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How Startups Like Zola Are Changing The Wedding Industry (Or Not)

Companies like the Knot, Zola, and other boutique startups promise to cater to the whims of millennials by moving the mundane parts of wedding planning online. But are they as innovative as they claim to be?

Posted on May 3, 2019, at 11:10 a.m. ET

Kiersten Essenpreis for BuzzFeed News

In the 2005 film Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson party at a series of nearly identical weddings. Save for the ethnicity of the families, there’s only the slightest variations in the look of the wedding hall, band, tables, or bars.

It’s a scene that bears some familiarity in my own life, as an old millennial born in the early ’80s. From what I could see, weddings were compulsory and weddings were work: After months of planning — mostly on the bride’s side — there was a resulting unmemorable party with a dinner of chicken or beef and the option of getting down to the Electric Slide.

Nearly 15 years after Wedding Crashers the movie, and deep into my own career as a frequent wedding attendee, the scene at the 10th annual Wedding Crashers, a yearly wedding expo in South Brooklyn, offers a radically different experience. One of the many, many cons that happen in Brooklyn every weekend, Wedding Crashers, with its focus on weddings in New York City and the Hudson Valley, is a fair so “interactive and extensive” that it’s like “crashing the weddings we inspire,” according to its website. One hundred vendors hawk their wares: food, clothes, drinks, makeup, photography, venues, lighting, registries, and the Instagram-friendly novelties that pop up on wedding hashtags, from industrial letterboards to coconuts stamped with a made-to-order logo.

At $25 a ticket, Wedding Crashers attracts a specific Brooklyn demographic, with young, hip folks in nice leather jackets bearing totes advertising the Dodo and HQ. When I walked into the hall, a con volunteer was handing out tote bags from the One (a “registry collective” from Williams Sonoma that started in October 2018). A mix of Leon Bridges and Lana Del Rey played from the speakers, and the food was tiny, visually striking, and often gluten-free or organic or vegan. Couples milled about, with a higher percentage of grooms-to-be participating alongside their fiancés than you might expect. I chatted with two women — both married to podcaster husbands, one whose wedding was sparked by dealing with Canadian citizenship — who were scamming their way through the event, pretending to be a just-engaged couple in order to get free food.

Despite the fact that Americans are getting married later and in fewer numbers than before, weddings are still a profitable industry. According to the Knot, about 2 million couples get married per year and the average cost for a wedding totals about $34,000. IBISWorld reports that the US wedding industry was an $80 billion market in 2018; the numbers tend to fluctuate between $75 billion and $100 billion, depending on which surveys you read.

Wedding planning requires a long checklist of tasks: choosing a venue; planning the guestlist; finding a dress; putting a registry together; hiring a caterer, DJ, and florist; and waving goodbye to youthful shenanigans with a bachelor/ette party. All of these tasks take time. As recently as a few years ago, it was a process that relied on phone calls and meetings, coordinating up to 10 small businesses providing different things for one day, all the while culling through friends and family for invitations, making sure that the seating arrangements won’t lead to fights, and having some fun, at some point.

Nine years later, the landscape is different. People live on their phones. The sharing economy is a part of daily life. Time is at a premium if you are lucky enough to be fully employed or are a part of the fast-growing gig economy. And so a slew of companies like industry monolith the Knot, Zola, the six-year-old e-commerce wedding registry site, and other boutique startups promise to cater to the whims of millennials, by shifting the mundane, difficult parts of a wedding fully online. People can share flowers (Bloomerent), guests can donate money directly for honeymoons and other experiences (Honeyfund), and dresses can be found on Etsy and Nearly Newlywed for cheap. But as much as these companies pride themselves on modernizing and innovating the wedding industry (and are getting massive injections of funding to do so), how much can weddings actually be disrupted? I decided to find out.

The second most popular gift on Zola is an Airbnb gift card. That may be a sign of change, of a generation less interested in stuff and looking for experiences because they can’t afford to buy a house — but, on the other hand, the number one gift is still the KitchenAid mixer, a standby classic.

Zola purports to simplify the process of wedding planning by offering an online registry. Guests can buy items from Zola; Zola gets a cut of the profits. Zola also lets couples build their websites and get RSVPs in one place for free. Their e-commerce system means couples don’t return gifts; rather, they can exchange them for money.

Zola is the fastest-growing wedding startup in the US, making headlines last year for raising $100 million from companies that include Comcast Ventures, NBCUniversal, and Goldman Sachs. Currently, the company is valued at $650 million. In television ads, Zola markets itself as the “easy” option for weddings. One commercial features two women chatting about a recent engagement. The engaged woman asks her married friend how her wedding was “so perfect.”

