John-Paul Flintoff

Till money do us part

The wedding business

Ladies and gentlemen… the bride and groom. Lawrence Brown, who deals in emerging-market swaps, and Deborah Toner, who runs a computer company, are marrying today at the Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair. From there, they will travel by Mercedes to a nearby hotel, Claridges. Forty guests will join them in the Drawing Room for the reception. Dress will be black tie.

Lawrence proposed to Deborah in July. Delighted to accept, she chose to have a winter wedding – but by November the busy couple still hadn’t made any arrangements. So they hired Siobhan Craven-Robins, one of a small group of women who earn good money by organising other people’s weddings. They gave her a budget, and asked her to get on with it.

For many people, a wedding is the biggest single expense they will ever incur. In 1998, the average cost of a wedding was more than £12,500. Lawrence and Deborah did not need to borrow money, but many people do. On the website www.weddings.co.uk, you’ll find links to all the big banks, and several financial advisers.

Deborah’s parents have paid for the reception. “That’s tradition, I’m told,” says Lawrence, sitting in his Moorgate office with his tie loose and top button undone. But times are changing. Half of all weddings, these days, are paid for by the bride and groom themselves. Of the remainder, many are co-funded by the parents of the groom.

Lawrence and Deborah are paying for everything else. “There are hidden costs,” he explains. “The expenses double when you include all the other things – the rings, the outfits, the church.” (The Grosvenor Chapel costs £500, plus £150 for the organist.)

When it comes to weddings, nobody wants to look tightfisted – and suppliers have been known to take advantage of this by charging outrageous prices. “Within reason,” says Lawrence, “I am a person who goes for discounts [in ordinary life]. For carpets and furniture, you might haggle, but with weddings, there’s a feeling that this is the charge and you take it or leave it. Rather than seek a discount you go elsewhere. In a sense you are being blackmailed… There’s a fine line between spending too much and not spending enough. A wedding is something where you can’t afford anything to go wrong.”

So why bother? The expense is enormous, there’s no great tax advantage, and cohabitation is no longer regarded as a vice. To get married, these days, seems more quixotically romantic than ever – suitable only in cases of amour fou.

But cohabitation, on the other hand, brings no entitlement to alimony. In the event of a separation, the courts look only at property rights, so if a man already has a mortgage when a woman moves in, and she doesn’t contribute financially, she can find herself homeless. (The reverse also applies.)

In Britain, the annual total of weddings has fallen by a fifth in ten years, from 348,000 to 279,000. The most dramatic fall was among couples marrying for the first time – down from 220,000 to 161,000 – so that the average age of bridegrooms has risen to 33-and-a-half, and a little over 31 for brides.

Those weddings which do take place, however, get bigger and bigger. Frequently, they run from from early morning, through lunch, and into the evening. When the party finally ends, the bride and groom are generally knackered – and so too are the guests, after standing around for hours in tight shoes, dangerously depleting their resources of small talk. A relatively new trend is for guests to stay overnight at the venue and join the newlyweds for breakfast. And why not? Most couples have lived together before marrying, so there’s nothing particularly special about the wedding night.

And quite a few brides and grooms have been married before: 40 per cent of marriages involve at least one person doing it for the second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) time. The Church of England, which has always opposed religious weddings for divorcees, recently published a policy paper recommending amendments to this strict rule. This revisionist step – which provoked much press speculation about Prince Charles’s domestic arrangements – may have been inspired by a perceived threat: in 1995, the government allowed civil weddings to take place at glamorous licenced venues – hotels, museums, castles – and the result has been a dramatic rise in civil weddings.

In Cheshire last year, licensed venues accounted for 1,130 out of 2119 civil weddings. In urban Westminster, the proportion is lower: 1,600 couples married at Marylebone Register Office, while 300 weddings took place elsewhere in the borough. A low number, but don’t be fooled by that. The couples getting married at venues are generally the most prosperous, and account for a substantial portion of lucrative bridal business.

