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Playing Dress Up

A Former Bride Revisits the Fun of Searching for the Perfect Gown!

by Jolene Rae Harrington, Dir. of Creative Content

[UPDATE: Since this article was originally written, Rumours in Santa Barbara has closed its doors. Daniel Cantu no longer works with his partner, and is designing for a well-known women’s wear company. He still does custom design for private bridal clients. Be sure to browse our other fine Southern California Bridal Salonsfor your own “dress up” experience!]

Jolene Rae Harrington  I shopped for my wedding dress all wrong. With my sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring sparkling on my left hand for all of 2 hours, I found myself walking past a rather unpromising bridal shop. It had a shabby storefront, wigs askew atop faceless mannequins that looked as if they’d been frozen in position since the Eisenhower administration. The gowns they wore weren’t exactly my cup of tea either—bright white polyester with enough sequins to cover the pasties of a whole fleet of showgirls.

But hey, I was engaged, and so against my better judgment I bounced into the salon, vowing to “just look.” The perky, gum-popping teen that passed as a salesgirl seemed so young and innocent, but apparently she’d spotted the dreamy glow in my eyes. Despite my protests, she began to parade in front of me gowns that were out of my league both style-wise and wallet-wise. I hadn’t brought a friend or relative to guide me (mistake #2) so when I spotted it—”the dress”—I allowed her to whisk me into it and thrust me in front of a trio of mirrors. The image reflected back at me was a glamorous creature I didn’t recognize. The gown had a ruched, low-cut bodice, and layers of silk chiffon that hugged my shape before floating into a mermaid hem. I felt like Rita Hayworth, and instantly imagined my dashing groom à la Sinatra in a white dinner jacket and bow tie. The price was right, and before I knew what hit me, I said, “I’ll take it!” Only later, when I was deep into planning my wedding, did I realize that I had bought the first and only wedding dress I had ever tried on.

As I approach my seventh wedding anniversary, I confess to a tinge of regret about the dress. Don’t get me wrong—I still love it, but I missed out on the ritual process of comparison-shopping, of being pampered and flattered by knowledgeable couturiers, of discussing all my options during lunch with my girlfriends. So these days, it’s not unusual to find me lingering over the ads for bridal gowns in magazines, and my car should have a bumper sticker saying, “I brake for bridal salons.” There’s a scene in the Australian film Muriel’s Wedding where the “always the bridesmaid…” lead character, Muriel, is indulging in her favorite hobby. Each weekend she picks a different salon and, pretending she’s a real bride, spends hours trying on the finery. Although Muriel’s desperation is a bit sad, I relate to the pleasure she takes in “playing dress-up,” which I confess was my favorite childhood pastime.

So when I was asked to write an article on wedding gowns, I jumped at the chance to personally browse some of Southern California’s most highly regarded salons. However, Here Comes The Guide’s selection of recommended boutiques numbers almost two dozen, and I had to limit my choices to those that are geographically convenient (sorry, Orange County!). The excursions have not only been informative, but a total blast!

Rachel, Phoebe and Me

articles_altAs a genuine Valley Girl, my first stop has to be Lili Bridals in Tarzana. For 43 years, this family owned and operated business has been dressing bridal parties from all over Southern California and beyond. Lili’s is named for the grandmother of the current proprietor, Lisa Litt. Customers come here for the warm, friendly atmosphere, the excellent service, and the huge selection of formal gowns. I get a kick out of the framed black & white stills from the television blockbuster Friends that hang on the wall behind the front counter—all the gals are dressed in bridal gowns, including a very pregnant Phoebe. Lisa acknowledges that her store is a favorite of costumers, and I think, “If Lili’s is good enough for Rachel and Phoebe, then it’s sure to be a hit with the rest of us!”

Lisa informs me that brides are currently going for non-traditional styles. “I get very few requests for ball gowns or cathedral veils anymore.” With the trend in beach and destination weddings at an all-time high, brides are opting for simpler lines, and they’re not afraid to show some skin. “Strapless is in,” assures Lisa, “or dresses that can convert to strapless.” When I ask Lisa to choose a gown for me to try on, she pulls out a simple silk chiffon number by Sylvain Blanc. Secretly, I am a tad underwhelmed: it looks like nothing on the hangar. Lisa gently urges, “Try it on, you’ll see.” I demur that I’m afraid I can no longer safely wear such a figure-hugging style without revealing the extra poundage that marriage has produced. “It’s cut on the bias,” Lisa explains. “Bias cuts are very flattering to curvy figures.”

I do as she suggests. Va-va-voom! I can’t believe it, but this gown, which has a plunging draped neckline and a low cowl back, is a fantastic fit—asset-enhancing and flaw-reducing. “See? You look marvelous!” she proclaims. I learn an important lesson: trust your consultant—at least the experienced, well-trained ones at the finest salons. They often know which gowns lack hangar appeal but pack a punch on the body.

