A Tale of Two Pillows, Part 2: A Wedding Anniversary Gift For One of My Brides

A Tale of Two Pillows, Part 2: A Wedding Anniversary Gift For One of My Brides

frog-closure-2My last post was about the first pillow I ever made. This post is about the last pillow that I made (perhaps latest is the better word to use, since I’m sure I’ll make more in the future). It also involves a mother—this time not mine, but one of my brides’— as well as a surprise gift: a first wedding anniversary gift for her daughter. And, thankfully, the craftsmanship of this pillow is markedly improved over the first one!

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Cecilia, my bride’s mother, got in touch with me around the holidays wondering if I could make a pillow with the same frogs I had made on her daughter Sarah’s wedding dress. Her  first wedding anniversary was approaching and she wanted to surprise her daughter with a special gift and thought this would be something unique that her daughter would really appreciate.

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They had all loved the wedding gown I made the year before, especially the front frog closure on the jacket which referenced their Chinese heritage from the mother’s side of the family. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a tangible reminder of that element of the gown, instead of just photos or having to take the dress out of a box to see?

frogs-wedding-jacket.jpgI thought it was a great idea, and was flattered to be looped into another important milestone in this wonderful family’s life. This is what I love about my job: that I get to do this thing that I absolutely love to do which creates something with so much meaning and significance for my clients and their families.

good luck knot frog-closures

I happened to have enough fabric left over from making her dress that I could do it, so I got to work, replicating the frogs and ball button closure that I had initially created for the front of the jacket that went with the wedding gown, this time, for the front of a pillow.

wedding-jacket-frogs-frontWhen designing the original gown (which I’ll devote an entire post to in the future—for now I’ll just stick to the frog parts) I researched Chinese knots and chose a good luck knot to recreate in the same Italian silk duchess satin as I made the rest of the gown. The button is a monkey’s fist knot.

The whole point of this pillow was to have the exact frog closure on the pillow as the wedding dress, but as I was making the pillow I got carried away, thinking of all the even more complex and elaborate frogs I could make; I had to restrain myself! There now exists in my head an entire suite of frog embellished couture throw pillows! I started daydreaming of all the other pillows I could make, inspired by all my other brides’ dresses. I loved this project and hope to make more wedding gown inspired pillows for my brides, whether as a reminder of their wedding gown, or ring pillows for the ceremony.

frog-closure-pillowIf you’re one of my past brides and you’d like a keepsake pillow made with the leftovers of your fabric, or if you’re a future bride and you like the idea of a ring pillow made made to match or compliment your dress, let me know!

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Mother’s Day Tribute: A Tale of Two Pillows, Part 1.

Mother’s Day Tribute: A Tale of Two Pillows, Part 1.

Last Christmas was the best Christmas ever; not only because I got to decorate like a fiend, but because while I was home I finally found—after a fruitless eighteen year search!—a bunch of things I had sewn when I was a child and teenager that I’d long worried had been accidentally thrown away. I burst into happy tears when I pulled this from a box and held it for the first time in probably more than 20 years.

pillow-frontIt’s a pillow I made as a Mother’s Day gift for my mom when I very first started sewing. It was the first non-Barbie-clothes thing I ever made, and it is The Most Important Thing I Have Ever Sewn because it taught me the importance of craftsmanship and construction in relation to design.

I had secretly taught myself how to sew when I was 6 or 7 years old and once my mom realized I had been sewing on my own, and I had her real permission to use the sewing machine, I decided I would make her something special for Mother’s Day. 

pillow-closeupI put a lot of thought into the design, but even more heart; both literally and figuratively, as you can see! Limited by what fabric was available in the scrap drawer, I chose white felt, which was leftover from when my mom made me lamb’s ears to wear as a three year old when I was one of the stable animals in the Christmas party nativity scene; pink corduroy, from a pair of old pants I had grown out of; and denim that had most likely been my dad’s yard-work pants, or at least used to patch my dad’s yard-work pants, I’m not sure.

To stuff the pillow I used a bag of cotton balls that I had pilfered from the cabinet under my mom’s bathroom sink, because what else would you stuff a pillow with when you’re a little kid? The bag was half empty, though, so my pillow ended up being a little bit flat.

pillow-edge-3Sewing multiple layers of denim is a pretty ambitious task for anyone, let alone an 8 year old novice, but I wasn’t going to let my inexperience get in the way of making a sumptuously ruffled edge for my pillow. You can tell that I constructed the top and bottom ruffle first because, a) they’re sewn inside the seam, and b) there is actually some semblance of a ruffle; by the time I got to the vertical sides of the pillow I had run out of fabric and there was just barely enough to cover the last side, with not a single pleat and no folded edges to hide the frayed raw edges of the denim.

pillow-backWhen I had it all finished I was so proud of this beautiful thing I had made to show my mom how much I loved her and I just knew she would love it too! She would think it was the best gift ever and be so proud of it and show it off to all of her friends.

