When we set out to launch our own plus size wedding dress collaboration last year, in partnership with Lace & Liberty, I think the general vibe around the office was:
I figured we’d gather data, come up with designs, have a smart marketing plan, and boom! Fashion line. A year later, we have a collection we’re incredibly proud of (which you can see right here), but it was a huge learning process for us.
When Meg and I attended a talk about starting your own clothing line at Alt Summit a couple months ago (long after we embarked on this journey), we learned that, unbeknownst to us at the time, we’d chosen the most arduous and time-consuming way to dip our toes into the world of fashion. Instead of coming up with a line of quirky T-shirts with low overhead or fun wedding-party accessories (which now sounds like a very good idea), we chose the kind of project that involves patterns and samples and lots and lots of trial and error. Oh, and pricey fabrics, too, so the margin for error is high stakes. Naturally.
That said, our actually-pretty-hard-to-make plus size wedding dress collection is one of the projects our staff and our readers were most excited about. So we thought that today, we’d give you a little peek into the process of how just one dress came to life, and what creating a plus size wedding dress from scratch really looks like.
Designing A Legend-Ary Dress
If you recall, part of our project involved creating a custom gown for one of Meg’s lifelong BFFs, Gina. Gina had struck out in her dress shopping, even at the plus-size friendly boutiques (the industry is broken, y’all). So, we invited her to create a custom wedding dress with Lace & Liberty, so that we could have some firsthand feedback from an actual bride in our design process. And because she had been a little burned by wedding dress shopping already, we really wanted her to feel that when it came to design, she was in the driver’s seat.
We started by talking to Gina about what didn’t work with the dresses she’d already tried on. Aside from the fact that a size eighteen is just not something many bridal salons carry, the main problem she encountered was twofold: either she found stylish dresses that weren’t designed for curves (think: creating back fat where there otherwise was none, plus no place to put a bra), or she found plus size dresses that made her feel frumpy. Like, all-the-way-covered-up frumpy, and not at all glamorous.
So, we talked about ways that we could give Gina a sexy dress with creative support structures. That means doing things like giving her dress a lace back, so it would still show some skin and feel good, but offer the support of fabric. We also spent a lot of time working with the Lace & Liberty team on creating an interior support corset that would be supportive, flattering, and comfortable.
And then, we went into design. Gina wanted a dress that was romantic, in a Renaissance-y, high-fantasy-novel kind of way. Her exact inspiration was the 1985 Tom Cruise movie, Legend, which is why we love her. (I think this may be the specific image she sent to Danielle and Annie of Lace & Liberty.) After several back-and-forth emails between Gina and the Lace & Liberty team, we were able to fly her up to San Francisco to see what they’d dreamed up on paper.
Leather & Lace (Just Kidding, Only Lace)
If you’ve ever walked into a wedding dress shop and asked yourself what could possibly make one dress cost $5,000 and another one $1,000, I can now tell you it’s mostly about fabric and structure, not design. Which is why the next part of the process involved picking fabrics for Gina’s dress. I know we all like to pretend that wedding dresses can only be made from, like… two different fabrics in varying shades of white, but even if you stick to a sort of traditional, light-colored dress, there are way more options to choose from than stark white satin. There are other shades of off-white, of course, but also the not-white fabrics, lace, tulle, net, and metallics, all of which lend different textures and style to the finished garment.
To make sure Gina ended up with something she absolutely loved, Lace & Liberty’s lead designer, Annie, whipped up sketches for two totally different designs. (We eventually made samples of both, but I’ll get to that in a minute.) The first design was a direct reflection of the dress Gina had in her head: a scoop-neck lace design with buttons up the front (Gina really wanted buttons). That’s the one Annie’s hand is on below:
The second design was more about the essence of Gina’s style: a V-neck dress with sheer sleeves and a romantic lace around the neckline and arms (which you can see just under Annie’s arm, above.) Even though the basic shapes of the dresses were pretty similar (fitted bodice, A-line skirt), the overall designs were very different.
And then there’s lace. Man, y’all. You have no idea what a difference lace makes in how a dress looks. (I mean, you probably do. But still.) And there are so many options! We talked about whether or not a lace like this would look vintage romance, or just old fashioned:
Gina and Annie also talked about overlays and underlays (aka, placing tulle over lace to make the lace a little more subdued).
And then we played with a few fabrics that we loved, but which were very, very expensive:
Have you even shopped for wedding dress fabric if you don’t feel it with your face?
Expectation vs Reality: A tale of Buttons
Once we fine-tuned the illustrated designs, Lace & Liberty sent them out to their factory to have samples made. One of the most surprising parts of designing our collection was discovering just how much happens between a sketch and a sample dress (which is exactly what it sounds like: a sample design but not necessarily the final). I always thought that there was some kind of secret code that accompanied a sketch, and the factory would magically transform what’s on paper into the exact dress you had in your head. Turns out that code is called a pattern (which I’d heard of, of course, but had never created). Usually, a pattern is developed based on the sketch, taking a lot of work and trial and error—and typically, it’s a key part of the process. But since we were under a time crunch, we went straight to sample dresses and skipped pattern-making entirely. The factory was able to make sample dresses for us based just on the sketches (with a lot of middle-of-the-night-in-California calls to Danielle at Lace & Liberty), and eventually, it was time for Gina to try on two different sample dresses.
You know how we’re always telling you to go outside your comfort zone when dress shopping? Well, it’s not because we have some secret pact with the WIC to turn you into a giant cupcake. It’s going on the fact that, more often than not, most of us are not used to wearing anything like a wedding dress. And what you thought you were going to love when you walked into the salon might actually sit on your body in a way you didn’t expect. And the thing you never thought you’d want ends up being the thing you love. And that’s exactly what happened with Gina.
When she tried on the scoop-neck dress with the buttons, she was initially really into it. (Minus the buttons. Those really didn’t work. Who knew?) It was the dress she had in her head, and the folx at Lace & Liberty had translated it to near-exact specs.
But then, she tried on the second dress.
Everyone in the room knew the second dress was made for Gina. She didn’t look like some bridal Barbie version of herself, or a little kid playing dress-up in her mom’s closet. She looked like her normal self, but fancier. Still, it was hard to let go of the idea she’d had in her head. Which I think is a story a lot of us can relate to. It took going to dinner, and having a drink, before she suddenly realized: OMG, it’s the second one. There were still a few minor adjustments to be made before she could take it home, but it was the right dress.
And if you’re wondering why you keep hearing that you should order your wedding dress six months in advance of your wedding, here’s what I’ll tell you: this whole process, from start to finish, took seven months—and that was us moving as quickly as possible. And this is what Gina looked like on her wedding day:
The final dress included a few alterations, bringing the neckline up slightly and the arms in tighter. And I’m obsessed with the lace back they gave her final gown.
Going into this process, I knew that wedding dresses could take many forms. But I think what surprised me the most is how much variation you can get from the same inspiration. And how the idea you have in your head isn’t always the most accurate representation of the thing you want. Also, lace sleeves are always a good idea.
P.S. If you want to see the updated version of Gina’s other dress (the one she didn’t wear) you can check it out right here. Gina’s actual dress will be available as part of our collection later this year.