“Zola!” she responds.

The Zola NYC pop-up store wedding invites and paper launch on Feb. 13.
Cindy Ord / Getty Images

The Zola NYC pop-up store wedding invites and paper launch on Feb. 13.

In New York City, Zola’s ads are ubiquitous in subway cars, where “real Zola couples” stress how easy the site made their wedding. But while Zola has been successful by marketing itself toward the millennial customers hardwired for convenience and innovation who now drive the wedding market, many aspects of weddings remain rooted in ritual and tradition. Silicon Valley has historically been leery of wedding startups, yet Zola, which Fast Company called “The Apple Store of weddings,” has become a cultural juggernaut. And not an easy thing to do, when your main competitor, the Knot, is essentially an Amazon equivalent that dominates the market with $161 million in revenue coming from a mix of sources including direct and affiliate marketing, registries, vendor advertising fees, and content.

Zola opened its first pop-up, a brick-and-mortar store on Fifth Avenue in New York, this past December, and plans to keep it open until June. The store itself is a calming temple to luxury, lined with shelves of pastel-hued kitchenwares and home decor, with space devoted to wedding invitations and a hanging rack for linens, sheets, and towels that are soft to the touch. In the back, there’s a cozy setup of millennial pink velvet chairs across from a glamorous velvet hunter green art deco sofa, and in the center, on a table, a Zola-branded candle perfumed the air with a rose scent. “We’re looking at this store as an incubator,” explains Emily Forrest, Zola’s senior communications manager.

I chatted with two women who were scamming their way through the event, pretending to be a just-engaged couple in order to get free food.

Here I watched as a couple named Cameron and Tara came in for an appointment, and a Zola employee took them back to the couch to explain the process for the registry. In the pop-up, couples can get a start on their registry by perusing 3,000 items (selected from the 70,000 available online), in order to check out the look and feel of what they may be interested in. They can finish building their registry using the Zola app on their phone. This couple, who live in New York, said they love cooking but space is at a premium, and they already have the necessary appliances that they need. Still, they sorted through utensils, frames, and dishes, carefully picking out some options, waving their Zola app around like a magic wand — or a store scanner gun for QR codes.

If couples are looking for something beyond objects, there’s a wall dedicated to Zola experiences, charity, and fundraising. Couples can ask for an Airbnb gift certificate, money toward a downpayment for a house or a honeymoon, or a donation to their favorite nonprofit. Most importantly: the stressful process of wedding planning can be boiled down to one-stop shopping.

Zola’s furthering that goal by adding custom-made wedding invitations — a new option — to their roster of products. Upstairs, there’s 3D printer startup Doob, which, with its machine straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, takes pictures couples turn in and creates photo-realistic wedding toppers for about $300. And in recent months, in an attempt to merge the established with the new, Zola had an in-store event with Kleinfeld (the old-school NYC wedding dress store, now synonymous with Say Yes to the Dress).

When I spoke to wedding planner Allison Davis, the founder and principal producer of her company Davis Row, she said, “Almost all my couples are looking at Zola for guest list management, websites, and RSVPs.” Creating a wedding website where RSVPs and invitations can be tracked and registering is free, as the company makes its money through affiliate links and from gifts they feature online. The question remains whether Zola will remain a leader in the wedding industry, especially when every potential innovative wedding company is still working in the shadow of the biggest monster in the wedding industry: the Knot.

Rick Webb, the COO of Timehop, a consultant to many venture-backed startups, and the author of Man Nup: A Groom’s Guide to Heroic Wedding Planning, has some doubts about Zola’s primacy. On the phone from North Carolina, he mentioned that he was just planning a trip to France for a wedding. The couple used Joy to create their wedding website, guest list, RSVP, and travel info. “Now you can register for everything online: invite management, registry.” He questions whether Zola stands out: “In five years, there will be a lot of aggregator registry websites. Gifts are bigger than the registry itself, and I think that’s the big unknown for Zola. It depends on the brands.”

One thing that hasn’t changed much when it comes to weddings: finding clothes to wear. But the wedding apparel industry has had some high-profile crashes, part of the ongoing collapse of retail. In recent years: David’s Bridal filed for bankruptcy but managed to remain open, while chains such as J.Crew closed their bridal apparel lines. Anthropologie’s bridal line, BHLDN, has had slow growth, with only 20 stores opening since its launch in 2011. In their wake, established sharing economy businesses such as Rent the Runway are building out their own wedding-specific options. In February 2018, they started Wedding Concierge, which offers rental clothing for all nuptial events, from engagement party to shower to day-of, and its wedding party packages have been the most popular.

