While we all have different tastes and opinions on weddings, one thing is true: A wedding dress is something special. It’s an outfit many women spend a lifetime dreaming about and, most often, it’s the highly-anticipated pinnacle of the wedding ceremony itself (besides those I Dos).
For bridal gown creator Gretchen Dawley, a wedding dress is something else, too. It’s a chance to free beauty from time and to simultaneously encapsulate it around a woman’s unique presence. One look at her designs and it’s clear you’re looking at something not just worn, but unleashed — a bride’s personality come to life though silk, charmeuse, taffeta or lace.
Because her perspective is so refreshing and her artistic take so inspired, we caught up with Gretchen to hear more about her process, what’s it like to start a bridal line from scratch (er, sketch?) and what’s next for this self-professed history nerd slash designer.
Darling Magazine: Where did your love of designing come from? Have you always set out to create wedding gowns?
Gretchen: I credit much of my creativity and budding love for design as a young woman to my mom. She taught me how to sew, encouraged every project I thought up and helped me brainstorm ways to make it happen. I grew up on a farm in North Dakota and I strongly believe that living in such a rural, obsolete place forces you to be creative. One has to find ways to entertain themselves.
One of the characteristics of living in an unpopulated place is that you have to drive long distances to get anywhere. On those long car rides, I would draw. It would usually be clothes I wanted to wear or flowers, but after seeing the movie The Wedding Planner with Jennifer Lopez and receiving my first Bride’s magazine at 10-years-old, I was sold. Those long car rides turned into many scribbles of wedding gowns and tracing my favorite gowns from Monique Lhuillier and Vera Wang ad campaigns.
I’ve always been a bit of an old soul living in a nostalgia-filled world, so my mind would go crazy creating stories about each dress and the type of woman who would wear it. Even after fashion school and working in different markets within the fashion industry, it’s interesting that my fire for wedding gowns never changed. It’s special that I’ve had a dream that’s stuck; I’m really thankful for that.
DM: How did you get started producing your own line? Did you just dive in or take baby-steps along the way?
Gretchen: Starting four years ago, I set out to create one custom wedding gown a year for whoever asked and that’s when the Gretchen Dawley name started taking shape. I would make patterns, sew into the evenings and continue go to work every day. True life of a creative.
Honestly, it was a way of keeping me sane creating things I actually wanted to make without having a fully-fledged company. However, my “pipe dream” that I had always kept on the back burner suddenly boiled over when I lost my grandfather in the later part of 2015. It’s amazing how much perspective comes through loss.
Evaluating his life, and the amount of purpose he had in his everyday, led to me quitting my job when I returned to LA from his funeral. It took me the early part of 2016 to mourn the loss of him and other life-altering experiences that had happened simultaneously before I could get my act together and start the creation of my line, but by the spring/summer of 2016, my first collection was finally getting produced. In many ways I find myself constantly taking baby steps, but then some steps are bigger than others. It’s been a lot of taking chances, stepping out of comfort zones, and trial and error since taking the initial dive. I’m learning daily to have faith and to be a little kinder to myself.
I would make patterns, sew into the evenings and continue go to work every day. True life of a creative.
As a woman, I know the amount of pressure I tend to put on my shoulders in wanting my product to be perfect and to be “successful,” but I’m learning to take comfort in that there are many things in life you can calculate and plan for, but it’s nearly impossible to fully understand everything, and that’s ok!
DM: You’ve said that you want to capture different time periods and “forgotten women” through your collection. Tell us more about that.
Gretchen: I’ve always said that if I didn’t make wedding gowns, I would be a historian. Since middle school, I’ve had a fascination with WWII into the Cold War. This is where my love for Cuba came from. I found it so mysterious that it was one of the only places on the globe that I, as an American, was not allowed to travel to. I became obsessed with watching every video and reading any book I could on Cuba. For now, I’ll spare you the Cuban history lesson.
One night I had a dream that I was walking the streets of Havana draped in silk chiffon, the Cuban Revolution all around me, but I was walking through completely untouched. When I woke up, I knew the concept and hook behind my brand: to take significant time periods in different parts of the world and tell stories through them.
Being that my concept started with a dream about Cuba, I chose to make my first collection about 1950s Havana. I knew there were certain aspects of the Cuban culture I wanted to highlight right away, but it wasn’t until I finally traveled to this vibrant Caribbean paradise that my inspiration took off. Walking the streets of Havana, I felt the most alive I have ever felt. Through speaking with the locals, wandering the alleys and neighborhoods oozing with salsa music at every corner and indulging in this insanely rich culture, I was able to solidify the stories and concepts I wanted to focus on for this particular line.