Any venue can apply for a license to host weddings, so long as the registrar is satisfied that the place is “seemly and dignified”. (A supermarket might just pass this test, a public toilet wouldn’t.) Westminster boasts some of the most sought-after venues in the country: London’s grandest hotels, the zoo, the Palladium, the Royal Society of Arts, and funkier places such as Soho House. The borough’s superintendent registrar, Alison Cathcart, has married many thousands of people (including me). Among the many celebrities are Martin Amis and Isabel Fonseca, Nicole Farhi and David Hare, Liam Gallaher and Patsy Kensit, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, and John Fashanu and Raine Spencer (but not, in the case of the last two, to each other). Sylvester Stallone, who married Mrs Stallone at the Dorchester, said afterwards: “If they gave out Oscars for weddings, Alison Cathcart and her team would get our vote for the best supporting cast.”

It’s this kind of endorsement, reproduced on a website and in a slick brochure co-funded by hotels in the borough, which attracts wedding business to Westminster. And that’s good not only for the venues but also for local outfitters, caterers, photographers, florists and car-hire firms, among others. On behalf of all these businesses, local authorities compete fiercely against each other. Martin Smith, manager of the registration service, declares that Cheshire is “the wedding capital of the north”. And Cathcart, for her part, willingly considers the possibility – contingent on a change in the law – of one day taking over neighbouring registrars’ offices: “Why do we need little enclaves within the local authorities’ boundaries?” she asks reasonably.

Miranda Gachoud, a former property consultant in her late 20s, set up The Chelsea Wedding Consultancy after organising her own wedding in 1996. The business – which she runs from her home in Knightsbridge – was not easy to establish. “We did a launch at a bridal show,” she says, “and tried following up engagement announcements in The Times and the Telegraph, advertised in Brides and Tatler… but even the editorial in magazines didn’t really help.” What really made a difference was establishing her presence on the internet. “I got into the City with a link on Bloomberg.”

Most of her clients, though based in the Square Mile, are American. “They have the right mentality. A lot of British people don’t believe in the concept, they think this is a job for the [bride’s] mother.” But sometimes the bride’s mother just doesn’t come into the equation. Gachoud recently arranged, with less than three weeks’ notice, a wedding at Cliveden for two Americans who’d met each other on the internet. There were no guests: the couple shared their cake with witnesses roped in at the hotel.

To see what her job involves, I visit Gachoud on an evening in January to observe a meeting with clients (who prefer to remain anonymous): a Muslim with family in Pakistan who sits back in his seat pulling grave faces, and his fiancee, who wears a silver crucifix, chews a pen, and stares over her spectacles at a checklist on her lap. If they look anxious, that’s probably because – like Lawrence and Deborah – they’ve left everything late. They’re marrying in March, and only selected the venue two days ago.

Miranda shows them a couple of photographers’ portfolios.

Her (turning the pages): “That’s a nice dress, isn’t it?... Oh! Nice cake!”

Next, Gachoud advises them to use the florist recommended by the venue, asks how many people will need transport, reminds them to send off for tapes from string quartets, queries the hair-and-make-up requirements, and checks that they actually reserved rooms at the hotel. Then she gets to the most urgent matter. Invitations. “Have you any idea of the style you’d like? Because the latest you want to sent out invitations is…”

Him (sitting forward): ”...Now.”

Her: “We do want to say something about the dress code. We have friends in academia and don’t want [these] people turning up in jeans. Also we want to give the name of hotels in the area, and to say where the wedding list is.”

Gachoud leaves the room, returns with a vast selection of invitations, and hands them over for close examination. The groom, seizing this rare opportunity for manly know-how, delivers a short lecture on typography. His fiancee, turning to Gachoud, asks: “Do you sometimes put the date by which people should reply? Or is that rude?”

Gachoud doesn’t generally tell people the “right” thing to do. For instance, placing the wedding list inside a wedding invitation would once have been considered terribly bad manners. It’s so demanding, you might as well sell tickets (at least that way you’d eliminate the awkward question of how much guests should spend). But Gachoud has no doubts about correct procedure. “You have to make it clear where the list is, otherwise you’ll have people calling you up.” (How frightful.)

To department stores, a wedding list – or “bridal register” – is extremely valuable. Each couple represents tens, even hundreds, of purchases. At Peter Jones, in Sloane Square, couples are provided with pre-printed wish-lists: on Saturdays you can hardly avoid bumping into them as they wander round ticking off items they might require. At Harrods, couples can take away either the gifts that have been chosen for them by friends and family, or else a cash sum to the equivalent amount to be spent on something else altogether. (Aside from department stores, you can also establish wedding lists with art dealers and even garden centres.)

