Here Comes the Bride: Santa Fe’s Wedding Gown Designers | - March 13, 2008

When it comes to finding that once-in-a-lifetime wedding dress, Santa Fe has got the goods on dream gowns. From traditional to cutting edge, there's incredible diversity to choose from.

Along with custom wedding gowns, the Laura Sheppherd Salon de Couture on Marcy Street offers everything from custom day to evening wear. At the moment she is prepping two luscious gowns to send off to a Dallas debutante and her mother. A thirty-year veteran of the fashion business, Sheppherd is also known as much, if not more, for her custom work for the "mothers of the wedding," as she calls them-the groom's mother as well as the bride's shops there.

She talks about the basics of figuring out the appropriate dress: Are you going to hold the wedding on a beach or in a castle in Europe? Will it be outside in the afternoon or inside in the evening? What season of the year will it be? "The setting makes a difference in how formal you want your gown to be," she explained.

With over 200 colors to choose from and prices ranging from $1,300 on up, Sheppherd develops ideas for a design with a bride, referencing examples from gowns she has on hand. Several designs derive from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and styles run the gamut from demure to lavish. Sheppherd adds embellishment with an eye for exquisitely edited effect: handed-beaded and sequined lace, vintage chenille flowers, even hand-stenciling.

One popular and practical bridal gown choice combines a long skirt with a separate corset top adapted for outerwear, that can be worn afterwards with just about anything else. The corset laces, buttons or hooks up (and even leaves discreet room for gaining a few pounds later on). The boutique also provides shoes, jewelry, veils and headpieces.

The mother of the bride or groom gets to choose from an extensive selection in the boutique, whether it's a 30's-influenced bias-cut silk charmeuse gown or a short chiffon dress with an antique sari jacket. Prices start at $750 and almost all of it is custom order-switching from a skirt to palazzo pants, for instance, or adding a lighter-weight fabric sleeve for a summer wedding.

Sheppherd's best piece of advice for a bride-to-be: Give yourself plenty of time. "Starting on a dress at least six months in advance of the wedding date is best," she said. "If you wait much later, you'll eliminate the choices that you might have had." Her busy time of year for wedding dresses begins in spring and gets particularly hectic in September and October.

Another long-time Santa Fe designer, Lily Falk, creates all-original gowns for every kind of social event you can imagine. At her Lily of the West Haute Couture on East Palace Avenue, a sensational floral chiffon gown stands at the entrance. Intended as an evening dress, "one client loved it so much she chose it to wear to her wedding in the snow," Falk recalls. She makes everything herself, with the help of seamstresses. Prices start at $2,500. Falk says she is known for the "gossamer, flowing feeling" of her designs, which exude an air of romance and diva-ish divine elegance. Her dresses tend to ignore the latest fashions. "My clients want something that expresses them; that's more out-of-the-ordinary," she said. She culls from a collection of fine embroideries and vintage laces to make a bridal dress more unique. The boutique also provides veils.

A prospective bride usually shows up with pictures from a magazine or the Internet of the look she wants to have. Falk consults with her on her preferences, while suggesting ideas for fabrics and a flattering silhouette or fit. She always sketches the final design. Since she often winds up designing dresses and gowns for all the other members of the wedding party too, planning in advance is crucial. She recommends at least six months' lead time, and longer if possible. Falk takes wedding dress orders year-round, though it's much busier summer through fall.

Falk's best piece of advice for a bride-to-be: Make the most of it. "It's one of the most important days of your life, so go the extra mile to get the gorgeous dress you really want. We're such a casual society today that we never get a chance to dress up. It's your chance to shine."

The movement in eco-friendly and organic clothing is becoming significantly more mainstream and upscale. Eco-designer Crystal Miller debuted her Conscious Clothing line in 1995 and was one of the first to move into designing green bridal gowns in 2000. She is just about to leave for "Love is in the Air: the Eco-luxe Bridal Salon" taking place in Los Angeles. In fashionista-land, a show like that could represent a serious turning point for the billion-dollar bridal wear industry.

For Miller, the emphasis is on accountability: where the fabric comes from and how it's raised; even what business stationary she uses. Her bridal gowns are made from a hemp-silk blend fabric with a soft drape which has only become available in the last 12 years. "Hemp traditionally is grown and processed without chemicals," Miller said, making it a hugely attractive fiber in a world awash in synthetics. Her bridal line comes in three hemp-silk blends: a satin weave, a plain weave that looks similar to a matte-finish raw silk, and a jacquard weave with a floral pattern in the cloth ground.

A major part of her sales are on the Internet. "People are ordering from all over the country," Miller said. She has fifteen designs in her ready-to-wear line on her site, and an order takes about three months to fill. Prices are moderate, starting at around $675. She creates custom gowns for local clients by appointment in her studio/ retail space upstairs in the Santa Fe Village. Beginning now, in early spring, orders for Conscious Clothing wedding dresses start heating up and keep her busy until late fall.

Her clients have told Miller they find her designs "timeless" in their simplicity. The mythical-sounding names of her gowns, like "Goddess" and "Mermaid," she believes come from growing up amid old-growth forests around Puget Sound. "I spent all my time in the woods as a kid and now most of them are gone, in my own lifetime," said Miller, who is in her 30s. In response to the growing demand for green gowns, next season she's launching a higher-end line that she says will let her be more creative.

Miller's best advice for a bride-to-be: The perfect wedding dress is out there. "In the years I've watched women going in and out of the dressing room trying on different gowns, you can just see when they've hit the right dress," Miller said. "They hold themselves differently." So keep looking. "It's your biggest fashion moment, and it should be."

Laura Sheppherd Salon de Couture
65 West Marcy Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501

Lily of the West Haute Couture
203 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501

Conscious Clothing
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