Evelyn Frison was delighted to receive a surprise invitation to attend this year’s Oscars as someone’s guest. She had two to three weeks to find a gown to wear, and started saving styles and designers she liked—Zuhair Murad, Jenny Packham, Monique Lhuillier—to a Pinterest board. However, she soon realized these dresses weren’t available online in her size, and that she would have to go to shopping in person.
So she went to Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. “It was kind of nuts. Saks might have had two things. Bergdorf had zero,” she says. At Saks, she had a great experience with one of the store’s personal shoppers, who confirmed that she wasn’t imagining it—there is a gown shortage. When Frison wanted to hold an item for 24 hours, the personal shopper had to make a phone call and get special permission to do so. “She said she couldn’t keep things in stock,” Frison says. (The personal shopper did not respond to an email request for an interview.)
Frison isn’t alone in her experience. Demand is at an all-time high as weddings and other events that were postponed during the pandemic are finally taking place—and people are getting even more dressed up for those events than they were pre-pandemic. “We have been hearing about gown shortages,” says luxury retail and fashion consultant Robert Burke. “Companies did not anticipate how swift the rebound would be. It really has almost been like a roaring twenties situation.”
“I’ve been looking for months now and feeling a tad hopeless,” says Kat Moran, who wants to buy something new to wear to her friend’s upcoming black-tie wedding, which was postponed last May. She’s competing with people attending any of the estimated 2.5 million weddings taking place this year, the most since 1984. She’s been bookmarking dresses at Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Lulus, and Revolve, only to find a lot of styles are out of stock or must be preordered for a future date. “My whole kind of favorite section on Revolve—half of them are now sold out, or you can preorder . . . and the delivery date is anywhere from April 1 to May 31, and who knows when it will get here,” she says.
Also contributing to the gown shortage are pandemic-induced supply chain challenges that continue to negatively impact a wide range of fashion companies. Eddie Hertzman, founder and president of Sourcing Journal, which covers the sourcing apparel and textile industry, says he doesn’t see supply chain issues getting better any time soon. The gown category relies on specific production facilities, he says, most likely concentrated in a few regions like China and India.
“When you have so much demand, you can only get out a certain amount of supply,” he says. “China has a zero-tolerance [COVID-19] policy, and all of a sudden the ports get shut down—then there’s going to be a further delay.” He says he suspects that both the low and high ends of the market would be impacted by these issues. However, he also suspects retailers would be hesitant to respond to demand by taking on a lot more inventory, because they remember all the inventory they got stuck with when the pandemic set in.
To improve its speed to customer and speed of replenishment, Neiman Marcus will invest more than $90 million in its supply chain over the next two years, according to Lana Todorovich, president and CMO. She added that record-high sales of evening dresses are more than double what they were pre-pandemic, and that the store is “placing a lot of reorders” to increase supply. She cited Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Naeem Khan, Talbot Runhof, and Monique Lhuillier as selling particularly well.
There may have been some signs this was coming. Burke, the luxury retail consultant, says the industry saw “an enormous pickup in high heels” around eight months ago, leaving some high-end brands struggling to keep shoes in stock. This could have foreshadowed the current gown shortage. He suggests luxury retailers order extra gowns from locally produced labels, like Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, or Jonathan Simkhai, and that shoppers either cozy up to personal shoppers in stores who can help them find something or just scour the internet: “I think people are going to have to be resourceful.”
Shoppers can also try clothing rental sites like Rent the Runway, which offers the ability to reserve dresses four months in advance. In anticipation of the current boom, Rent the Runway’s president and COO, Anushka Salinas, said in an email that this year the company plans to grow its special-occasion category by 10% compared to 2019. That increase should pay off, given rentals of black-tie items are reportedly at their highest since the 2018 holiday season—and, according to the company—up 150% from 2021. Rent the Runway also launched a personal styling service: Shoppers are encouraged to send an email request to email@example.com and, a spokesperson says, they’ll receive “rental recommendations perfectly on point for this season’s ‘more is more’ attitude.”
If shoppers strike out renting, there are also resale sites like TheRealReal, which reports a 78% increase in search demand for gowns and cocktail dresses from 2021, with dresses selling for around $70 more than they did last year. Sasha Skoda, TheRealReal’s head of women’s and fine jewelry, noted in an email that stock comes from consignors, so at least there isn’t a worry about supply chain issues.
One place shoppers might get lucky these days is on Amazon, which may not be where many people think to buy formal wear. “I never buy clothes from Amazon, but they had stock,” says Annie O’Sullivan, who had a hard time finding something to wear to an upcoming wedding she’s attending after it was rescheduled from around two years ago. She was shopping online and in stores and felt stunned by what she found.
“It’s so weird how there’s either nothing or stuff that isn’t appropriate to wear to a wedding. It’s more like club gear, which is, of course, fine, but I can’t wear that to a church,” O’Sullivan says, noting that she did end up finding a black jumpsuit she liked at Lulus. Her sister, however, will wear a cranberry-colored minidress she bought from Amazon around Christmas. “Usually I’m excited to buy new clothes,” O’Sullivan says. “But it’s like nobody has anything, and it’s so frustrating.”