From traditional white dresses to gold, green and everything in between, the fashion show at Alhambra Ballroom’s Bridal Expo had something for everyone. Audience members gasped simultaneously at a halter-style African print wedding dress. The patchwork fabric, similar to a quilt, fused black, gold and a rich blue.
“We don’t always have to wear white, ladies; custom Afro-centric designs are in,” wedding coordinator DiAnne Henderson told the brides-to-be, their families and friends. This year’s expo, at the Alhambra on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and 125th Street, drew 25 vendors and about 100 guests.
DJ Mario came equipped with a turntable, music and a fitness trainer. As he blared First Choice’s “Love Thang” from the speakers, the trainer led women in the Wobble, then the Cha Cha slide — both popular line dances at African-American weddings.
“Dancing is a great way to lose a couple of pounds before the big day, ladies,” Henderson said as she encouraged everyone to join in. “We are Harlemites, we are in Harlem. This is how we get down!”
The U.S. wedding industry generates about $40 billion a year. According to the 2011 American Wedding Survey, the average wedding in the United States costs about $26,500. A 2011 survey by the bridal website The Knot found that in Manhattan, the average cost jumps to $70,730.
Uptown entrepreneurs are working to grow a Harlem wedding industry. In 2006, Amber Saunders-Nobles started A’Marie Weddings, a wedding planning service. She’s seen her clientele incorporate people of different races and financial backgrounds. “The biggest wedding I’ve done in Harlem was around $60,000,” she said. “We did the reception on a cruise around city.”
Henderson believes Harlem has the potential to thrive in the city’s wedding industry. “Harlem is often overlooked as a destination to have a city wedding,” she said. She helped launch the Bridal Expo and Fashion Show four years ago to spotlight local vendors and help uptown brides make their wedding dreams come true.
“Everyone can’t have a $40,000 or $50,000 wedding so we try to work with the person’s pockets,” said Henderson, who says her average wedding costs around $12,000. “I have the chance to speak with people and encourage them.”
For 17 years, she has worked exclusively with the family who owns the Alhambra Ballroom, where she says she’s done more than 200 weddings. “For someone else that may not be a lot,” she said, “but for me that is part-time work.” By day she’s a director at Harlem’s St. Nicholas Senior Center; on weekends she runs her event planning service, My Eye Is on You, at the Alhambra.
“There aren’t enough wedding expos,” Henderson said. “Afro-American designers that are known in the Harlem area do not have enough exposure. I think that we as Afro-Americans in Harlem should try to be more involved in helping one another.”
It has been a challenging effort. In 2006, Nidelka Mayers was the first person to put the Harlem weddings on the map, she says, when she created the Harlem Weddings bridal show and guide, showcasing local wedding-related businesses. The Harlem Weddings Bridal Show ran for three years but was canceled in 2010.
In 2008, Saunders-Nobles held a bridal show at the Apollo Theater, where she advised Harlem brides how to save during the recession (and provided literature on breast cancer).
“It cost thousands of dollars,” said Saunders-Nobles, who paid most expo costs out of her own pocket. It lasted one year, but she plans to resuscitate it next year. “We constantly have new vendors who want to do it again,” she said.
“Getting sponsors for these events is not easy,” agreed Henderson, who recruited five sponsors for the Bridal Expo this year. She said she sold about 50 tickets at $10 each and is not sure yet if the event turned a profit.
“Cassandra, for example, trusted me enough to bring her things,” Henderson said. “She gave me her free time and no one got paid.”
Cassandra Bromfield, a Brooklyn wedding and evening gown designer, wants to tap into the Harlem wedding market. “The bridal show is a good option for people to find me,” said Bromfield, who specializes in Afro-centric wedding gowns and fielded many questions about her patchwork gown.
Harriette Cole, author of “Jumping the Broom: The African-American Wedding Planner,” believes that with the right marketing and promotion, Harlem can become a wedding destination.
“I imagine that Harlem can become even more of a player in the world of weddings, thanks to more restaurants being developed and additional event spaces that have opened,” said Cole, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1988 and seen it “blossom into a thriving diverse community.”
Saunders-Nobles talks in terms of hidden gems and jewels in Harlem, for those who know where they are.
“The good thing about being a wedding planner is you have the creative eye to look into a space and say ‘This might work for this purpose, but it could also work for a wedding,’” she said. “When you think of the all the events that come with a wedding — the bridal shower, the brunch — there are so many restaurants that are hip places opening up.”
Harlem already offers multiple venues and options for weddings of all sizes and budgets.
Sylvia’s, the famous Lenox Avenue soul food restaurant, specializes in catering, with free space for wedding parties under 45 guests and or $500 an hour for more than 50. Special event coordinator Jacqueline Gaines estimates the restaurant hosts about 30 weddings a year.
Riverside Church, on the border between Harlem and Morningside Heights, holds anywhere from 65 to 75 weddings year. The main sanctuary rents for $3,500 and the most popular space, The Assembly Hall, for $3,200. But wedding coordinator Angela Gregory says few Harlem couples marry there. “I would love to see more local couples,” she said.
The Alhambra Ballroom, which opened in 2003, specializes in wedding receptions. Its wedding package includes a Rolls Royce limousine, a cake and five hours’ ballroom use for 125 guests for $12,350.
“That is one of the most reasonable venues in Manhattan,” said Sanders-Nobles. She married this past May at Bethel Gospel Assembly on East 120th Street and held a reception for 175 family members and friends at the Alhambra.
Other popular spaces include Melba’s Restaurant at Eighth and Manhattan avenues, the Dwyer Cultural Center on 123rd Street between St. Nicholas Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard and, in West Harlem, the Harlem School of the Arts. “A lot of people don’t know about this space and they have wonderful things to offer,” said Saunders-Nobles, including a theater and a courtyard garden.
“I would love to have my wedding in Harlem,” said Franshara Hunter, a bride-to-be who lives in the Bronx. She traveled down to Harlem for the expo and said, ”I see some really nice stuff here.”
Even with a successful bridal show, business has been slow in Harlem. Photographer Chad Pennington of Sobitart Photography says he’s shot just two Harlem weddings this year; most of his work is downtown. But when he gets to shoot in “Harlem USA,” as he calls it, he has a blast. “In Harlem you always get something different,” he said.
Karen Eatmon Harrigan, who goes by the name DJ Passion, began her career in Harlem. She deejays for $550 an event but charges $100 more for weddings.
“Weddings usually have a little more involvement working with the bride. I do consultation with them and go over the music,” she said. She has taken part in the wedding expos since they began, yet only works twice a year in Harlem.
Princess Jenkins, who owns The Brownstone boutique on East 125th Street, said she will continue to participate in the expo. “Anyone who comes to us is looking for something nontraditional. We do about five weddings a year and many mothers of the bride,” Jenkins said. “I continue to participate in the expo because we are very interested to show our brand.”
“If you do want to get married in Harlem the businesses and professionals are here,” said Saunders-Nobles, who says she understand why vendors may find it difficult to reach clients. “You have to be resourceful because there isn’t a Great Bridal Expo like in Times Square with 40,000 brides. That is great, but there is never something permanent in Harlem.”
Despite the odds, Henderson says she’s planning another Alhambra expo for April. She wants to continue to showcase local vendors and teach brides. “All of my work comes from the heart,” she said.
“That is why I love Harlem weddings,” said Saunder-Nobles, “because we have a passion not just for our business, but for our people.”