The question remains whether Zola will remain a leader in the wedding industry, especially when every potential innovative wedding company is still working in the shadow of the biggest monster in the wedding industry: the Knot.

Some up-and-coming businesses are now opting to tailor their clothes to millennials, with an eye toward convenience. The ease these companies offer feels innovative at first glance, but is putting an Everlane-like spin on the tuxedo or wedding dress really that groundbreaking?

Soho’s the Black Tux was buzzing on a Friday afternoon in March. Perhaps it was proof that the company’s recent advertising had paid off; they had put money into billboards around the country and in evocative art murals featuring a bride and groom having a wedding in a desert surrounded by astronauts. Men came in wearing NorthFace jackets, hoodies, and brightly colored sneakers, while stylists with measuring tape around their necks ran back and forth from the back room to the dressing rooms, holding MacBook Airs with one hand. If clients didn’t have an appointment, they waited in the corner, where the window seat faced a record player, a fridge full of waters, and four studiously chosen framed record covers: Nas, Prince, Fleetwood Mac, and Miles Davis.

The Black Tux is a rental service, offering tuxedos and suits for weddings and other events. CEO and cofounder Andrew Blackmon came up with the idea after his own wedding in 2011. He was shocked that the process of getting a tuxedo for himself and his groomsmen required the same antiquated process that he had gone through for prom years ago. “When we got the tuxedos, none of them fit, nothing was a cool style, everything was polyester. We looked like we were wearing our dad’s tuxedos,” Blackmon said, on the phone from the company’s headquarters in Santa Monica.

He opened his first store in 2013, where he offered a simplified process of getting dressed for high-end events. “We disrupted the supply chain,” he said, “and started working with the same high-end mills that high-end suit-makers use.” Men could rent suits and tuxes for as low as $95, and it was as easy as visiting the website, entering in measurements and the size of the party, and picking some options. Over the past six years, the site has developed tools to integrate their rentals into the wedding planning process, raising $65 million in capital money and expanding to 225 employees. Blackmon said that the way the business grows is “interesting, as the bride and groom make the decisions for the groomsmen, and then the likelihood of a groomsman being in another wedding in the next 12 months is very high.”

Sitting in the store, the vibe was very Say Yes to the Tuxedo. One guy came in and made a break for the velvet suit jackets, touching the arm on a teal option. “I’m going to the straightest wedding I’ve ever been to in Alabama,” he said. “So I want to wear velvet.” I watched one young couple –— “We’re Noah and Aly, like The Notebook, if that helps,” they told me on the phone a week later –— come in off the street and were looking at suit jackets and options on the Black Tux’s website in a matter of minutes. (They told me their how-we-got-engaged story, which involved a romantic boat ride on a sunny day, interrupted by a drone hovering in their area. The drone, piloted by Noah’s brother, filmed Noah going down on one knee and proposing.)

Though it can be odd to go to a brick-and-mortar store only to end up ordering something online, it’s a model Molly Kang and Denise Jin, founders of direct-to-consumer bridal brand Floravere, are also adopting. The company was founded in 2017, stemming from Kang’s frustration with the process of finding a bridal gown. “Instagram changed everything,” Jin told me when I met up with her during a bridal fitting in a Mandarin Oriental suite in March. “The millennial woman hasn’t been dreaming about her wedding since she was a little girl. Her philosophy towards her wedding is different: More than 50% of couples are discerning and want to be splurging on experiences.”

“I’m going to the straightest wedding I’ve ever been to in Alabama,” he said. “So I want to wear velvet.”

Floravere calls its model “made-to-couture,” and their sizes range from 0 to 30. Brides can visit a local showroom or request sample dresses to try on at home. (They’ll open their first official showroom April 24 in Tribeca.) Jin notes that it’s a way to control what can be a very intimate and emotional process. The styles reflect current trends in bridalwear, ranging from sleek jumpsuits to princess gowns. Their best-seller is the slinky G. O’Keeffe, named after the famous painter. (All the wedding attire is named after “strong women” — one architecturally inspired dress is called Z. Hadid.)