I decided that the best way to give it to her would be to place it on her bed (where I was sure she would display it for the rest of her life!) so that when she walked into her bedroom she would see it and know that it was obviously a gift I had made for her. I waited anxiously all Mother’s Day for her eruption of surprise and gratitude, but it never came.

pillow-edge-1What did come, however, was the pillow— right back into my bedroom! My mom put it in there, assuming I had accidentally left it in her room, as if it was one of my toys I’d forgotten to clean up. I was devastated, and brought it back to her, telling her that this was my Mother’s Day gift and that I had made it for her to put on her bed.

I don’t think she really knew what to do at that point, and we are an honest bunch of people, my family, so she told me the cold hard truth:

“But Colette, it doesn’t match my bedroom.”

(SIDENOTE: In the mid 80’s my mom redecorated the main floor of our house with peach carpet, and peach everything everywhere, so of course this pink and blue pillow did not match, but Mom, that wasn’t the point!)

She also delicately tried to explain to me that my sewing and craftsmanship might not yet be good enough for permanent display. She had every right to make that call; the tailored wool jacket that she made in her university sewing class in 1965 was the most perfectly crafted thing the professor had seen in all her years of teaching (another blog post for another time), and Jane’s Peach Palace, as my parents’ house eventually came to be called by my older siblings, had certain aesthetic standards to uphold!

Now, if you’re worried that my mom is some sort of cold, unfeeling aesthete because my pink and blue pillow wasn’t good enough for her, to her credit, she kept a bouquet of tissue paper flowers (with bright green pipe cleaner stems!) I made for her, probably when I was even younger, in a vase on her bathroom vanity for years. Of course, the tissue paper was peach, though…

pillow-cornerSo the Freudian subtext of this story is that I’ve spent the rest of my life sewing maniacally to prove to my mother that I can make something worthy of her praise and adoration, but the more accurate take-away from this experience is that I learned at an early age that it’s not enough to have a great idea, or to be well intentioned in your creative endeavors—you also have to be able to execute your idea at the requisite level.

That is the bedrock principle of my design philosophy, creative process and aesthetic, and as devastating an experience as this was as a little girl—adding insult to injury, a few days later I heard my mom yelling out from her bedroom, “Where’d all my cotton balls go? Who took my cotton balls?” To which I, deflated, had to confess—it served a much greater purpose than if she had showered me with compliments and kept the pillow on her bed like I had hoped.

pillow-edge-2.jpgI love my mom and everything she’s done for me in my life. She’s my biggest fan and greatest champion, and I owe so much to the many wonderful things she’s taught me, the sacrifices she’s made for me and my four older siblings, and the constant love and support she provides for our family.

It’s impossible for me to look at this pillow all these years later and not smile at the earnestness with which I created it; every stitch reads like a journal entry to me of my best effort at the time. I love it and wouldn’t change any of its frayed, un-mitered corners for anything.

pillow-front

 

Avi’s Moroccan Inspired Wedding Gown

Avi’s Moroccan Inspired Wedding Gown

moroccan inspired wedding gown.jpgWhen I first met Avi she told me the sweetest story of how her fiancé had proposed to her: he had taken her on a surprise trip to Morocco to get in touch with her Moroccan roots, tracked down the mud-brick home where her father (who passed away when she was a younger) had been born, and that’s where he asked her to marry him. The trip had made an indelible impact on her and as she began to plan her wedding decided she wanted to honor her Moroccan heritage in her wedding dress; not only as a tribute to her father, who would not be there to see her get married, but as a wedding day thank-you surprise to her husband for sparking a new appreciation for her family’s origins. [SIDENOTE: Shout-out to her husband for being so awesome!]