Also in the shop is a young bride being fitted by a Lili Bridal seamstress. Her cream-colored gown is embellished with tiny embroidered flowers of sky-blue and pink. “Color is showing up more in gown designs,” says Lisa. “Mostly in accents.” Pastel embroidery, a bold ribbon or sash, or Swarovski crystals of amethyst, mint green or pale rose can give a gown a visual lift. Incidentally, the bleached-white look of former decades is way passé. Today’s hues range from off-white all the way to rum pink, with the majority of brides opting for ivory.

From Europe with Love

articles_alt My next stop is the The Montclair Collection, Southern California’s counterpart to the trend-setting designer boutiques of the Left Bank, Chelsea and Milan. Ensconced on Santa Monica’s artsy Montana Avenue, this upscale salon specializes in European haute couture, and its buyers make regular sojourns to Milan and London to purchase the latest styles straight from the runways. Montclair’s keen eye for high-caliber fashion and innovative styles has introduced California brides to some of Europe’s hottest fashionistas, several of whom are represented exclusively at their boutique. That delectable silk dress with gossamer sleeves you saw in a magazine by an Italian designer whose name you can’t pronounce? You just might find it at this Santa Monica gem.

When I ask Montclair consultant Charlene McKay to sum up the difference between European and American stylists, she reflects a moment before answering. “With designers overseas, there’s always a little twist, a special something that makes a gown unique.” Examples I review include a show-stopping paragon of French neo-couture with a train of futuristic twirls, and a romantic satin sheath adorned with a silvery leaf pattern and a sheer chiffon overlay.

Charlene wants to see me in a number by fashion phenom Romona Keveza which characterizes the current focus on striking “rear views.” I love the gown’s creamy satin which skims the body before falling into gleaming folds, as well as the fun, twisted shoulder straps. But what really makes the gown spectacular is the low-cut back, culminating in a chapel train spread to reveal a pyramid of accordion pleats. I feel quite royal. Once I’m back in my casual 21st century apparel, I grow wistful for the days when such sumptuous garb was de rigeur for stylish ladies.

Judy, Judy, Judy

articles_alt  I confess, it was love at first sight when I discovered the creations of Judy Lee Bridal back in the spring of 2002. Apparently, I wasn’t alone, and this talented, personable designer has garnered a loyal following at her swanky new Beverly Hills salon. Her formalwear has been so successful that Judy added bridal gowns to her collection. But don’t be discouraged when you first enter the boutique and see a delicious array of rainbow hues—Judy’s samples are also available in more subtle colors. So browse away and pick the ensemble you like, then request it in “bisque” or “taupe” for the walk down the aisle. Though each gown is made to order and includes all the fittings needed to get the look just right, the majority of Judy’s creations are reasonably priced. And while I’m here, one happy bride is being fitted for her Marilyn Monroe-type halter dress which sets her back less than $1000. Yet Judy doesn’t skimp on quality, and most of her gowns are fashioned in a variety of luxurious silks such as dupioni which is “such a flattering fabric,” she says. “It has a rich luster, and looks good on all figures.” Though most of Judy’s gowns are non-traditional, they’re classic styles enlivened with modern or nostalgic touches. Her fluid silhouettes are almost universally flattering, and details like scalloped lace at the neckline, a beaded mesh overlay on the bodice, or a sheer chiffon shawl edged in satin give the gowns a distinctively feminine appeal.

I flip over Judy Lee’s French-inspired bridal gowns, whose lace-up backs form a relaxed, modified train without much weight or encumbrance. In one creation, a bride becomes a vision of springtime with florets of sage green embroidered on ivory silk; the folds of the train are of the same verdant shade.

Take a walk on the saucier side with Judy’s “New Orleans Dress.” Like many of us gals, it’s a contradicting blend of sexy and sweet. It also laces up corset-style in the back, while in the front, a row of demure buttons and lace trim belies the plunging décolletage. The lace-edged hemline is “shorter in the front than the back,” Judy points out, “to show off the shoes and make it easier to move and dance.” When Judy suggests I try on the New Orleans dress, I am overjoyed. With the addition of an elaborate white filigree choker, I feel like a flirty demoiselle from a bygone era set on capturing the hearts of all the men I encounter. I practically float out of the boutique, humming, “I feel pretty, oh so pretty…”

The Dynamic Duo

Cantu and Castillo On a busy street in Beverly Hills, a stunning landmark Gothic-Revival building boasts an exotic arched entryway, where a red-carpeted footbridge leads over a moat filled with koi. If the creations of the talented Cantu & Castillo are anything like their building, I know I’m in for something extraordinary.

