Choosing a wedding dress is one of the biggest decisions a girl will make in regard to wedding day plans – the gown says so much about a bride. As a photographer, a gorgeous gown just makes the day easier for me, I feel inspired to shoot which in turn excites the bride, the groom and the bridal party. The gown also gives me a direction to take with the photography where a tight fitting gown will lend itself to a different style of images to the big full gown.
One thing that is always noticeable is when the dress has been designed and crafted by a couturist – sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint but the gowns will fit with perfection, they are individual and they are a usually a masterpiece that defines the bride.
A couturist that I have worked along side for a number of years now is Kel from Kel-Leigh Couture on the Central Coast. Kel creates amazing gowns and although I get to photograph plenty of her designs, I thought I’d get the rundown on what she does, how the whole dress design thing works and why or why not a bride would choose a dress off the rack as opposed to having a couture designed gown – it seems that price doesn’t have to be a factor. Below are some insights into the world of a couturist.
Andrew: How long have you been designing gowns and how did you start?
Kel: I’ve been designing and sewing for over 15yrs now after studying apparel manufacturing at TAFE.
Andrew: So, what is the difference between a couture gown compared to a wedding dress off the rack?
Kel: Firstly, no bride is exactly a size 10, 12, 16 what ever so a couture designed dress is a custom, one off dress that will fit perfectly. The dress is a one off to fit one bride perfectly, from the hem to the corset, the ribbing – you don’t get that off the rack.
Secondly, any lace or bead work is all done by hand, nothing is sent to Asia for mass production, everything is done by me in my studio and in consultation with my bride. There is a certain quality in a handmade gown that just isn’t there in a mass produced design imported by many of the bridal stores.
Thirdly, I work with my bride to design the perfect gown for her. Usually the girls will come in with a number of clippings and ideas and we work together to come up with something that will match what she has in her head, something that she may have been dreaming about for years.
Lastly, the service the girls get from me as a designer is nothing like that from the sales staff in a bridal store. I liken the whole gown experience to a “mini event” and something that I try and make special, personal and fun from our first meeting.
Andrew: I have photographed plenty of your gowns and I understand that they are all made from silk, is that right?
Kel: That’s right, we import our silk directly from the silk mills in three different countries around the world. The amount of silk in each gown is different and there are different styles of silk that I use depending on the style of dress and the look we are trying to achieve. In a tight fitting or slinky dress I would use about 5-6m of silk and a fuller, larger gown will have up to 15m of silk.
Andrew: What is the usual process that happens when someone comes to you about having a dress designed and made?
Kel: Step 1 is the initial consult where we discuss the design and I’ll mock up some drawings to get a feel for what the client is looking for. At this stage I am usually taking bits and pieces from clippings and thoughts and getting them down on paper. Once I have some information and measurements with a sketch I can put together a quote and this can all be done in the one meeting.
Step 2 is a toile fitting where I have a mock up of the completed dress in calico. This is made up to exact measurements and is fine tuned at this meeting.
Step 3 I take apart the calico dress and this becomes the “one off” pattern for the actual dress.
The next steps are fittings along the way to fine tune the gown to make sure it is perfect for the wedding – there are usually 3-5 fittings once the dress is underway. During this stage I’ll need the bride to have her shoes to get the dress length right.
On the day of the wedding I will try and be at the brides home to help her into the dress and make sure that everything is just the way it should be. This is the best time for me – I get to see my bride with hair and make up done and wearing one of my creations. Nothing beats this moment.
NOTE: Kel can only attend one wedding in a single day so the dressing service is available to first in, best dressed (ha, pardon the pun).
Andrew: So what about prices Kel, what do most girls spend on a gown from you?
Kel: My gowns start at $2000 but on average, most girls will spend between $3000 and $4000.
Andrew: What dictates the price of the gowns?
Kel: There are a number of considerations including the design, the type of silk and how many metres are needed for the style, how many hours of hand work are required, lace and bead work – one gown I recently completed had 4 months of bead work!
Andrew: Four months! So how much notice do you need if someone wants you to create their gown?
Kel: If I have 12 months that’s great, perfect, 6 months is ok and anything less than 6 months is tough.
Andrew: What would you say to someone that was considering a wedding gown off the rack?
Kel: Most girls are under the misconception that “off the rack” will automatically be cheaper but fail to consider any alterations and fitting problems that commonly arise. Often these gowns are imported from overseas factories and delivery times can leave girls very stressed as the wedding date gets closer.
When purchasing from a bridal outlet you must ask about the cost of hemming, alterations like taking in or letting out as they are often not disclosed at the time of purchasing.
Remember that the sales assistants are driven by one thing only – sales.
With my girls, I will discuss how certain styles will enhance a figure, what will work with their best features, what they may want to cover up, skin tones, dress colour and above all, a one off design that will be a perfect fit for their dream day. I want their day to be perfect and I love to be such a big part of that day. After all, it’s my dress in all the photos that will be remembered above all else.
Andrew: What about alterations to store bought gowns, can you do that? And do you cater for bridesmaids as well?
Kel: I am happy to take on any alteration work depending on my workload with my designs and prices start at $300 for these. I often design dresses for the bridal party but to make it more economical I really need a minimum of 3 dresses. The average prices for these dresses is between $400 and $450.
Andrew: Looking around your studio there are plenty of shoes, jewellery and accessories on display – are they to give the girls ideas of what works with the gowns?
Kel: Yes, plus they are all part of the service. I design all the jewellery myself and carry a large selection of bridal shoes and catalogues for anything I don’t have in stock.
Andrew: Thanks heaps Kel, it’s been fun as usual. All I need now are contact details if anyone wants to get in contact with you and a few snaps for the blog.
Kel: Oh no, not photos, I hate photos, this is the worst part, do I need to, really, no – just photograph my gowns, you have plenty of photos of brides – use them. Ok, ok – where should I stand.
Andrew: How about the contact details first…
Kel: Oh yeah, the best numbers are the studio (02) 4329 7610 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Well I hope you got something out of my first ever interview – I certainly learnt a few things about the couture and what goes into each gown. One thing that doesn’t come across in the text is how much fun Kel is. She is a total laugh and you are guaranteed a great experience if you are lucky enough to have her as your designer. And a great experience is exactly what you should have with your wedding. You only do it once.