packaging, and making sure we ask our partners what they really need – should we be providing them with things like hangers and garment bags, for example? Also, we are trying to produce less paperwork by working digitally. Younger generations all over the world are much more digital-savvy!”
The possible Brexit effect
It is impossible to interview any businessman these days without mentioning the dreaded B word and its possible effect on future relationships. “I’m generally an optimist,” Justin laughs. “We don’t want Brexit but we are, of course, prepared to make adjustments as Britain is our second-biggest market after the USA, and you are very important to us!”
Finally a brief SWOT analysis of the Justin Alexander approach to the future of bridal…
“Well, our strengths I would say are in service, diversity and the quality of our product,” Justin says.
“Weaknesses? We can’t compete online and that’s not what we do. We believe in building brands, not just competing.
Opportunities? We are always working to build a stronger team and be the best partners we can be to our manufacturers and our retailers. We have always maintained a growth mindset and our partners who have that attitude will be as successful as we have been.
Threats? These have come from chainstores and we also know that Generation Z can be open to purchasing online. Our vision is always working in the best interests of our retailers and as I said, I am generally an optimist!”
As far as design is concerned, the company’s brands can offer something for every bride, no matter what her size, personal style or budget. Justin gave us a rundown on exactly where each label is positioned.
Justin Alexander is about timeless taste and style. Sophisticated, glamorous, somewhat on the traditional side, with clean styling and a classic look – ‘preppy’ being the US term for it! Gowns retail in the UK at between £1,200 and £1,600 on average.
Signature is the portfolio’s most ‘designer’ label, very trend-focused, and often with seasonal themes – couture with a twist, floral patchwork in organza and lace, embroidery for Fall, a very contemporary look, retailing at between £2,000 and £4,000.
Lillian West is for the more alternative bride, featuring gowns which are made in softer and more lightweight fabrics but which still offer support. This is a more contemporary collection for the offbeat bride, with lots of boho influences, with gowns retailing at between £900 and £1,400.
Sincerity is the most traditional range in the Justin Alexander portfolio with the sort of princess styles and classic ballgowns that every young girl dreams of. The retail price range here goes from £900 up to £1,400 again.
Sweetheart is a mixture, young and fresh driven by price, well balanced but also trend-focused. The gowns here come in at under £1,000.