Susanne – Newport Beach, California

Susanne and her husband.

When I met with Susanne for her initial consultation she had three must-haves for her gown: “Grace Kelly-esque,” a full skirt with box pleats, and a sleeved jacket with Alençon lace — the rest was up to me. I really had fun creating her gown because like Grace Kelly’s, it’s actually made up of four separate and quite complicated pieces; Susanne’s “gown” consists of a jacket and skirt, and a corset and crinoline (neither of which are seen).

The gown is made from Italian silk duchesse satin, French Alençon lace, and lined with silk taffeta.

The lace on the jacket is not a solid piece of lace nor is it cut from the same pattern pieces as the jacket. It is made up of roughly 6″ x 9″ motifs that were cut away from the netting on the original lace panel and then hand stitched on top of the duchesse satin  jacket (after all the seams were sewn) so that there is no disruption of the floral pattern of the lace — even at the side seams — which is a detail you will only see on a couture gown.

The same is true of the lace around the hem of the skirt; each 6″ x 9″ motif was placed so that it looked like the flowers were “growing” up from the bottom of the skirt. This gown is one of only three gowns in seven years that I didn’t sew every single stitch of with my own two hands; my mom (an excellent seamstress in her own right) was visiting me in New York and helped me piece the lace to the skirt. Sitting together with her, with the skirt laid out on the table and each of us with a needle and thread in hand, is a memory I’ll always cherish. I love sewing and I love my mom!

I also love covered buttons, and Susanne’s gown had a lot of them; they went all the way down the center back of the skirt. I always make fully functional covered buttons and button loops because I think they are so pretty; if you wanted to, you could actually unbutton this skirt all the way to the hem, even though you’d just end up seeing the inside seams of the lining and it would take forever as there’s about 130 of them!

Taking Measurements for a Couture Gown

Most people think that all you need to know to find a piece of clothing that fits is your size — or at most, your bust, waist, and hip measurements. That’s not the case with couture, where extremely detailed measurements are taken to ensure the perfect fit. When I measure a bride for her wedding gown I will take as many as sixty measurements!

It’s not just about the measurements in inches (and quarter-inches), but the ratios between those measurements and the overall proportions of the bride’s body that I take into account when creating her gown. What is her posture? What are her best features? What features is she self-conscious of? Even, how will she look next to her husband? All of these observations help me to determine exactly where that style line needs to be on that particular body to be most flattering to her. Inevitably, from one person to the next, it’s an entirely different place.

When you create a couture gown for a woman it becomes possible for her to wear a style that she never thought she could because that style is reworked entirely to flatter her unique characteristics. Ninety percent of whether any given design looks good on any given figure is determined by the way it fits that body. It’s amazing how making every seam and detail intentional can so profoundly enhance a woman’s beauty.

(The photos I’m using to illustrate this post are actually pictures of me wearing some of my wedding gown samples; I draft all of the original patterns from my measurements and fit all of my original samples to my own body. After all, I’m always there when I need to fit something — especially when I’m pulling one of my crazy sewing all-nighters! But more about that in a future post…)

My Birthday Cake

A few weeks ago when I was figuring out what I wanted to do to celebrate my 29th birthday — dinner with friends? a weekend trip? — I decided that I wanted to spend the entire weekend (and an unlimited budget for Callebaut chocolate!) decorating a really fancy cake to share with my friends and family on Sunday night, my birthday.

The cake is four tiers of my absolute favorite chocolate cake. A  client of mine gave me the recipe after I tasted it at a dinner party she hosted; it was the most delicious cake I’d ever had and I was practically drooling in between bites as I asked her where it had come from. She told me it was her mother’s recipe and a family secret but a few days later I received a hand-written card in the mail from her with the recipe for both the cake and the icing! It is seriously one of my most favored possessions, and every time I make it people go nuts for it. And of course, every time I make it I tweak it slightly so it gets bigger, better, and fancier!

I’ve always loved making cakes and cookies, and I especially love piping icing and playing with chocolate, so I couldn’t have picked a more exciting way to celebrate my birthday. I started out on Thursday night by making the dark chocolate roses. Each rose is shaped by pressing a tiny ball of chocolate clay (made by mixing melted chocolate and corn syrup, letting it set up and then kneading it until it’s pliable) into the shape of a petal and clustering a number of them all around each other. It’s a labor-intensive and tedious process, especially when you are making three dozen of them, but I’m weird like that and think it’s fun! It’s hard for me to explain just how intensely satisfying this kind of thing is to me, but there’s really nothing I enjoy more.

In spite of said enjoyment, however, by Friday night chocolate wasn’t the only thing melting down… I wound up despondent and on the phone with my sister, lamenting the fact that (and wondering why) I can’t just be a normal person and be satisfied with, like, a Duncan Hines funfetti sheet cake, or something… Why do I feel so compelled by these profound urges to create the complex and extraordinary?! Why do I turn almost everything I do into an elaborate make-work-project? Thankfully, though, my existential crisis was short-lived; Saturday was a blur of creative rapture and by the time I finished the cake at 6 p.m. on Sunday — barely an hour before my guests would arrive — I was jumping up and down, laughing almost maniacally at having pulled this off. I was so excited; nothing makes me happier than creating something beautiful — especially if it tastes delicious, like this cake, or feels exquisite, like one of my dresses — and sharing it with people that I love!

