Black bridal designers have been at the forefront of innovation in the bridal fashion industry for years, yet many of them have failed to receive the recognition that they deserve. Most famously, when Ann Lowe, a Black woman who created gowns for debutantes and society brides, designed Jacqueline Bouvier’s gown for her wedding to John F. Kennedy in 1953, Ms. Bouvier described the designer as “a colored dressmaker” rather than offering her name. In an industry that has often left out people of color, these Black wedding gown designers continue to make waves in bridal fashion with showstopping, intricately designed gowns for all.
Jean-Ralph Thurin rose from rags to riches when he launched his own design house in 2013. He learned to sew by carefully studying his grandmother piece together bits of fabric to make clothing. Mr. Thurin began tinkering with her technique, moving on from those bits of fabrics to layers of chiffon and organza to create prom dresses for his friends. When he reached the Parsons School of Design in New York, Mr. Thurin found a home for himself surrounded by tulle, silk and crystals that he fabricates into elaborate one-of-a-kind wedding gowns.
“I’ve always had a love for couture,” said Mr. Thurin, who was influenced by Oscar de la Renta and Christian Dior. “Designing wedding gowns affords me the opportunity to have this experience over and over again.”
Mr. Thurin’s career hasn’t been without trials, however. The bridal industry isn’t different than other fields when it comes to racial disparity.
“I think the nuance with the bridal industry is that there are just a handful of designers who dominate the field, leaving very little room for new designers, let alone Black designers,” Mr. Thurin said.
But with his tagline, “Say yes to the sketch,” Mr. Thurin has powered through, meeting with prospective brides individually to create their visions for custom gowns from scratch. One wanted lace that draped over her curves like plastic wrap, leading to a tulle explosion at her knees. Another wanted a Hillary Clinton-inspired white jumpsuit with a semi-sheer lace bodice.
Mr. Thurin enjoys every aspect of dressing his clients, though he’s doing it in a mask these days. Business is picking up since March, and many brides are rebooking for 2021.
Creating wedding gowns is all about stepping into someone’s fantasy, so each dress is developed with a story in mind, according to Stephanie White.
“Each silhouette,” she said, “stands out so differently from the next because they were created and designed specifically by moments that are connected to the entire theme.”
Ms. White is so drawn to the fairy-tale theme that she often refers to her favorite C.S. Lewis quote: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
It’s no surprise then, that Ms. White’s gowns take on an ethereal, dreamy quality. One gown even has wings.
As a Black designer in a primarily white industry, Ms. White’s fantasies haven’t always been accepted, but she realized early on that she can’t design to appease the industry. Instead, she creates for the women who resonate with her vision regardless of color, size or sexual platform.
In the wake of the pandemic, Ms. White has been pivoted to transform dresses to accommodate intimate ceremonies. She is also working on bridal boxes that can be shipped with current styles for home fittings.
Before her own wedding in 2015, Leah Langley-McClean was an accountant with a passion for fashion. Her frustration with finding a dress she loved that embraced all her curves, led her to design and sew her own couture gown. As soon as she danced down the aisle in her creation, Ms. Langley-McClean realized that this was what she was meant to do.
“Some designers are frightened at the sheer thought of creating something for such a special occasion; the pressure is really on,” Ms. Langley-McClean said. “I, on the other hand, love that aspect of it.”
Ms. Langley-McClean’s gowns are sleek and modern, and tend to be created for curvier women. Her expertise lies in her ability to emphasize a curvaceous figure, while also creating the ideal dress shape.
Not everyone in the bridal industry has taken to her gowns, and Ms. Langley-McClean is frustrated with how difficult it is for Black designers to be added to the roster at bridal salons. She said that while there are plenty of great Black bridal designers, there are few to none represented in non-Black-owned bridal shops.
“We’re still struggling to be seen and taken seriously — but on the other side of the coin, that struggle has resulted in Black designers creating their own paths and their own bridal shops,” she said.