Originally justified as a mechanism for ensuring the purchase of items most useful to newlyweds, the wedding list has subsequently acquired a more grasping characteristic. Prosperous celebrities remarrying in middle age – with their wedding entirely underwritten by glossy magazines – have felt no embarrassment about sending guests details of their wedding list.

“Some people take etiquette more seriously than others,” says Gachoud finally. “You find it’s the English who are most hung up about it – and I deal mostly with Americans.”

Gachoud’s business model is essentially that of the literary agent, or casting director. She’s an intermediary, her purpose to bring together supply and demand. She charges around £950 to organise a wedding, plus £250 for attendance on the day, and receives a commission from suppliers who also provide a discount to clients. On a big wedding, she can make £2,500.

One service Gachoud recommends to clients is The Last Word, a video company in Battersea, established five years ago by a former stockbroker. Through word-of-mouth recommendations alone – without spending a penny on advertising – Andrew Gemmill has doubled his turnover every year. Using his own cameramen as well as freelancers, Gemmill covered 140 weddings last year. And this was top-end work, for the likes of Henry Dent-Brocklehurst, Greg Rusedski and Annabelle Heseltine.

The cost is usually between £1,000 and £5,000. “We have set ourselves in a particular market,” he explains. “If we were cheaper we would have too much work. We know that not everyone can afford us – but I can’t charge less.” (With six staff, stylish offices and state-of-the-art technology, Gemmill’s overheads amount to £10,000 a month.)

Indirectly competing with Gachoud are the big hotels, which help couples to organise everything they will need on the day – flowers, drink, food, photographer, even a make-up artist (hotels don’t generally deal with invitations and outfits).

Then there are the many websites which have sprung up with hyperlinks to products and services in as many as 40 separate categories. These include the obvious (venues for hen- or stag-nights, weddings and receptions, bridal outfits and honeymoons) and also more esoteric items – ice sculptures, personalised napkins, and… speech writers. Ann Lowde, of Personal Verses in East Yorkshire, charges from £30 for rhymes to suit all occasions. “I seem to be able to capture exactly how the person feels and what they want to say. It is better if I can talk to them by phone, I seem to get special vibes that way.” (She certainly gives me special vibes, declaming several past triumphs – in full – while her young son clamours for attention in the background. “Hang on,” she says before I can get a word in, “you’ll get a better idea if I read you one about bereavement.”)

But perhaps the most celebrated of the new nuptial fixers is Virgin Bride, the dreamchild of a flight attendant on Virgin Atlantic, Ailsa Petchey, who came up with the concept after organising a friend’s wedding. Spotting Richard Branson on one of her flights, she popped over and told him her idea. He was so impressed that he shaved off his beard to pose in a bridal gown for the launch. In the three years since then, the store has already begun to feature in the commentary on passing London Tour Buses.

The store’s entrance is imposing. A mannekin in full bridal gear stands beneath a chandelier featuring red hearts and a glitter ball. To the left is a selection of vast cakes in every shape – including a Disney-style castle. The effect is only slightly diminished by an obtrusive counter of the sort you might find at Hallmark Cards, displaying place-name cards and various types of confetti.

In the ground-floor showroom, brides can choose from 240 different bridal gowns (never “wedding dresses”, according to Louise D’Costa, the marketing assistant) which hang in glass-fronted cabinets. Prices range from £500 to £3,000, not including the cost of alterations. Before trying anything on, brides must make an appointment – then they can spend an hour with a consultant, trying on five or six different gowns.

“A lot of people don’t know how to get into a gown,” says Louise. “For example – this one. You need someone to pull the gown in and make it look as if it’s your size. All of these are samples. People don’t want a gown that everyone else has tried on: this isn’t like buying an ordinary skirt at River Island.” All the same, samples can be purchased in the sales.

Additionally, consultants can advise on accessories – shoes, make-up, tiara – and the question of wearing hair up or down. The service is much in demand, and Virgin has only seven changing rooms. “You can’t get an appointment on a Saturday for six weeks,” says Louise proudly. Wednesday nights and Thursdays can also be bad.

