Planning the Perfect Wedding

Each year, the holidays inevitably bring about several things: heavier scales, fervent resolutions, and rocks on ring fingers. Christmas and New Year’s Eve are popular times for engagement proposals, and now that these landmark occasions are over, expect to see a few more sparklers on the fingers of lucky ladies, young and old.

Whether it’s a daughter, sister, cousin or friend, someone you know is likely just beginning to embark on the exciting madness that is wedding planning. It can be an overwhelming, stressful and emotional time for all involved, but it can also be a wonderful opportunity to bond with the people you love most.

One thing is certain — planning and organization are crucial! Below are some tips and trends from local wedding experts that can take some stress out of the process and help brides-to-be get off to a good start.

The Dress  

When young girls — sometimes at the tender ages of only four, five or six — begin "planning" their wedding, the first aspect they fantasize about is usually the dress. Of course, the fact that girls begin dreaming of their dresses as children is not surprising. They’ve seen photos of their mothers looking radiant in pristine frocks dripping with lace, pearls or tulle; they’ve watched Disney princesses swirl across elegant ball rooms wearing sweeping gowns and large smiles; they’ve witnessed real-life royals sporting trains and veils longer than a football field process down the aisle with the whole world watching.

A wedding dress offers the type of unrestrained glamour that virtually every little girl dreams about. Only you don’t need a prince or an Oscar; this glamour is attainable.

According to Nicole Kurz, owner and president of The Dress by Nicole in Wheaton, "Most girls probably have already started looking at dresses before they even get a ring." On average, Kurz says that most of her brides select their dress about a year before the wedding.

"You should definitely start right away," adds Kurz. "That whole process from ordering to walking down the aisle is probably about six months, because it takes four to five months for the dress to come in and then about a month to two months for alterations."

This time frame also depends on the designer of the dress and the time of year. Dress shops are much busier during the summer months, and the turnaround time may be longer. Because of the many preparations and time commitments involved in hosting a wedding, Nancy McElvenny, owner of The Crystal Bride in Geneva, recommends brides-to-be give themselves even more time. "In our busier summer season, there are a lot of brides to accommodate," she says. "So sometimes we need more time."

Like all fashions, wedding dress styles have changed dramatically over the years. Current trends include fit-and-flare cuts (fitted on the hips with a fuller, A-line skirt); fun, textured skirt bottoms; keyhole backs; and lace. Capped-sleeve lace dresses are especially popular right now, says Kurz. "It’s the American version of the Kate Middleton dress. That’s something that I think has been pretty strong since the royal wedding, and we’re definitely seeing that here."

McElvenny says many brides are changing their look in between the ceremony and the reception by switching out accessories. "Maybe you’re wearing a cathedral veil — which we have seen a stronger trend towards — but taking the veil off because you can’t wear that at the reception and maybe putting something fun in your hair like a feather or a flower." She says that belts and bold, statement jewelry are also popular "change-up" items for brides.

Popular television shows such as Say Yes to the Dress have made the process of picking a wedding dress a ceremony unto itself. Both Kurz and McElvenny have seen an increase in the number of guests brides bring to help them select their dress. Though this type of entourage makes for great entertainment on television, in real life situations, it often leads to unnecessary stress and drama.

"Usually the less people, the better," says Kurz. Bringing too many people, each with their own opinion, can steer the bride away from the dresses she likes because she is focusing more on others’ preferences. "We get some girls who are completely overwhelmed," explains Kurz. "Sometimes they just kinda shut down and just do whatever the family wants them to do."   

McElvenny suggests those accompanying the bride — be there two or 10 — should not blurt out the first thing that comes to their mind when the bride walks out of the dressing room. "It’s helpful if they kind of respond to the bride’s response to the dress and take their cues from her, even if it’s not their favorite." After all, it’s the bride’s day. Not her mother’s or her bridesmaids’ or her grandmother’s. She deserves that gown she’s been picturing herself wearing since childhood.

The Venue

Though finding the dress may be one of the most fun and exciting aspects of wedding planning, it’s not usually the first task a bride crosses off her to-do list. After getting engaged, the two things couples usually do first is pick a date and select a venue. It’s important to book the venue as soon as possible. Depending on the location, venues are sometimes booked over a year in advance. "We’re booking already into 2014," says Deanne Mitchell, director of catering at the Herrington Inn in Geneva.

The venue will dictate other decisions that have to be made — everything from the type of flowers to the style of the dress. As McElvenny astutely observes, "Some girls, if they’re getting married at a winery, are going to want a different dress than a girl getting married at a cathedral and having a reception at The Drake."