Which she did 4 years ago in Nashville. Since the pandemic, she has gone virtual, and the majority of her brides rescheduled their weddings. So the plan for now is to enjoy the process and show her collection later this year post-Bridal Fashion Week.
While other children were racing through the playground and watching cartoons, Valentine Avoh could usually be found at home, planted in front of a TV, watching old movies. She was enchanted by glamour, and wanted to be just like Rita Hayworth and Ella Fitzgerald.
It was within these films that Ms. Avoh’s design passion was spurred — and her gowns reflect the sophisticated style of that era.
“I think of my dresses as red carpet pieces, designed to make a strong impression, but more important, they are for all the women who wish to highlight their femininity without compromising ease,” Ms. Avoh said.
Her gowns are covered in feathers, embroidered tulles and silks, and she loves experimenting with transparency.
Ms. Avoh’s career hasn’t been as effortless as her dresses, however. The main obstacle for people of color, she said, is that their fashion is instantly designated into categories.
“Either you were put in the ethnic or street/urban category, no matter what you were creating, just because of the color of your skin,” Ms. Avoh said.
At the moment, 80 percent of Ms. Avoh’s brides have postponed their weddings, so while she waits for business to resume as normal, she is working on the administrative side of her company: updating the website and fine-tuning her communication strategy. She is also participating in a digital bridal show during Bridal Fashion Week.
Born in Nigeria, Yemi Osunkoya could often be found sketching bridal gown designs as a young child. Not much has changed today. Mr. Osunkoya, who started his line in 1991 in London, creates gowns that are embellished with lace, Swarovski crystals and details that make them elegant, classic and a bit over the top. But what really stands out about his gowns is that they’re created for every body shape.
“My unique selling point is my ability to flatter and enhance the figure of my brides by my use of forestry and structured bodices, developed and perfected over my 29 years in business,” Mr. Osunkoya said. Over those 29 years, he’s witnessed how hard it’s been for Black wedding designers to break into the industry. The bridal magazines have been the gatekeepers of bridal images, and if they didn’t showcase Black designers, then the salon owners and brides weren’t aware of their existence, he said.
“Because of this perceived lack of demand,” he added, “their work wasn’t featured and promoted in bridal magazines, and the cycle continued.”
Today, Mr. Osunkoya said, anyone can use social media to tell a story and present gowns directly to brides — and he is active across those platforms.
He’s busier than ever at the moment. Mr. Osunkoya created bespoke reusable face masks, and he’s developing his first ready-to-wear bridal line (previously, his gowns were all custom made). He plans to start the new collection at the virtual New York Luxury Bridal Fashion Show this month, in conjunction with Bridal Fashion Week.
Like many women, Andrea Pitter had been dreaming of wedding gowns since she was a young girl. But unlike other girls, she was fantasizing about creating the dresses rather than wearing them. So at 12 years old, she created the Pantora Bridal brand, describing herself as a “legitimate hustler” who isn’t afraid of failing.
That mind-set led Ms. Pitter to open her first bridal salon, Pantora Bridal, located in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, in 2013 (in 2018 she opened the current location in Bedford-Stuyvesant). Although her boutique was closed in March for four months because of the coronavirus pandemic, she was still able to accommodate her clients with virtual appointments.
Ms. Pitter who is no stranger to fighting for her business, shared that her road to becoming a salon owner had not been easy. “It is a very expensive industry to break into, and it is very hard for Black entrepreneurs to get funding, convince landlords to take a risk on their vision and so on,” she said.
Her vision was to create a brand that was inclusive to all women, so her size chart is truer to street wear sizing than the bridal industry standard. Ms. Pitter’s brides are known to show off their curves with all the trimmings like lace, bling, and her very own “Forgotten Skin Tone” mesh, a selection of illusion and mesh linings created for brides of color.
“My aesthetic is the pairing of classic silhouettes with modern textiles and overly glamorous details,” Ms. Pitter said. “I love the human form, all shapes, all sizes: I love decorating it without detracting from it.”