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The Perfect Dress 

Tips for choosing the right gown for your wedding

So, he popped the question and you said yes. Congratulations, you now have a world of planning ahead of you. The cake, the guest list, the flowers, the music, the dress ... it all starts to overwhelm. So stop right there and breathe. Before you start pulling out note cards, highlighters and wedding planning software to begin tackling the myriad minutia of your special day, remember that for a bride-to-be, there are really only two decisions that will affect you the most -- one of which you've already made: the man. Now you need to tackle the second: the dress.

"Those are the two things that are meant exclusively for you on your wedding day," says designer Yvonne LaFleur. "Everything else is for everybody else."

For those of you who haven't already scoured wedding magazine ads for years in search of the perfect gown, finding The Dress can seem a little daunting. After all, it's supposed to be one of the most important pieces of clothing you'll ever select. To make the whole process seem a little more manageable, Gambit Weekly sought the advice of New Orleans' best wedding gown coordinators and designers. Our findings? Choosing the perfect wedding dress doesn't have to be a challenge. On the contrary, the wedding couture niche of the fashion industry exists for you, the bride. The best designers and retailers understand that fact, and want nothing more than to shoulder the burden of selection and guide you toward the dress of your dreams. So relax, open the champagne and get ready to feel pretty.

First Things First

Almost all wedding gown experts will agree that after the man and before the dress, a bride needs to settle the when-and-where of her wedding. Perhaps you and your groom decide you want a destination wedding in the Bahamas? That location will most likely rule out all heavy, floor-length gowns. For a winter wedding, you probably won't want a slinky knee-length strapless number.

"The venue and the date can really alter the kind of dress you're looking for," says LaFleur, whose Uptown millinery and boutique Yvonne LaFleur (8131 Hampson St., 866-9666) has been making brides, Mardi Gras queens and everyday fashionistas look fabulous for 37 years.

Once the season and venue are set, the dress should be the very next task, for two reasons. First, aside from your and your groom's personal tastes and the time and place of the wedding, the gown is the keystone for a wedding's look.

"You have to have your man, you should know your venue, and then you have to have the dress, because everything else revolves around the dress," says Elaine Schulman, owner of the family-run Metairie store Pearl's Place (3144 Severn Ave., Metairie, 885-9213).

Secondly, most brides need to allow several months to receive their dress. According to Kelly Van Zandt, Vera Wang Coordinator for the Magazine Street boutique Mimi (5500 Magazine St., 269-6464; www.miminola.com), obtaining a high-demand designer gown like a Vera Wang is usually an eight-month process.

"It takes about six months for the dress to come in, at least, and then another two months for alterations," says Van Zandt. "Plus, a month before your wedding, you don't want to be worrying about, 'Is my dress in? Is it ready?' That should be checked off the list so that you can worry about other things, like the caterers and the flowers."

Of course, choosing a designer who distributes to fewer shops will result in a shorter arrival time for your gown. Pearl's Place in Metairie is a veritable wedding superstore, carrying a wide range and high capacity of styles and designers -- including Angel Sanchez, who outfitted several celebrities at this year's Academy Awards. Typically, their gowns only take three to four months to arrive.

Wedding Gown Criteria

As for broad criteria to address when searching for a gown, LaFleur says there are only two concerns to keep in mind: "First, you want to knock the guy's socks off. Second, it's about how you want to be perceived as a woman."

LaFleur, a stunningly chic woman of nearly 60, seems to have based her success in wedding-gown design and retail on her deep understanding of the inherent romanticism of a wedding dress. A bride presenting herself to her groom and the world on her wedding day is a defining statement of her femininity.

For that reason, LaFleur considers it her mission to find the dress that fits a bride's personality, style and figure, even if it isn't what a bride originally conceived of as her ideal gown.

"Often, people come in with a picture of a dress that's been professionally photographed with a beautiful model, and they don't realize that maybe it won't look good on their body," LaFleur says. "So it's my job to help guide them to a dress that will look good on them. Maybe that's not the best sales approach, but I really do try to dress people beautifully. I think that's very important, that people buy something that looks good on them and not just in a magazine."