Many venues provide their own catering. "I customize things," says Mitchell. "The brides, they know what they want. They’ve had an idea of what they’ve wanted since they were young, and this is their day." Like many venues, the Herrington provides a menu of dishes to choose from, but Mitchell allows the bride and groom to incorporate fun additions like hot dog carts and hot chocolate.

Brides can add their personal touch to the venues by bringing in their own embellishments. Some brides bring a chalk board to decorate and display at the reception. Others feature candy bars or photo booths — two trends that are particularly popular at the moment. "Brides still have their florists," says Mitchell. "But they’re bringing in their own things, their own flare."

The western suburbs have an abundance of facilities — including numerous country clubs and banquet halls — that can serve as suitable venues. In recent years, however, many brides are seeking a more unconventional setting for their big day. Emerson Creek Pottery and Tea Room in Oswego has hosted weddings since 2010 when the owners, Chris and Dave Demiduk, decided to refurbish an old barn on the property. And they are booking more weddings than ever, thanks to a trend that has made rustic barns a leading wedding venue of choice. Brides are switching out heels for cowboy boots and turning old barns into fairy tale settings featuring antique chandeliers, mason jar décor and strings of white lights.

"Sometimes people get the same old wedding, that sort of thing," says Chris. "But I think people are into simpler and easier weddings rather than the crazy hustle and bustle."  

It’s also becoming increasingly popular to have the ceremony and the reception at the same location, which can significantly cut down on costs. Both the Herrington Inn and Emerson Creek host ceremonies and receptions, which allows for a fluid transition and less stress for the bride and groom.

Suzette’s Creperie in Wheaton not only hosts weddings and receptions, it also offers afternoon tea, a very popular option for bridal showers and luncheons. "Afternoon tea, it’s just timeless," says Suzette’s owner Donna Hesik. "Every young girl and bride wants that afternoon tea for one of her showers, it seems."

The Cake

If there was ever a rulebook for wedding cakes, it’s been thrown out the door. Cindy Summers, owner of Sugar Fixe in Oak Park, has built her business around accommodating couple’s wishes for the latest cake trends. Like the Say Yes to the Dress phenomenon, TV shows have also influenced how people envision their wedding cake. "You know, with Cake Boss and all these other shows, it’s really gotten people’s expectations of having something big and grand and more complicated than your traditional cake," says Summers.

For several seasons, cupcakes were the en vogue dessert. This cupcake craze has waned slightly, but Summers says some couples still choose the cupcake route, with approximately 25% of the weddings she bakes for requesting cupcakes. "If a couple is not doing all cupcakes, then what they will do is a small cake that will be for the bride and groom to cut," says Summers. "That usually sits on top of a cupcake tower, and then the remaining servings are cupcakes."

Another alternative to the traditional wedding cake is for a couple to feature their favorite dessert. "We can display desserts to make them look like a display cake," says Sarah McFarland, the head pastry chef at Suzette’s Creperie. Some couples are also deciding to feature a smaller wedding cake for the two of them and a sheet cake to serve their guests. "Some want to cut back on costs, but they still want their fancy display cake," says McFarland. Sheet cakes are less expensive and can feed many people. This is an economical option that allows the couple to have their cake and eat it too (sorry, couldn’t resist!)  

McFarland and Summers agree that couples don’t usually get too adventurous when choosing the flavors of the cake. McFarland says that vanilla and chocolate are still the most popular. "Brides definitely have a concern for their guests and making sure that it’s a flavor everyone would enjoy," says Summers. She adds that when couples do decide to stray from vanilla, they often choose red velvet or carrot cake — popular flavors that most people have tasted before.

Cake toppers are another way couples can differentiate their cake. Toppers are not as common as they once were, and some couples choose to forgo them entirely. But if a couple does decide to adorn the top of their cake, they have a multitude of decorations to choose from. Of course, some traditions never die, and every once in a while you will still see a statue of a bride and groom placed atop the cake. And flowers, whether made of petals or sugar, continue to be popular on or around cakes. "They still like flowers," says Summers. "But doing them more offset and featuring more of a random pattern to them" is now preferred, rather than placing them on the top.

Recently, couples have been devising sentimental and humorous ways to add their personal touch to the cake. An internet search will lead you to every type of cake topper you can imagine: love birds in a nest, black and white puzzle pieces that fit together, LEGO people holding hands. Couples can also order a customized cake topper of the bride and groom that portrays their personalities and interests.

The Flowers

People often admire the more prominent flowers at a wedding — the bride’s bouquet and the centerpieces adorning the tables — but what about the boutonnières, the corsages, the flowers at the ceremony, and the petals that are sprinkled along the aisle?

Flowers are one of the underappreciated details that helps pull a wedding together and shape its theme, be it romantic, rustic or modern. However, they can be expensive. So, it’s important to thoroughly contemplate which arrangements are absolutely necessary and which can fall by the wayside.