My Sister and Her Bridesmaids

Yesterday I wrote a post about how my sisters, cousins, and I used to play dress-up at my grandparents’ house when we were little, and it made me think of my sister’s real wedding last summer. While we were still very much “playing dress-up,” our roles were reversed from 25 years ago; she was the bride, and I got to make her and her bridesmaids’ dresses. The one thing that is still the same, though: her ridiculously big grin — though now she has all of her adult teeth!

My Very First Wedding…

People always ask me how I got into making wedding dresses, have I always been obsessed with weddings or something? Not that I could think of; I never even considered bridal design as a career until my senior year at Parsons (even though I had made a couple of wedding dresses for family friends in high school and college).

But last week I was sorting through a box of slides from my childhood and realized maybe there was some longstanding precedent for my eventual career path. I found these photos of me playing dress-up with my sisters and cousins at my Grandma and Grandpa Komm’s house; I had totally forgotten that one of our favorite childhood games was to play “Tarzan and Jane’s Wedding” in their front yard. I was always “Jane”; my cousins, Brandon and Justin, would take turns being “Tarzan.”

I wish I could claim these photos as evidence of my first attempt at bridal design or at least bridal styling, but I’m not sure how much of it I can (or want) to take credit for as I was only three, and my sisters and cousins — my bridal attendants, as it were — had probably been fighting over who got to drape me with this table cloth or that. Plus, the dress (if you can even call it one; it looks like it might actually be a curtain) really doesn’t fit that well, as you can see by the fact that instead of holding a bouquet of flowers from Grandma’s garden — she grew the most beautiful peonies, roses, snapdragons, dahlias, etc. — I’m holding up my dress so I don’t trip.

I don’t know how we came up with the idea of “Tarzan and Jane’s Wedding.” It must have either been because my grandparents had this massive, beautiful weeping birch tree on their front lawn which had vine-like branches that drooped down low enough that we could swing from them like Tarzan, or because there were no clothes for boys in Grandma’s dress-up trunk and so we needed a creative and intentional reason for my groom to be shirtless… Maybe it was a combination of the two. In any case, it was a pretty cute premise for a pretend wedding, and clearly what set me on the path to become a bridal designer twenty years later…

P.S.: This last photo, with my sister next to me, makes me think how 25 years later we would all be playing “wedding dress-up” again; this time, she would be the bride, it would be a real wedding, and I would be responsible for the “costumes”…

Silk Ribbon Embroidery

These are some photos of a silk ribbon embroidery sampler I made once when I was home sick and bored out of my mind. I didn’t plan out what the final piece would look like; I just took my ribbons, thread, and beads and started stitching together a bouquet, so to speak, one ribbon flower or leaf after another, practicing as many different stitch techniques as I could.

Beneath the flowers I made something of an abstract flower pot — or maybe it’s a trellis? — by couching the silk floss and ribbon. Couching is a technique where a thicker thread or ribbon is affixed to the top of the fabric by tiny stitches of fine thread from the back of the fabric. I love the juxtaposition of the rigid geometry of the couched silk thread with the organic, voluminous shapes and textures of the floral embroidery.

Call me crazy, but I fantasize about embellishing a whole dress with this stuff! I think it’s the most beautiful type of embroidery, not just because it’s so delicate and enchanting, but also because it cannot be duplicated by machine, making it extremely rare.

Colette – St. James, Barbados

Colette came to me with an interesting design and logistical challenge: she would be 7.5 months pregnant on her wedding day! This is a portrait I drew of her and her daughter, in a flower girl dress that I made to compliment her mother’s gown, in pencil on vellum, 8.5″ x 11″.

Cristóbal Balenciaga: The Master

A velvet cape on display at the exhibit, as photographed in the accompanying book, "Balenciaga: Spanish Master," on page 40. I love the collar.

Two weeks ago, my parents were in town visiting and I took them with me to see Balenciaga: Spanish Master, at the Queen Sophía Spanish Institute on Park Avenue. I’d been wanting to see it for a while, but decided it would be really meaningful to bring my mom, who loves beautiful clothes and who would probably remember some of the ones on display from the 1950’s and 1960’s.

For obvious reasons, I loved the exhibit, but there was one particular part of it that will stick with me forever. There was a display of 3 black dresses with the accompanying placard below listing the provenance of each garment and two paragraphs about Balenciaga and his black dresses. As I read the text and got to the second paragraph I had one of my I’m-so-excited-about-sewing-and-fashion-that-it’s-almost-pathetic moments and yelled at my mom — in the loudest whisper possible, of course — to come and read the placard:

“In each of Balenciaga’s ninety-three collections there was always one black dress cut and sewn entirely by him. Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel described her friend as ‘the only couturier. He is the only one who knows how to cut a fabric, and mount and sew it with his own hands. The others are just draughtsmen.'”

My mom smiled and looked at me and said, “Well, that’s exactly what you do!”

And it is; all of the gowns on my blog and website were created with my own two hands. I think it’s so important as a designer to really understand not just how to sketch a pretty, idealized, elongated croquis and hand it off to an atelier or sample room to create, but how to turn it into a real garment on a real body, without help from anyone else. I love that Balenciaga fundamentally understood this, and lived it throughout his entire career, even though he was Balenciaga, and didn’t have to. He was as dedicated to the craft of dressmaking as he was famous for defining fashion and I believe there is a correlation between the two. His conviction and reverence for the actual act of dressmaking are part of the reason that we collectively refer to him as “the Master,” a moniker coined by Christian Dior, a genius by anyone’s standard, who declared Balenciaga “the master of us all.”