I first met Helen when we worked together at David Lawrence (RIP) in the early 2000s. At the time, I was studying Law and Helen was studying Fashion Design, but despite our different choices of career path we hit it off and I have many happy memories of working alongside her. She taught me about the further reductions on sale stock at Country Road, which was extremely handy for the poor student I was.
I left David Lawrence for my first job as a law clerk, and Helen duly went on to finish her degree at Massey. Following some genius advice from a tutor in her final year, she decided to become a bespoke wedding dress designer. While I’m not in the market for a wedding dress (if I buy one, alert the authorities because I’m about to do a Mrs Rochester), I am fascinated by the work and care that goes into them, so I thought I’d pay Helen a visit and learn about her experience and what, exactly, is involved in bridal gown design.
Helen describes her business as her dream job, saying that it doesn’t feel like work. She started designing gowns when she was just 24 years old, and laughs when she recalls that she had “no clue” about business when she first began her business. When I was 24 I was a baby lawyer with senior oversight on all the work I did; meanwhile, Helen was over here making incredible one of a kind gowns like the boss she was. While she started in a space in Newtown, a few years ago she moved into her current space in the Mibar building in town, which was chosen to make it more convenient for brides to pop in for fittings during the week.
In a manageable wedding season, Helen will make around 20 dresses – but in one particularly busy season she managed 27. That’s hundreds of buttons sewn on by hand! And, more importantly, that means Helen has made dozens of totally unique wedding dresses over the years. In among the usual choices by brides there are always a few showstopper dresses, and Helen tells me she loves rising to the challenge of a dress that needs a bit of engineering or creative problem solving in order to make exactly what a bride has envisioned. She even has a trouser suit coming up this season.
Bridal design is one of those areas where the experience relies hugely on the relationship between the designer and the client. It’s a two-way street: the client needs to be really clear on what they want (and can afford), and Helen needs to be able to get out of them a vision of what they feel beautiful and happy in. Keep in mind that most brides meet Helen 12 months before the wedding, and that she spends between six and nine months building the perfect gown, and you start to get a sense of just what’s involved. Every bride is different, but Helen’s goal with each one is the same – a happy bride, wearing something on their wedding day that reflects what their wedding means to them. She’s even been invited to a few weddings along the way!
The landscape for small businesses designing wedding gowns is no different to that of many small businesses across New Zealand, with a shift away from traditional media like bridal magazines due to the rise of Pinterest and Instagram. As a result, Helen doesn’t tend to advertise in magazines, but relies on word of mouth. We’ve all experienced the cascade of weddings that follows one couple getting engaged, and that means that Helen gets to work with extended groups of female friends as they all go to one another’s weddings or – in some cases – wear bridesmaid dresses made by Helen and then decide to have her make their wedding dress, too.
However, the Pinterest and Instagram effect has a downside, too. In a world where bespoke tailoring is unusual, the biggest issue confronted by Helen’s brides is a gap between budget and dreams. Helen feels the average budget for a wedding dress has dropped from when she first started. With women used to buying clothes off the rack (and, as a result, not always being aware of how clothes can and should fit), it can be a hard road to explain why a dress costs as much as it does. The fabrics in a Pinterest post look that good because they’re luxury fabrics – with a luxury price tag – and those brides look amazing because the inside of that dress is, essentially, architecture. Women are amazed to learn how good they can look in a dress that’s made just for them with boning and carefully placed details, and I bet there’s been more than one woman who’s put on her normal clothes the day after her wedding and thought – can’t I just have all my clothes made to order? Who can blame them! With a winning combination of beautiful craftsmanship and a focus on relationships, having a dress made by Helen is an absolute treat.