Inside the Big Business of Sponsored Weddings

·10 min read
Photo credit: Gallery Stock; Getty Images(sign).
Photo credit: Gallery Stock; Getty Images(sign).

The morning before her wedding, the model Josephine Skriver held the kind of brunch that sends the thumbs of her 7.5 million Instagram followers tapping. Wicker abounded. White umbrellas trembled in the breeze. Fresh-cracked coconuts were draped with sliced citrus. Menus advertised not one but two varieties of millennial-inflected toast: almond butter and avocado.

Almost 150 people had flown to Cabo San Lucas in April 2022 to watch Skriver and singer-songwriter Alexander DeLeon (better known as Bohnes to his quarter-million Instagram followers) tie the knot. Skriver hoped to give her loved ones a shot of relaxation—at a reasonable price. “You want it to be grand,” she says, describing her wedding planning mindset. But costs add up. “You don’t want to blow the craziest amount.”

The spread at the Flora Farms restaurant delighted Keltie Knight, the Canadian TV correspondent, who cut a quick video for TikTok to show it off. She tagged Skriver in the caption and then thanked her host, too—with a mention and a hashtag. Not that it could have taken Knight much time to deduce to whom she owed her gratitude. The host’s name was plastered all over the festivities. It wasn’t Skriver or DeLeon or their parents or their pals. To celebrate the bride and groom, skincare brand Sunday Riley had stepped in to pick up the tab. It had the iron-branded coconuts to prove it.

If you’ve recently noticed an increase in wedding photos on social media tagged with brand names instead of just cutesy portmanteau hashtags, you’re not alone. The practice of bold-faced names collaborating with fashion designers, luxury hotels, liquor brands, and the like to sponsor their nuptials has become as common as honeymoons in the Maldives. But what are couples giving up in order to have their champagne toasts or bridesmaids’ dresses underwritten, and how does it square with the gravity of till death do us part?

Long before her wedding, Skriver had been in conversation with the team behind such products as Good Genes and Luna Night Oil. The particular discussion that led to the brunch was supposed to be general—a brainstorm. But the wedding was on Skriver’s mind, so she quipped, “Come, do a few treatments!” The reps perked up. Sure!

Some people have welcome drinks for friends and relatives before their weddings. Skriver had a brand activation. It was a hit.

It isn’t news that celebrities accept freebies or know how to make the most of #sponcon. Above a certain threshold of social media followers, the perks can be endless. Paid vacations, free Botox, dresses, shoes, alcohol, even cars. But it does make waves when the rich and famous get richer and more famous on the backs of their supposed wedded bliss.

For Skriver, what started as an on-site spa expanded to include the brunch and product gifts. In between bites of frittata, attendees browsed tables bearing a selection of lotions and serums. Knight walked off with a leather-handled tote full of goodies. Back at the Acre Baja resort, guests were treated to customized facials.

But samples are the tip of the logo-wrapped iceberg. In 2017 Julianne Hough and Brooks Laich—who would divorce five years later—married in Idaho and had a furniture brand kit out their rehearsal dinner. In a Facebook post, the brand thanked them. The Knot has collaborated with a Bachelorette. Influencer Marissa Fuchs’s “surprise” engagement—an exhaustive and trans-Atlantic scavenger hunt—was pitched to brand marketers months in advance.

Yifat Oren, an event planner known for her discreet work with such clients as Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon, thinks weddings are sacred. Vows are written to be said in front of a couple’s nearest and dearest, an experience meant to be savored in person and in the present. She knows hers is the disappearing perspective. “It’s a divide,” Oren says, “because there are some people who still value their privacy, and there are some people who use their lack of privacy to boost their market value.”

Photo credit: Hindustan Times - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hindustan Times - Getty Images

For his bachelor weekend in 2018, Nick Jonas partied with Elit Vodka and gave his groomsmen personalized Lime scooters—then posted a couple of #grateful Instagram posts to match. For his wedding, Chopard designed bands for both Jonas and fiancée Priyanka Chopra. The house also decked Chopra out in a 184.50-carat pear-shaped diamond necklace. Pictures of the bride and her gems would later run as an exclusive in People.

And then there are the Kardashians. Six weeks after Skriver and DeLeon returned from Mexico, Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker married for the third time on the Italian coast, following ceremonies in Las Vegas and Santa Barbara. Both the Kardashian-Jenner clan and the Barkers (down to their toddlers) wore head-to-toe Dolce & Gabbana. Guests dined at tables laid with the fashion brand’s plates, and for the venue, the bride and groom chose Villa Olivetta, a castle on an estate that D&G owns in Portofino. The New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman called it “the ultimate in sponsored social media” and a comeback for the brand after a series of scandals. The wedding, she added, was “a public, performative welcoming back in the ultimate ritual of affection.”