Jin has big plans for Floravere (“world domination,” she jokes), but they’re serious about becoming a go-to brand for millennial women in a specific price range — wedding apparel can run as high as $2,250. However, she insists that if their clothes were made in the same, hand-sown fashion and sold at retail, it would be marked up at least three times the price. These are the kind of thing that the Floravere website also has in a gently used “Sample Sale” section, where dresses are resold.

The wedding industry has a complicated relationship with potential investors. Jin recalls hearing that “it’s a one-time purchase and an emotional customer.” But, she adds, for every bride who buys Floravere couture, the network effect is there. Word of mouth is strong, referrals are plenty, and if five guests see their work in person, they’re more likely to think about the company as a possibility for their own wedding.

Technology (and Pinterest, especially) means that these companies know what couples want from weddings, and that’s also something that can be utilized as a potential additional monetization stream.

The Knot, for instance, played a role, however ironically, when Los Angeles–based comedian, painter, and writer Cait Raft got married to comedian and writer Jack Allison at San Luis Obispo’s immaculately ’50s kitsch Madonna Inn in January 2018. She approached the whole wedding as an art project. She said, “I got it in my head that I could only legitimately spend this much time and energy on it if it was an installation piece. I did eight paintings, I had an art gallery dedicated to my wedding, and I had this theme of hands, so I made all this art about hands and I made all the name plates out of gold spray-painted hands.”

Cait and Jack got married on their third anniversary so she could get on her partner’s health insurance plan. “We are both from divorced families, and don’t care that much about [marriage]. I never really envisioned even getting married, but I wanted health care, and Jack had really good insurance,” said Cait. “We’re in love, we talked about having kids and stuff, we have a dog together and live together.” Her wedding was DIY, very much reminiscent of her work, and it also came together with “obsessive Pinterest-ing.” She also used the Knot’s checklist “pretty religiously.” She said it served as a traditional guide, but also showed her how she could make these traditions her own. One example: Cait made all the signs herself, utilizing the ubiquitous wedding font that she saw on Pinterest, and gave them a twist: asking for attendees to give the couple “bad advice” instead of good advice for the future.

Not every couple is as DIY as Cait and Jack, but that desire to take ownership of one’s own nuptials is a recurring theme I found as I talked to couples and wedding professionals and planners. “Couples want to make it their own,” Davis said. She works on about 12 weddings a year: “I see couples really examining traditions and tossing them if they don’t really resonate. Sometimes that shows up as mixed-gender wedding parties and mismatched attire.” One of her couples had a giant gummy bear instead of the traditional wedding cake, and they also decided to mingle with the crowd before the walk down the aisle.

The desire for uniqueness and convenience when it comes to planning a wedding is understandable, even if it is a little Sisyphean. Weddings aren’t exactly a wheel to be reinvented, and they’re always going to bend to ritual and tradition before the money comes into play. So perhaps these companies are doing less disrupting of the industry than they are simply putting a clever spin on a process that has been arduous for years. And they’re coming from a place of experience: Many of these founders came to the wedding industry after frustrating experiences with their own weddings.

“I see couples really examining traditions and tossing them if they don’t really resonate.”

For someone like myself who got married a mere nine years ago, it’s easy to be impressed and wide-eyed about the fact that now, weddings can be fully planned with just the click of a mouse or a smartphone. It makes me feel extremely old. And yet, it’s not as if I experienced any of the magic of weddings by looking at Zola’s website. Rather, as I went to the various wedding startup pop-up shops peppering New York, I got to see some of the best parts of wedding planning: people, some family, some family-to-be, some strangers, interacting and connecting over a special day. The personal touch still has power.

It’s seductive to imagine that the stresses of wedding planning can fade away with the right app, and some of those changes are happening as we speak. But in the wedding space, technology is making some things more efficient, while other tasks remaining rooted in tradition, for better or worse. Attendants will, likely, always complain about the expense in traveling for the bachelorette party and the wedding itself, so much so that I heard that exact conversation at the coffee shop last week. So far there’s no AI bot that can make a wedding happen in under an hour (unless you get married at city hall). The wedding industry in America is still a dream factory, and as such it persists as a locus of myth, tradition, and ritual — even if technology is adding more options for couples who believe in both love and the endless, delicious possibilities stemming from a brand-new pastel KitchenAid mixer. ●


Elisabeth Donnelly is a journalist and screenwriter. She has written about books, culture, and other passions for numerous places from Oprah to Topic Magazine to New York City Ballet. You can find her writing at elisabethdonnelly.com. She’s currently working on a nonfiction book about wellness.

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