Belle Couture

Brides today have more choices than ever before; there are destination weddings, pre-honeymoon getaways, eco-friendly invitations and even couture gowns to fit the unique wishes of a bride-to-be. Ladies looking to have a dress made just for them can visit a custom gown designer and select every last detail, from cut to color to embellishment. A good designer can steer a bride toward the gown that’s best for her, working with the bride’s budget and taste to create a one-of-a-kind masterpiece to ensure she is the most beautiful girl in the room.

Most designers recommend allowing at least six months for the entire process but as every bride knows, good things come to those that wait. This period allows time for the designer to conceptualize the gown with the bride, taking time to select fabric and embellishment and to take the woman’s measurements.

The designer’s next step is to craft a muslin version of the gown. A muslin is like a first draft of the gown, made of inexpensive fabric. This is made to show a bride what her gown will look like off the page and allow for changes. The muslin is eventually used as a pattern for the final gown. After the muslin is fit, the designer will proceed with construction of the gown and the bride-to-be comes in to have one more fitting and inspect her dress. Many designers will also recommend leaving enough time for a
third fitting, especially if the bride plans to, or is in the process of, losing weight.

And that’s just for the bride! The bride-to-be must also choose color and construction of gowns for her bridesmaids and yet another figure of honor, the mother of the bride. If she chooses, a bride can also have these gowns made by a couture designer to create a unique look for her bridal party.

A woman might think she would need to venture to a fashion capital like Paris or New York to find a talented designer but there are great options right here in New Orleans. Suzanne Perron is one such designer, specializing in the incorporation of vintage, family and heirloom lace and detailing through fabric manipulations such as pin tucking, shirring and bias bandings. Perron has been perfecting her craft for almost her entire life.

“When I was 5 years old I learned to sew,” she says. “My mother and my grandmother both sewed and were very talented in design and construction.” Perron continued in her field, attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and working for renowned designers such as Carolina Herrera, Anna Sui and Chado
and Vera Wang. She started her bridal business here in New Orleans just last year.

“I am known for beautifully designed flattering silhouettes – designs that are unique, ethereal, romantic and feminine,” she says. “I collaborate with the client from sketch to finished garment. My goal is to create a gown complementary to the bride’s personality, style and body type.” Perron takes a classic approach when designing her bridal gowns. She begins by meeting with a potential client and discussing factors such as the location and formality of the wedding. After sketching and discussing fabrics, Perron measures the woman and goes about the arduous task of creating the muslin gown.

“The gowns are built from the inside out, beginning with a boned foundation and crinoline. [Then] a muslin gown that goes over the foundation is stitched,” Perron says.

“The muslin stage is true to the art of haute couture,” she notes. Perron says she’s among the few true couture designers in the country and adds that her work follows the lead of a legendary figure in fashion.

“I am continuing in the tradition of true haute couture started by Charles Fredrick Worth in Paris in the 19th century … He was the first of the couturiers, dressmakers considered artists rather than mere artisans,” Perron says. Perron offers a few pieces of very good advice for brides looking to have couture gowns made.

“I encourage clients to try on gowns at retail. This allows a bride to see what silhouettes work well for them,” she says. “If they find the dress of their dreams, they should buy it! A custom gown takes time and effort and if they are happy with something in the market, I would recommend buying it.”

For those who can’t find the gown of their dreams at a retail shop, Perron has further advice. “I encourage clients to start a file of pictures of gowns or design elements that they like,” she says. Designer Judy Cobb, owner of Alice Designs, offers similar advice, suggesting brides look through books and pictures, and try on dresses to formulate ideas. Like Perron, Cobb has a great deal of experience in the
design field. Cobb worked with Alice de Pass for 20 years and after de Pass retired, Cobb chose to keep the shop going. “[I] learned through apprenticeship,” Cobb says of her training.

Cobb now works solo, creating custom gowns for brides, mothers of the bride, debutantes and even Mardi Gras queens. While she and de Pass used to design ready to wear items as well, Cobb now focuses solely on custom design. Like many couture designers, Cobb works by appointment only. She focuses on designing gowns that will make the bride as beautiful as can be. Of her designs, Cobb says, “I make sure to try to design something that is best and most flattering to [the
client’s] figure.”

“Sometimes people have something set in their mind and you have to change their mind for them,” she laughs. Aurora C. Cox of Aurora’s Custom Couture also focuses
greatly on the customer; in fact, that’s part of the reason she started her fashion business. She is self-trained and explains her roots in fashion, saying humbly, “it all started from not being able to afford the kind of clothing I like to wear.” Cox arrived in New Orleans from Honduras in 1967 and made her first dress for a client after being approached by a woman who asked where she found her dress. When Cox said
she crafted the dress herself, the woman asked if she could purchase one like it.

“Here I am 40 years later,” she says. Cox, like Cobb, works alone, sewing and beading all of her garments by hand.

“At one point I had as many as 12 people working with me but it was between that, my sanity and raising my children,” she laughs. Cox says fabric choice is important, noting the benefits of natural versus synthetic fabrics. “[Natural fabrics] are easier to work with and they breathe better,” she says. Cox is not alone in emphasizing the
importance of working with quality fabrics. In fact, for one local designer, quality natural fabrics are the center of her business. Supreeya Scarmuzza’s Vanda specializes in Thai silk, a fabric she says is unrivaled among fabrics of its category.

“The climate in Thailand is the best for the silkworm to make threads,” she explains.
Scarmuzza says the resulting fabric has few imperfections, a better sheen and heavier weight than other silks. Scarmuzza, who started her business in 1999, says that in her native Thailand couture gowns are not uncommon.

“You want to create your very own piece,” she says. She also designs bridesmaid and mother of the bride gowns. For a bride working with bridesmaids of many different body types, Scarmuzza spoke of a clever approach to the dilemma.

A bride can select a specific color, then let each bridesmaid consult the designer to come up with a dress that best suits each girl. The goal is to “design something [the women] can wear again,” Scarmuzza says.

When discussing the importance of choosing the perfect fabric, look no further than Herbert Halpern, one of New Orleans’ foremost experts. Halpern left his father’s shop to open his own business in 1968. Halpern’s shop, Promenade Fine Fabrics, specializes in unique, antique and just plain beautiful fabrics.

“We only deal with couturier fabrics,” Halpern says matter-of-factly.

To begin, a wedding gown needs six to 10 yards of fabric, Halpern says.

One of the most popular natural fabrics for wedding gowns is silk, which “is sold like gold,” Halpern explains. There are dozens of varieties of silk (see sidebar) for brides to choose from, with myriad finishes and colors. From fabric to fit, style to silhouette, the modern bride truly has a world of options for creating a dream wedding dress. With a little imagination and the help of a good designer, any bride can be a true belle of the ball, even if only for a day.