Pearl's Place and Mimi echo the same emphasis on helping a bride find "the dress of her dreams." As for criteria in choosing a dress, they both say price range is the most concrete. Schulman advises brides to choose a price range before they walk into a bridal boutique so that their imagination doesn't run wild.

Pearl's Place says it has dresses anywhere from $300 to $10,000. LaFleur's gowns -- all her own label -- vary from $800 to $3,000. In the upper-end bracket are the Vera Wangs. According to Van Zandt, gowns start at around $3,000 and go as high as $15,000. (Keep in mind, however, that price doesn't necessarily correspond to quality. Few doubt that a Vera Wang is a high-quality dress, but buying one also means buying a name.)

Most retailers include alterations in the price of the dress, as do Pearl's Place and Yvonne LaFleur. (LaFleur can also hand-make shrugs and sashes for free.) For a Vera Wang gown, however, alterations are a separate service that costs between $400 and $600.

Consider the Shape

Aside from price, many consultants like Van Zandt use shape as a beginning guideline for narrowing down the selection pool. Typically, gowns operate in four basic shapes:

A-line. An A-line dress is a tried-and-true form that is fitted through the bodice and top of the hips to gently flare out in the shape of an "A." This style is probably the most uniformly flattering for different body types, especially pear-shaped or heavy women.

Mermaid. A true mermaid shape is fitted from the top down to the knees or mid-calf and flares out like a mermaid's tail, but has many possibilities for modification. This shape looks great on slim builds because it adds curves, so women with larger derrieres might want to look for another alternative.

Ballgown. A ballgown shape is like an A-line but flares at the waist, producing a much fuller skirt. It is generally recommended for taller women, as the small bodice and high skirt visually shorten the wearer's figure.

Sheath. Lastly, sheath dresses employ usually thin, slinky fabrics to create a figure-hugging shape meant for well-toned bodies. Both LaFleur and Van Zandt agree that the sheath shape is great for either outdoor destination weddings or older brides.

Of course, there are exceptions. Van Zandt and Schulman both point out that the shape criterion is more of a starting point for brides who have no idea what they want than a set rule for what certain bodies should wear. After all, the three experts agree, a bride's gown is all about what she wants to make her feel like the most beautiful woman in the world on her wedding day.

"The idea that someone with a certain shape shouldn't wear such-and-such, that doesn't hold true," Schulman says. "You can say, 'Don't wear strapless,' but then you try on a strapless and it looks great. ... The important thing is to come in with an open mind and let our professional consultants help you find the dress of your dreams."

click to enlarge Angel Sanchez, who designs wedding gowns for the stars - and outfitted celebrities for the Academy Awards, created - this dramatic beige lace gown with a sheer midriff, available - at Pearl's Place.
  • Angel Sanchez, who designs wedding gowns for the stars and outfitted celebrities for the Academy Awards, created this dramatic beige lace gown with a sheer midriff, available at Pearl's Place.
click to enlarge This strapless mermaid silhouette gown from Yvonne - LaFleur is made of silk and has Alecon lace at the border, - a fishtail train and a silk sash. It's worn with a traditional - Mantilla veil, a freshwater pearl necklace and a brooch at - the hip, all from Yvonne LaFleur.
  • This strapless mermaid silhouette gown from Yvonne LaFleur is made of silk and has Alecon lace at the border, a fishtail train and a silk sash. It's worn with a traditional Mantilla veil, a freshwater pearl necklace and a brooch at the hip, all from Yvonne LaFleur.
click to enlarge Yvonne LaFleur helps a bride get the perfect fit in a silk - gown with a basque waist and strapless bodice attached - to a flowing skirt with a self-train and elegant buttons - down the back designed by LaFleur for her Exclusive - Bridal & Debutante Collection.
  • Yvonne LaFleur helps a bride get the perfect fit in a silk gown with a basque waist and strapless bodice attached to a flowing skirt with a self-train and elegant buttons down the back designed by LaFleur for her Exclusive Bridal & Debutante Collection.
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