"Brides are a little more particular in what they’re looking for, and making sure they’re getting their money’s worth and the service that goes along with it," says Walter Fedyshyn, creative design manager at Phillip’s Flowers. "Budgets are definitely tighter, so we work with them more closely to make sure we can give them the look they’re looking for to fit the budget that they offer us."

Another option for budget savvy brides is using the bridesmaids’ bouquets as the floral décor for the head table. By the time the reception rolls around, pictures are usually finished and the maids no longer need their bouquets. Have the girls plop their flowers into vases on the head table, and voila! You have beautiful flower arrangements.

Though there are an infinite number of ways to pair and arrange wedding flowers, florists are noticing some trends that stand out.  Boutonnières are still popular for the bridal party, though they are much more elaborate than in the past when a simple rose was used. "Sometimes the mothers, instead of actually wearing a corsage either on the shoulder or the wrist, what we’re doing a lot lately — which I think is very nice — is a small little petite bouquet that the mothers will carry," says Fedyshyn.

Like boutonnières, bridal bouquets are becoming more elaborate. Brides are personalizing their bouquets and adding a little bling in the process. Fedyshyn is seeing many brides attaching heirlooms or charms to the handles of their bouquets. Some attach small picture frames with photos of deceased loved ones. Broaches have also become popular, with some brides pinning them to the handle and others incorporating them into the actual bouquet.

When it comes to centerpieces, arrangements of varying height are popular. "There seems to be a lot of the high-low (arrangements) and a lot of candlelight," says Jane Gavran, owner of Jane’s Blue Iris in Hinsdale. The taller the arrangement, the pricier it tends to be, so Gavran recommends mixing it up. "If you do a mixture of two or three different types of arrangements, you can put more money into your high arrangements and that still gives you a beautiful look," she says. "You can do a lot of presentation for a minimal price."

The Photos

"The most important part of your wedding day is the person you’re marrying," says Genevieve Lee. "The second most important part is the photos." Lee, owner and head photographer of TrueLee Photography, has shot weddings all over the western suburbs and Chicago and has noted several trends in wedding photos. For example, photo journalism-style pictures are very popular at the moment. These photos don’t feature the familiar staged lines of the bridal party flanking the couple, rather they capture unique moments and images as they happen.

Sometimes a couple will also choose an unconventional location for these photos. Sherry Hagerman, president of Allusion Photography in Naperville, says of this style, "It’s been more urban, things like run-down places, alleyways. Things like that that have a really urban look to them but an artistic feel." Vintage looking photos — be they black and white or sepia-toned — are also popular.

When people speak of wedding photos nowadays, they are not simply referring to the photos taken on the actual wedding day; many photographers include in their packages engagement photos, boudoir photos, and sometimes even "trash-the-dress" photos.

Engagement photos are very popular and are often used on "save the date" cards. These photos are very personalized and are often taken at a location that is significant to the couple and their relationship. Lee says that she likes to hear the couple’s history before the shoot so she can incorporate their story. Hagerman calls these shoots lifestyle engagement sessions. "We really tie (the session) into the bride and groom — what they like," she says. "We like to make it casual, we like to make it fun, because you have formal on your wedding day."

Boudoir photos are becoming an increasingly popular gift that the bride gives to her groom on their wedding day. The bride poses for some glamour shots in lingerie and sneaks the intimate photos to her groom at some point during their wedding day. Hagerman typically shoots boudoir photos the morning of the wedding. "We usually do them for the bride, and we do it a half hour before we start our day," says Hagerman. "We can use the dress and everything else as a prop, which is really cool."

Trash-the-dress photos are usually taken once the couple returns from their honeymoon. This photo session allows both the bride and photographer to let loose, have fun and tap into their artsy sides. However, this trend is not for the sentimental, as the dress is truly trashed after such shoots. "It takes a really strong girl to be able to trash her dress," says Hagerman. Popular trash the dress shoots often involve water and lend themselves to stunning, one-of-a-kind photos. A popular trash the dress tradition in Chicago is having brides run through the fountain at Millennium Park.   

Photographers can range in price anywhere from $500 to $10,000. Hagerman says most professionals charge between $2,000 and $4,000 for a standard wedding package, which usually includes the hours of the event, two photographers, a finished album and proofs.

This may seem expensive, especially given the advances in personal digital cameras. However, some brides actually cut back on other expenses so they can employ a great photographer.

"Photography is just so important to your wedding day," says Lee. "It’s how you’re going to remember it for the rest of your life because memories end up getting kind of foggy and vague. But if you have a photographer who can capture your day well, you’ll have something to pull out for years to come and remember it with clarity."

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