Sticklers for etiquette—not to mention the FTC, which stipulates that paid partnerships be disclosed on Instagram—can tut-tut, but the gambit works. The firm Launchmetrics reported that the wedding weekend earned Dolce & Gabbana more than $25 million in what it calls “media impact value,” and it generated real dollars, too. Shortly after the extravaganza, an executive with the brand attended another wedding in St. Barts, which wedding photographer Jose Villa was on hand to shoot. While the exec dressed the bride, he told the vendor team that the response was better than he could have hoped. Sales had ballooned. “We can’t keep up,” he said, according to Villa. “It’s insane.” Weddings are “beautiful, emotional, fabulous moments,” says Savannah Engel, a publicist who recently expanded into representing individual weddings in addition to supporting clients like Markarian and PatBO. “At the same time, it’s a business, and a lot of people are involved.” Engel helps secure press coverage and then follows up to make sure that all the appropriate entities are tagged on Instagram, from wedding planners to photographers to rental companies. “It’s a way to thank your vendors, right?” she says. You could send flowers, but with a few million followers, isn’t a mention a little more lasting?

Photo credit: Cobra Team / BACKGRID
Photo credit: Cobra Team / BACKGRID

Engel has seen firsthand the opportunities that weddings can present for brands that want to reach a new clientele or build awareness. Dressing a dozen bridesmaids is the new trunk show. “I don’t think we should ever have a situation where a brand has a pop-up at a wedding,” Engel adds. “If that ends up happening, I’m going to throw up.” Short of such extremes, she’s game.

Alison Laesser-Keck is less bullish on the market. She specializes in planning destination weekends for clients who “don’t feel like their weddings are for sale” and warns those weighing sweeteners from brands to think about whether having to work at their own events—handing over deliverables, meeting social media expectations—is worth it to them. Oren is even blunter. “I don’t care about Instagram,” she says. “Privacy is harder to get and more luxurious at this point.” Inquiring couples have asked her whether she’s open to helping them ink deals with vendors, but the conversations usually end there. “If that’s what you’re looking for,” she tells them, “I’m probably not the right person.”

Oren’s clients tend to be people who want to create as wide a chasm as possible between their personal and professional lives. She finds it baffling that couples who can afford a full-price event choose to sell their weddings for parts. But she knows the counterargument: For people whose entire lives are sponsored, should a wedding be an exception? More to the point, can people whose careers revolve around their brands afford to miss out on hawking the ne plus ultra of personal expression?

Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow drove fans to her own website after her September 2021 wedding to Brad Falchuk. She published 48 photos and below them a sourcebook to direct readers to the more than 30 vendors hired for the event—from the pros responsible for transportation to the people behind her wallpaper.

Photo credit: Kypros - Getty Images
Photo credit: Kypros - Getty Images

Micaela Erlanger—who dresses celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o—chose a custom-made De Beers Forevermark band from her Forevermark X Micaela collaboration for her wedding in April 2022. Bridesmaids received De Beers Forevermark earrings and wore customized shoes from the brand Margaux—with which Erlanger has produced a capsule collection.

When we speak, she is putting the final touches on her collection of bridal accessories with Jennifer Behr. Her line of evening bags with Bella Rosa Collection is due out soon. Both collaborations draw inspiration from what Erlanger wore to her own weekend of festivities. Is Erlanger the first bride whose wedding has spawned multiple diffusion lines? Perhaps, but the odds are good she won’t be the last.

After a pandemic-induced contraction, the bridal market is booming. Bridalwear is valued near $70 billion, and designers like Prabal Gurung and Rosie Assoulin have recently branched out into wedding gowns. A June 2021 report predicted that a record-breaking 2.5 million ceremonies will be held in the United States in 2022. Erlanger isn’t surprised that brands want a piece.

“I’m in this space,” Erlanger says. “So these brand extensions for me make a lot of sense. I think we’re going to continue to see interest, because there is a demand. I’m super-proud of what I have created, and I hope to be able to continue to partner with brands to help them elevate their products.”

What she means is there are rules for these partnerships just as there are for more traditional brand alliances. She is glad to help out, with the obvious caveat that she has a price.

In the win-win that Skriver describes, both parties were satisfied. She reports that she is a genuine fan of what Sunday Riley does. But beyond that, Skriver was confident that the event would be tasteful. She has been a public person long enough to know that it would have served no one if the logos had been too loud or the decor garish. “That would just have felt wrong, from a lot of people’s point of view,” she says. She saw a good opportunity; she seized it. “We are all walking billboards, especially now that almost everybody can be an influencer. We become so aware of who we associate ourselves with. That’s why doing deals for brands with weddings is so special.”

After the brunch, after the facials, the wedding stretched on for hours. When the clock inched past 4 a.m., it was reps from the brand who were shouting and celebrating with her on the dance floor. “Ever since the wedding, it’s been a family feeling,” Skriver says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, this worked great for us. What else can we do?’ ”

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