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SAN FRANCISCO — Apparel manufacturing here has withered as in many cities, but at least one area continues to thrive: the bridal sector.
Charging brides $2,000 to $25,000 for their gowns, a dozen local designers — most of whom are relative unknowns beyond the Bay Area — are visible examples of San Francisco's remaining apparel sector. According to city statistics, there are about 4,000 local garment workers, down from 15,000 at the peak a decade ago, when it was still common for companies like Gap to place some orders locally.
The bridal designer ateliers have sewing rooms employing two to 25 workers. Many are prominently tucked above boutiques such as Hermès and Marc Jacobs on tony Maiden Lane, or elsewhere in the Union Square retail district downtown. Others opt for hard-to-find industrial-chic lofts just a mile away in the South of Market district — or SoMa, as the locals call it. One industrious designer has set up in a converted movie theater alongside the single-room occupant hotels in the Tenderloin, the city's skid row.
Part of the reason for the bustling ateliers is that California brides aren't skimping on expenses. San Francisco brides this year will spend an average of $3,057 for their attire, and a total of $44,500 on the entire event. This exceeds the average price tag nationwide of $1,841 for bridal gowns, and $26,800 for the whole wedding, according to the Wedding Report, a newsletter that tracks industry trends.
"The quality of the local designers is really high end. Their tailoring is impeccable," said Nilka Shan, owner of N Events in San Francisco, who often refers brides to local designers and has selected one, Jinza Jin, for her own nuptials. "I don't want to get a cookie-cutter look," said Shan. She also hated the idea of having "to take a beautiful gown like a Vera Wang and change it" in order to get what she wanted: a "mermaid style" silhouette with full chapel train, for which she's paying Jin $3,500.
Jin, who initially immigrated to the U.S. from China to work for a San Francisco garment contractor, expects to exceed her usual 80- to 100-gown-a-year business this year, since 70 orders already have been placed — all since she relocated to a central location on Union Street in posh Pacific Heights. She's also picked up some evening gown business from the ranks of the city's well-dressed performing arts patrons.