Once I returned home and dove into these concepts, I started unearthing stories of different heroines in Cuban history. I felt so convicted to bring their stories to life through my designs. I chose to highlight the salsa culture, the high society of that period, and the beauty in the distress of a place stuck in time. By the end of my research, I ended up telling the stories of six real-life women through the six gowns in my collection: two salsa singing powerhouses, a female revolutionary, a prima ballerina, an old-money socialite and a mistress to Fidel Castro. They are all powerful stories that have overcome more than I could ever imagine and tell our 1950s Havana narrative so well — most importantly, to not let beauty get trapped in time.
DM: How do you source your materials? What does it look like to take a dress from concept to finished product?
Gretchen: At the moment, I source all of my materials locally. All of my vendors are based out of downtown LA. It’s pretty wonderful that within a five mile radius I can get my silks, laces, bra cups, fusings, notions and pattern-making supplies. I definitely pay the price for local goods, but it’s really important to me. I like to know for sure what I’m getting. Since I started my brand making custom gowns, I’m very picky about fit and the quality of the construction.
Sitting down, doing the research for the collection and doing all the concept sketches is the fun part. Once your concept is strong and the sketches are picked, the real work sets in. I get to work on making the pattern and creating a mock-up gown. Once that fits like a glove, it’s back to the patterns to perfect and fix so that the gown can be cut and sewn in the real fabrication. Fast-forward through sourcing fabrics, finding the right fusings and treatments, countless fittings, hand-stitched details and fixings (and lots of love!) we finally have a finished gown. All of these tedious steps go into every gown in the collection, so you can see it’s a very intricate process. Also, because I’m still really small and niche, all of my collection gowns are customizable, which allows the bride to make it her own. That’s the beauty of working with an indie designer.
It’s really important to me that every Gretchen Dawley gown walking down the aisle feels custom, one-of-a-kind, modern, special, yet easy to wear. I don’t just want to create a pretty gown, but through the impeccable fit and feel that a dress gives, I want the story behind it or the personality of the woman wearing it to shine through. I still make custom gowns, but only take on up to three a year since I do all of the labor myself.
I don’t just want to create a pretty gown, but through the impeccable fit and feel that a dress gives, I want the story behind it or the personality of the woman wearing it to shine through.
The collection is my baby, and I like to put a majority of my energy and time into that. Many don’t truly understand the workmanship and labor that goes into a well-made wedding gown. It’s a lost art form, one that I will never let die or cheapen in any way. A Gretchen Dawley bride is someone who takes pride in something more real — meaningful memories and traditions woven into the fabrics of our dresses.
DM: Stereotypically, most people might think that brides are difficult to work with. How have you found the opposite to be true and what do you love most about working with brides?
Gretchen: The brides are actually the biggest reason why I keep doing what I’m doing. The relationships that build out of such a life-changing time for a woman are pretty special and I feel so honored to even be a part of the process, let alone build a sweet friendship with them.
With any woman who chooses to work with me, I’ve always wanted to create a very peaceful environment because getting married is one of the most vulnerable acts a person chooses to do in their lifetime. Amongst all my ladies, there’s a very common thread of stress and unexpected drama with wedding planning, but I don’t want their dress to ever fit into any of the drama of it all. By the time they see me, I want them to be able to breathe easy and feel the exciting parts of the whole process.
DM: What do you hope someone feels while wearing one of your creations?
Gretchen: My hope is that each and every one of my brides would feel completely comfortable and herself in my creations. If you think about it, a wedding day is a day when you’re on an emotional high, yet need to have your A-game on because of all the people you will see.
I want my brides to feel 100% confident in the way their bodies look and how beautiful they feel. When they feel right in that, it shows in their entire presence. Fit, silhouette and fabrication are crucial in this department, and it’s my responsibility to ensure the best in all of that.
Also, if you don’t mind me being completely annoying and cheesy for a second, I want my brides to feel like the most gorgeous creature on the earth and have the complete look of love and romance so that the beauty of her wedding day and the way she feels would carry into a beautiful marriage. (I told you I’d get cheesy. Wink.)
DM: What’s next for you?
Gretchen: I’m shaking things up a bit and braving the open road. I will be hosting a series of Cuban-themed pop-up shops bringing the collection straight to the brides. My goal is to create an experience for each person who comes and to work with local creatives to curate the most perfect space.
I will be on the road from May 20 – June 4 setting up shop in Phoenix/Scottsdale, Colorado Springs, Denver, Fargo, Bozeman, Spokane, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Prior to the road trip, I’m planning to do a couple pop-ups in Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego in the beginning of May. Dates coming soon!
I will also be heading to Europe later this summer to begin research for my second collection. You’ll just have to follow our story @gretchendawleybridal to find out where we go and what’s inspiring us. Exciting things to come!
Lookbook Images via Bao Q