On the morning I visit, the department is silent – apart from awed muttering from brides and their mothers. Ordinarily, Louise explains, there would be music. “I wouldn’t say ‘romantic’, more ‘easy listening’.” The effect can be dramatic. “When I first started working here, I saw a lady in a gown and started crying – it’s a girl thing.”

And that gets worse – or better – in the basement. Virgin has installed a full-size catwalk – brightly lit from below, and surrounded by mirrors – for brides try their dresses after alterations have been completed. As many as four months may have passed since the lucky woman last set eyes on this creation, and emotions can run high. Naturally, the supply of tissues in this section is no less generous than in the showroom upstairs: you’ll find a box-full on a shelf in the changing room, near the bag of stockings, the selection of wedding shoes, and the underskirt resembling a tangle of net curtains.

Next-door to the catwalk is the events department, decorated with blown-up wedding photos. One couple in pictured at Gretna Green, another standing beneath a palm, a third riding a giant tea cup at some fun fair – and at the end of the corridor, an older man is shown grappling bravely with his cravat. Virgin’s wedding co-ordinator, Debbie Dwek, has access to products and services beyond the merely traditional: “We can do a horse and cart,” promises Louise, “but also a Del Trotter van, or a Batmobile.” (Among the clients who have availed themselves of Dwek’s service are Anthea Turner’s less well known sister Wendy, a couple from the TV show Blind Date, and the drummer from Jamiroqui.)

And finally there is the menswear department. Men rarely visit the shop alone, preferring to arrive in groups – or else accompanied by some competent female. Often the bride has already looked round to choose an outfit for the groom and his best man.

On one side of the room are traditional outfits. On the other, garish shirts in yellow and lime green, Nehru jackets and long coats by groovy designers. While I’m examining these, a couple of men walk in and tentatively ask Louise for help. “I’m getting married in August,” says one, “and I don’t know what to do, really. I’m looking for something ‘different’.” She smiles warmly, and gestures towards some outfits designed by Oswald Boateng. But this does not inspire enthusiasm. “I’m not sure that my future wife would approve.” (His friend stays silent.)

The ineptitude of men, in this sphere, long ago acquired the status of established fact. Speaking a week before his own wedding, Lawrence Brown offers a theory about the man’s role in weddings. “There is still… I think it’s more – how to put this without sounding like I’m not excited,” he queries, “and I am excited – it’s still more of a female day, with the dresses and all the attention. I’m more easy-going: I don’t have specific ideas. If Debbie wants certain things – like candles in church – then she can have that.” And today, all being well, she will.

COST OF A WEDDING

Item: £ high/£ low
Jewellery: 150,000/5,000
Hen and stag night: 20,000/1,000
Venue (for wedding and reception): 25,000/350
Stationery: 5,000/180
Outfits: 25,000/1,200
Grooming (hair, make-up): 2,000/125
Flowers: 20,000/1,500
Photography: 4,000/850
Video: 2,500/800
Transport: 1,500/500
Catering (per head): 55/25
Band or disco: 5,000/1,200
Honeymoon: 25,000/4,000
Insurance: from £50
Information: Miranda Gachoud

MONEY MATTERS

The biggest cause of rows within a relationship is not infidelity but money, according to the marriage guidance organisation, Relate. After a recent survey it reported that 50 per cent of couples argue about spending priorities, 49 per cent about lack of money, 32 per cent about one partner spending too much. (Only two per cent argue about spending too little.)

PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENTS

In the US, financiers and corporate chiefs – and celebrities such as Woody Allen and Sharon Stone – protect their assets with a pre-nuptial agreement. These contracts are not recognised by UK courts. Indeed, 17 High Court judges told the government not so long ago that they feared marriage agreements could devalue marriage and even precipitate divorce. But a British judge set a precedent recently by ruling that a couple’s divorce should take place in the courts of New York state because that was what they’d agreed in their pre-nup.

CREED

Apart from Christian ceremonies, only Jewish weddings are recognised by law. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others must go through a civil ceremony for official acknowledgement of their marital state.

3251 words. © The Financial Times

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