Commissioning a gown for your big day

Where to start and what’s involved
in creating your bespoke wedding dress

More crucial than the church, more exciting than the gift list, more thrilling than the most exotic honeymoon, the right dress, for most brides, comes second only to the right groom in terms of what makes the ideal wedding. But finding the perfect gown can sometimes feel like an impossible task. Yes, there are thousands out there to choose from, but what looks good in the showroom or in photographs or on your best friend might look and feel far less appealing on you. Too simple, too frou-frou, too intricate, too dramatic, too modern, too old-fashioned… finding the right dress is a minefield, and what should be a pleasure can turn into a shopping nightmare.

One solution is to have a dress designed especially for you. It may sound extravagant but can actually be less expensive than you might think, with the added bonus of being utterly unique, fitting you perfectly and suiting you down to the ground – thanks to expert advice from the designers themselves.

“On the initial consultation we find out what suits you best, and how to make the most of your figure while minimising any problem areas,” says Lorna Forbes of Exclusively Yours. “Then we’d consider the dress in relation to the venue. They have to complement each other – a short Hollywood number wouldn’t work in a medieval castle, for example.”

The bride’s wishes are the starting point in any design. “We ask the bride how she pictures her perfect wedding dress,” says Mette Baillie of Freya Designer Dressmaking. “From there, we come up with designs plus suggestions for the most suitable fabrics. Then we make a toile, which is a mock-up of the dress in a basic fabric, before we make the ‘real’ dress. It’s a lovely process, with the bride at the centre all the time.”

If you can’t describe what you’re looking for, most designers are happy to look at sketches or photographs of possible options. “Copying other people’s looks is a big no-no, but we can be inspired by other dresses,” says Moira Withers of Glitterati. “Sometimes brides will bring in pictures with aspects of dresses that they like – that’s good from my point of view, as it gives me the vocabulary of the look that she likes. I can then talk her through how to create that look.”

Bridal couturier Gwen Russell is also happy to lead brides through the creative process. “A lot of the time they know what they want and a lot of the time they don’t,” she says. “But I use the initial consultation to get to know who they are, what they like, what they don’t like, and what the wedding dress has to go through on the day. Once those two hours are over, I pretty much know where we’re going with the gown.”

The cost of the final dress depends on the fabric, says Lorna Forbes of Exclusively Yours. “If you choose a fabric at £110 per metre and the dress needs ten metres of it, you’ve spent over £1000 on fabric alone. But if you go for something at £30 a metre, and the dress needs just three metres, you’ve only spent £90. That’s what many brides really like about this process – they feel they are in charge of these costs every step of the way.”

Moira Withers of Glitterati agrees. “The first question we ask is not ‘How much money do you have to spend?’. We would rather find the perfect style for you and then, if it’s over-budget, we’d look at alternative fabrics. Taffeta and silk are the most expensive, but if you’re happy to go for an imitation silk, that’ll bring the cost down. It means we can create the gown without compromising on the look our prices for made-to-measure start at around £850.”

Some designers charge more than that, but insist it is money well spent: “You’ll have your dream dress, one that is yours alone,” says Liliana Dabic of La Novia Couture. “There are so many ready-to-wear dresses on the market at great prices, but if you want to be individual, it’s a nice thing to do. I’d say you’d have to spend £2000-plus if you want something really beautiful.”

One big cost saving is that there will be no alterations to pay for. What might seem like an inexpensive off-the-peg dress can quickly blow your budget when a dressmaker has to rework it to fit you correctly – and nearly every dress will need altering, as Lorna Forbes of Exclusively Yours explains: “Most shop bought dresses are designed for people that are 5ft 8in or over – several inches taller than the average British woman. The proportions of neck-to-waist and waist-to-hem will be out, with the waistline in the wrong place. Alterations can be hugely expensive, as sometimes a dress is essentially remade.”

Couturier Gwen Russell offers an extra bonus: “Although I don’t have anything under about £3000, it can be more cost-effective than buying off-the-peg because I create gowns that can be utilised after the wedding. If you’re going to spend thousands of pounds on a gown, it’s good to be able to use at least part of it again. My corsets are normally separate from the gown so they can be worn again – they look fantastic with a black evening skirt or black trousers and a jacket. I try to make them as versatile as possible.”

Creating a hand-made gown is an intensive, time-consuming process and most designers would prefer to have at least six months from first consultation to final fitting, though nothing is set in stone. “Timescale very much depends on the bride,” says Gwen Russell. “I have had brides come to me just four weeks prior to the wedding. But because I worked in film and theatre for so long, I’m used to turning things around quickly. Six months, with a minimum of three or four fittings, is better, though.”

Grace Lindsay of Lindsay Fleming Couture agrees that timing is crucial, as there is a lot to do to ensure a perfect fit. “We’d prefer to take your measurements no more than six months before the wedding to reduce the effect of any weight gain or loss. In a perfect world, the final fitting would take place four weeks before your wedding.”

In the end, what sways most brides who take the made-to-measure route is the knowledge that they’re getting something utterly unique – and which they’ve had a hand in creating: “I’m basically bringing out in the bride a little something she didn’t know was there,” says Gwen Russell. “That’s the joy of a couture dress and taking her on that journey: she has a gown she knows intimately because she has been part of creating it.”

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