I loved the idea and the sentiment behind it. After discussing all the other details about her wedding and personal style—she would be having a destination wedding in Savannah, Georgia at the end of August and having an outdoor reception, so a breathable, not too heavy gown was a must—we started figuring out what “Moroccan inspired” would mean in the context of her wedding dress. We looked at all things Moroccan: tiles, rugs, and traditional Moroccan wedding dresses festooned with embroidery. The latter would be way too literal an interpretation, and the other things didn’t spark the degree of personal significance that seemed necessary given the original intent of the gown.

moroccan caftan 5.jpgI asked if she had any Moroccan family heirlooms that I might be able to see for design inspiration and after some thought she mentioned an embroidered caftan that her Moroccan grandmother had given her when she was little and which she wore as a child. The only problem was she didn’t know where it was or even if it still existed!

moroccan caftan 2A phone call to her mother in Pennsylvania solved the mystery of the Moroccan caftan (I wonder if that’s a Nancy Drew book?). It was in a box in a closet somewhere, her mother was sure, and she would bring it with her next month when she came to New York to join Avi for her next appointment with me. Perfect!

moroccan caftan detail.jpgI was really excited to see the caftan up close when Avi came back with her mother a few weeks later. Ever since the design consultation I’d been thinking about a technique that I’d always wanted to use on a wedding dress that would be the perfect vehicle to incorporate Avi’s Moroccan heritage in a subtle but significant way: I would reinterpret the embroidered motifs on the caftan using intricate hand-sewn bias applique. The scale and method would be different, but the scrolls and motifs would come straight from the caftan. Something new from something old, and perfectly unique to Avi!

When I showed them my sketches and explained the idea they loved it and we were all so excited to see it come to life the following summer.

bias tape draping closeup.jpgTo do the applique I first “draped” some ideas on the mannequin and made some fabric treatment samples, deciding which elements from the caftan would be best articulated with the bias applique. Then I drew out the whole border in pencil, to scale.

bias applique sewingA lot of tracing paper and measuring and design tweaking later, I had the final pattern and was ready for the task I’d been day dreaming about since Avi’s design consultation: sitting at my table, twisting and turning and pinning and stitching countless yards of bias tape by hand, following the pattern I’d drawn. If I’ve ever been in my happy sewing zone this was it!

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This is exactly the kind of intricate, tedious, repetitive task that I absolutely love to do!

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moroccan inspired wedding gown corset.jpg

moroccan inspired corset.jpgAvi’s mom flew me down for the wedding to help lace up the corset; she told me she didn’t want to worry about getting it wrong if she tried to do it herself, but moreover, after all the work I’d done to make such a special gown for Avi they couldn’t imagine her wedding without me being there.

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It was an honor to attend Avi’s wedding (as it is with each of my bride’s weddings that I attend). It’s so fulfilling to do something that I love so much and which means so much to my brides and their families.

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The wedding ceremony took place at Temple Mickve Israel, a beautiful historic synagogue in Savannah and one of the oldest in the country.  I made Avi’s veil with edging to match the corset and applique.

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The night before the wedding there was a Moroccan wedding party, complete with traditional good luck henna tattoos.

 

moroccan inspired gown backAfter the ceremony all the guests were taken to the wharf for a surprise riverboat trip down the Savannah River to the reception venue.

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It was windy on the boat! (Which was nice, because it’s hot in Savannah in August!)

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The reception was held at a 200 year old fort on the banks of the Savannah river, Old Fort Jackson. Avi changed into a short version of her wedding skirt that I had made just for the reception, which involved lots of dancing and was lots of fun!

 

Photo credits for Avi’s wedding photos: Jade + Matthew Take Pictures

Avi’s wedding planner: Bonnie Kaar, First City Events

Avi’s florist: Amy Harvey, Harvey Designs

Special Guest Blogger: One of My Brides, Lisa

On Choosing Colette Komm by L. H. Grant

A week after my engagement, on a flight from New York to Phoenix, I found myself sitting next to the head of Oscar de la Renta Bridal. I’d seen the collection online and loved it — one gown in particular. “Why don’t you meet me in Scottsdale and you can try it on?” The dress search has ended before it’s even begun, I thought to myself.

Two days later I was standing in front of a full-length mirror wearing the gown I thought would be “the one.” But something was off.  It wasn’t that the dress wasn’t beautiful or that it wasn’t flattering on me. Everything was lovely. There was just something that felt too manufactured about it — like a photoshopped image or a library filled with decorative books that have never been opened. I returned to New York empty handed.

Back home I visited more bridal salons, tried on more dresses and left with the same feeling I’d had in Scottsdale. It wasn’t until I walked into Colette’s studio that I found the authenticity I’d been looking for.

I once heard it said that great art is great not because of the questions it answers, but because of the questions it asks. As Colette showed me each gown in her collection, I found myself wanting to know more: how long it takes to hand-stitch each petal onto one dress, how she makes a skirt look like meringue peaks, how her gowns can at once be so exquisitely detailed, yet convey such a feeling of absolute simplicity.

