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Store windows at the five-storey Huqiu Wedding Dress Mall, in the Chinese city of Suzhou, gleam with reflections of rows upon rows of elaborate gowns, enticing potential buyers.

But there are few to see them in the modern mall, a glitzy showcase of the city’s huge wedding gown production industry that usually attracts visitors not only from across China but abroad.

“Sales this year have so far not been good,” said Ma Li, owner of the Hua Qing Yu Wedding Dress Store in the mall, as she dressed mannequins. “I hope they will recover a little in the second half,” she added.

Suzhou, one of the world’s largest bridal goods exporters, is feeling the chill as couples all over the world delay, downsize or cancel nuptials because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The manufacturing hub in eastern China also hosts factories belonging to Apple suppliers as well as a technology center for Microsoft, but wedding dresses are a major part of its business. And it is big business.

Wedding market sales in China surged from 923 billion yuan to 1.64 trillion yuan from 2014 to 2018, according to Frost & Sullivan, and the annual compound growth rate had reached 15.5 percent. By 2023, the industry was expected to be worth 3 trillian yuan.

That speedy growth was interrupted by the discovery of the first cases of novel coronavirus infection in Wuhan, about 740 kilometres (460 miles) west of Suzhou, in late 2019 and when lockdown measures began to be imposed in China and other parts of the world from late January.

While China recently began allowing the resumption of some large wedding gatherings following a sharp fall in the number of new COVID-19 cases, companies in Suzhou said sales were far from usual levels as many couples were downsizing celebrations due to budget or lingering guest restrictions.

“We basically have no clients,” said Zhu Yuan, the chairman of Romen’s Wedding Dress, speaking from her showroom where dozens of embellished ivory dresses were crammed against each other on clothing racks.

“Out of a hundred only 10 to 20 percent survived,” she said of her client businesses, such as bridal studios and exporters.

Ma Li, owner of Hua Qing Yu Wedding Dress Store, puts a wedding dress on a mannequin at her store at Huqiu Wedding Dress Mall in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, on July 7. | REUTERS
Ma Li, owner of Hua Qing Yu Wedding Dress Store, puts a wedding dress on a mannequin at her store at Huqiu Wedding Dress Mall in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, on July 7. | REUTERS

Suzhou Jusere Wedding & Evening Dress Co Ltd., one of Suzhou’s largest gown manufacturers, tried to mitigate the downturn by ramping up direct sales to brides and traveling to their customers.

But the escalation of the virus to a global pandemic saw foreign orders, which used to account for a tenth of the company’s sales, all but disappear.

“I hope that the epidemic abroad can get under control, which will allow wedding dress studios to reopen. That can in turn drive consumption,” said founder Xu Chuanhai.

The China Wedding Expo 2020, an annual event that draws wedding gown resellers, exporters and bridal studios went ahead in Shanghai last month but exhibitors said there were few visitors.

Jiang Xin, a representative of Hermosa Trading, said increasing costs of transportation because of the pandemic had made exporting gowns expensive.

“The tariff is fixed but transportation costs rose because many flights were canceled,” he said. “The ordering cycle is longer so costs are rising.”

Elsewhere in Shanghai, Wei Jiawen and her husband Pan Wenjun celebrated their nuptials with family and friends in mid-August in a ceremony that was downsized from their originally planned celebration in February.

“We were under pressure both physically and mentally for half a year because of the delayed wedding,” said Wei, who gave birth to a daughter while waiting to reschedule the wedding.

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