Style diplomats: Local designers navigate brides’ needs

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July 19, 2013 By Beckie Strum

Brides hopefully know a bit more about what they want in a husband than about what they want in a wedding dress.

“Ninety percent of clients don’t know a thing about what they want,” local Lebanese designer Ronald Abdala said between sips of espresso.

In a country where made-to-order wedding dresses are a common luxury, dress designers are the real veterans of the summer wedding season and offered a wealth of tips ladies should know before heading to the bridal boutique.

Abdala’s off-the-cuff estimate was probably not so far off. He was but one of a handful of local designers who said that when it comes to wedding dresses, they often play diplomat between the bride’s many conflicting needs, wants and pesky outside influences.

“It’s really psychiatry,” Abdala quipped. “We think we should become shrinks.”

The very first step when shopping for a wedding dress is to get to a fitting room and simply try things on.

Abdala felt so strongly about this point that he has sent women away from consultations with the task of trying on dresses in bridal shops. He admitted that in the past, his strategy has lost clients to the lure of ready-made dresses.

He also crafted his tiny, five-dress bridal collection on five completely different dress fits using five different fabrics. He called it his “test tube” collection, so that women coming to him for a wholly unique dress could at least try these to get a sense of what could suit them.

Women commissioning made-to-order wedding dresses have more power than in most other designer-client relationships. But it’s the designer who draws out the personality of a bride and translates that to a garment, four designers told The Daily Star.

“This is not a Halloween costume. You should look like yourself,” Abdala said.

The country’s couture wedding dress industry is the financial backbone of many local design houses, said Mohamed Safieddine, a Paris-trained designer who spent 13 years working in the design houses of John Galliano, Rabih Kayrouz and Zuhair Murad.

April saw the launch of Safieddine’s first independent collection.

“Every designer wishes to have a wedding dress because usually you take in the extended family – the mother of the bride, the bridesmaids – so it becomes a big project,” Safieddine said from his workshop in Ashrafieh’s Sassine neighborhood.

In general, prices for a well-done, made-to-order wedding dress start at $5,000-6,000, he said. Other designers told The Daily Star some dressmakers in the market will create commissioned gowns for less, but only from cheap materials like polyester.

Like Abdala, Safieddine stressed the role of the designer in guiding brides.

“They are very lost, they always say, ‘I don’t know what I want,’” he said. “I’m here to guide her. This is my work, to say ‘Stop, you cannot!’”

For example, a short bride should never have a full, poufy shirt, he said, as he took such dress off a rack in his atelier. The dress, featuring bits of fluttering lace, looked from afar like a mass of delicate feathers and contained 30 meters of tulle in the skirt alone.

The volume of the dress must be proportional to the size of the woman. Larger women, for example, should be conscious that curve hugging dresses often emphasize unflattering body parts like large hips or bellies.

Other wedding elements can dictate the appropriate style of a wedding dress. For Safieddine, short dresses in Lebanon have the same rebellious modernity as civil marriages: “Something really funky and easy to wear,” he said.

Full-length sleeves, an uncommon element that all four designers said they loved, are more appropriate for winter weddings, as is thick opaque silk, they said. Beach and summer wedding often call for dresses with lots of movement.

Even the number of guests affects the appropriateness of a wedding dress. For example, a wedding of more than 500 people deserves a luxurious, statement gown. But a giant wedding dress will look tacky at a modest wedding of 100 people, the designers said.

The four designers who spoke to The Daily Star also unanimously discouraged the use of snow white, preferring to use things like off-whites, creams, pale roses and pastels.

For a previous client, Safieddine even made a dress for a Lebanese-Pakistani wedding featuring unorthodox colors like purple, gold and green.

Sandra Mansour, a relatively new designer on the scene, oversaw an atelier which was bustling with activity and stocked with commissioned works-in-progress.

Mansour had her bit to add regarding wedding dress red lines. She said it’s quite easy for brides to cross over from sexy to vulgar because of a poor dress decision.

“If a client has large hips, for example, I would start the skirt 5 cm above the waist,” Mansour said. “If she has nice shoulders, I would do something strapless.”

Rather than show off the breasts, Mansour said brides can add sex appeal by opening up the back of their dress. Other designers said brides should stay away from the transparent corset, which has become popular to some extent and usually crosses the line to vulgar.

Mansour’s first bridal ready to wear collection features several dresses which keep the neckline modest while playing with transparencies in the skirt, an unconventional way to add a bit of leg without doing away with the full-length gown.

Lebanese brides often come to her wanting a corset, but she said this restricts movement and will prevent the bride from being able to dance naturally.

She’s also working on a method of layering lace that takes the idea of showing the torso in a classier direction. The breasts are covered with opaque sections, while the décolletage and ribs show through ever so slightly. Her general advice: “Don’t do vulgar and don’t do eccentric.”

Eccentricity, or trendiness, will yield the kind of photos to be mocked by future generations. And wedding photos are important, said designer Kirkor Jabotian, as they often become the only memory left from a wedding.

This is the reason why Jabotian despises white-white fabric, which in photography radiates a chemical blue glow and overpowers nearly every skin tone.

Jabotian is well versed in the art of couture diplomacy to steer a bride away from clichés.

“Most of them have the very conventional idea of being Cinderella. They would like to look like a princess. I try and put my own touch to make it less conventional. Flowers, for example, have been used and abused. But it’s about the way you can see them in a wedding dress,” he said.

For example, one of Jabotian’s wedding dresses comprised hundreds of hand-sewn jasmine flowers. Though the basic shape and embellishment were traditional, the texture of final dress gave it a very bohemian look, he said.

For modern women skeptical of the color white’s underlying reference to virginity, Jabotian offered his own redefinition.

His last two collections, titled “Chapter 1” and “Closure,” incorporated only two colors: white and gold. The bridal-heavy collections were the result of a year in which the designer faced a number of obstacles that wound up as creative release.

For him, the use of white symbolized a blank slate and a new beginning, something a bride can easily relate to on her wedding day.

Ultimately, Jabotian said the most important quality of a wedding dress is that the bride loves it: “If she loves the dress, directly the dress will look even better.”

Written by

Beckie Strum