As she told me about her creation process, and I watched her delicately handle each dress, I could see what made these gowns so different. Colette knew each stitch; she’d sewn each one with her own two hands. These dresses were never in a factory, never shuffled through a line of seamstresses, never a concept sketch sent to a sample room to interpret. Because Colette sees each creation from bride to sketch to pattern to muslin to gown back to bride, the final product has a sense of life, of history to it. Her gowns are Parisian architecture; the others, cookie cutter subdivisions.

On my wedding day the beauty of Colette’s work was evident not just to me, but to my guests — and not just to those who follow fashion. A dressmaker commented that she’d sewn hundreds of gowns but never managed to make any seem like they were an actual extension of the bride. “The dress is like part of your skin the way it moves on you,” she said. A retired police chief — a man I’ve known my whole life who has never taken any notice of fashion — was so struck by my gown that he said, “that’s exactly how I want my daughter to look on her wedding day.”

As for me, the greatest compliment I can pay to Colette and to the integrity of her creative process is to genuinely tell the truth: I have never seen a wedding dress — before or since my wedding — that I find more beautiful than the one she made for me. And for that, I thank her.

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.”


My Grandpa Komm was a Tailor

Grandpa Komm in his carport, with an arrangement of Grandma's favorite pink peonies from their garden, on what would have been their 69th wedding anniversary. (She died 8 months before this photo was taken and he died 6 months after.)

I like to think that I got sewing genes from both sides of my family. My mom used to sew her own clothes, her mom made beautiful tatted lace, and my dad’s dad was a tailor. Today marks the 101st anniversary of his birth, so I’m writing a tribute to him — my Grandpa Komm. He is one of my greatest inspirations and I am incredibly proud to carry his last name.

My grandfather, Wilhelm (William) Komm, was born in Schildesche, Westfalen, Germany in 1910. His father was a bricklayer who was drafted into the German army in 1916 and served on the Russian Front, leaving his wife and six children to survive the rest of the War on their own. They never had anything to eat; my Grandpa told my dad that they would share one egg between all of the children. In the sixteen years that he lived in Germany he had only experienced a full meal once, and it was long after the War; he was out begging for food in the countryside, and a compassionate farmer led him to the one empty seat at the table with his hired hands and said to him, “Sit down and eat, Son.”

Because he had been severely malnourished as a young child growing up during the War, by the time he was a teenager he was a slight, sickly kid and unfit for hard labor. At the age of 14, instead of becoming a bricklayer like his father, or a harness maker and upholsterer like his oldest brother, he was sent to be an apprentice in the local tailor’s shop because it was indoors and not physically demanding.

Two years later, in 1926, the family immigrated to Canada and settled in the small prairie town of Cardston, Alberta. They didn’t speak any English, but luckily the woman who ran the hotel where they stayed for the first few days spoke German and found out that my grandpa could tailor. The following morning she took him to the tailor’s shop on Main Street and he started sewing right away. For his day’s work he was paid one dollar. It was the first money that anyone in his family earned in Canada. I’m so proud that he was able to do that for his family. (And especially proud that he earned it by sewing!)

It’s impossible for me to imagine Grandpa Komm as a pale, sickly kid. I always knew him as the picture of health and vitality. He lived to be 3 weeks shy of his 96th birthday and kept himself busy doing all kinds of things, including  mending and alterations for friends and neighbors, right up until the very end. Literally. Just a few hours before he suffered the stroke that caused him to pass away, someone had stopped by his house (yes, he was still living in his own home — with a driver’s license!) to drop off eight pairs of pants for him to alter… I can only hope that I’ll live to be 95 and still be making the dresses that I love so much to make!

Grandpa Komm's sewing room in the tiny bedroom under the staircase, in the house he lived in for 64 years. (I took this photo about a year before he died, when I was there for my grandma's funeral.)

Center Front: An Introduction to My New Blog

Well, it’s the first day of July which means it’s exactly halfway through the year — a very significant day for me because I am kind of obsessed with balance and symmetry. It’s like center front on a dress, a straight shot down the middle delineating one half from the other. “CF” is the first line you draw on dotted paper when you draft a dress pattern, and it’s the first place you pin the muslin when you drape on a mannequin (unless you are making something seriously asymmetrical, but I don’t want to get too technical here, and/or spoil my analogy). So I have chosen today to start this blog — the “center front,” if you will, of 2010.

Ever since Martha Stewart Weddings featured my Petal Gown in its Winter 2010 issue, I have gotten emails and phone calls from people all over the world asking where can they get my gowns, and what stores carry my line. I always have to answer that my gowns are only available from my studio in New York, that I make everything by hand specifically to fit each client, that the process requires x number of fittings, and that everything is custom. But there’s so much more to it than that. And that’s what I’m hoping you’ll take away from reading my blog — Colette Komm and her dresses really are everything she seams…