I am not disappointed. The light and bright showroom is quite spacious, and an ornate chandelier makes a bold statement dangling from the high ceiling. It also illuminates a sewing dummy wearing a work-in-progress—a smashing scarlet chiffon cocktail-length dress with a scarf hem, a sparkling bodice and the teensiest of spaghetti straps.

“That’s for Halle Berry, for her next premiere,” says Daniel Cantu as he shakes my hand. Wow. In fact, the custom couture of Daniel and his partner Dolf Castillo has graced the figures of some of the most beautiful people in show business, including Brooke Shields and Jessica Alba, and been featured in W Magazine, In Style and Cosmopolitan, as well as the film American Wedding.

“Style is an attitude,” says Daniel, who prefers setting trends to following them. I am treated to a captivating display of cutting-edge fashions, which includes an impressive variety of wedding gowns: a tailored ivory suit dress, perfect for a jaunt to the Justice of the Peace; a daring ‘20s deco dress of silk chiffon, with a low shirred back and hand-beaded crystals along the front; a romantic ball gown of duchesse satin from Italy, with a satin-faced organza train bustled by a silk corsage. (Faux flowers are blooming on many wedding dresses these days, but the blossoms used by Daniel and Dolf come from vintage molds, with each petal handmade and pressed.) Cantu & Castillo are tops with high-society brides who want to walk down the aisle wearing a masterpiece all their very own. (They’ll also outfit your groom, from tie to tux!)

Daniel and Dolf are passionate about exquisitely finished details and luxurious fabrics, which they import from Europe. They construct their veils of the finest lace, with beaded embroidery that coordinates with the lace of the gown. “See how this net silk tulle from France is hand-finished with flowers?” Daniel hands it to me, and I run my fingers along the scalloped edge, lift the fabric over my head and sneak a peek in the mirror.

The seamstress interrupts us for a moment with a question, and Daniel shows her how he wants a hem folded “just so” over a piece of lace. While such meticulous attention and quality craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap, a Cantu & Castillo creation is actually competitive with some of the mid- to high-range bridal gowns featured in other salons. If you have a handsome budget, then you’ll want to explore the world of custom couture, as realized in this chic design studio.

Santa Barbara Aisle Style

Santa Barbara BridalCentral Coast brides know all about Rumours, the boutique with a reputation for exceptional selection, service and inimitable Santa Barbara style. Like the rest of this casually upscale resort community, the Rumours bride tends to be confident, discerning and individualistic. For denizens of outlying areas, Santa Barbara has plenty to entice day-trippers…so next time you’re enjoying a stroll down picturesque State Street, go ahead and pop into Rumours.

I do just that on one sunny Saturday afternoon. And since this is my last stop on the wedding-dress train, I am determined to make the most of it. Luckily, sales consultants Laurel Adams and Marrie Reaves are all too happy to oblige. A whirlwind tour of the capacious store’s gorgeous offerings culminates in a dizzying cloud of petticoats, veils and   satins as I’m zipped into one wedding dress after another. As each gown transforms me from princess to sophisticate to vamp, I am reminded of how important it is to determine how you want to “feel” at your wedding.

So though I admire the colorful crystals and embroidery on one of the masterpieces by Lazaro I try on, and relish the slimming cut of another Lazaro (truly one of bridal attire’s maestros d’elegance), I personally resonate more with the dresses by fashion’s newest diva, Amy Michelson. Modeled after the formalwear popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the fluid sensuality of these silk dresses makes them as beguiling as fine lingerie. Think Harlow and Bacall, and you’ll get a sense of the what a Michaelson gown can do for you. She also understands that what’s on the inside is as important as what’s on the outside—Laurel and Marrie show me that the gowns are lined with silk charmeuse that caresses your skin and keeps you feeling sexy long after your hairdo begins to wilt.

Upon Reflection

I leave Rumours disappointed that my “adventure in wedding gowns” is finally over. Settling into one of State Street’s trendy cafés, I review the myriad of bridal confections I have seen and worn. Which one would I have selected if I had “shopped right” back in those early days of my engagement? I take some time to mull over the drape of each train, the cut of each bodice, and to consider intangibles such as the effect each dress had on my mood.
Marrie had said to me, “When you find the dress, you’ll say, ‘I love it!’ and you’ll know.” Recalling her words I come to a realization: I had indeed found my dress—seven years ago at a funky shop with lousy service. Fortune smiled on me that day, and it gives me no small measure of satisfaction to conclude that if I had it all to do over, I would still make the same choice.

But I sure wouldn’t mind playing dress-up again real soon…hmmm…anyone need an extra bridesmaid?

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