Tuesday, April 03, 2012

From Addis Ababa to Madison Avenue

An Amsale wedding dress
Remember that wedding dress I got for such a good deal from the consignment shop? Turns out it's made - or, well, designed, anyway - by a fancy-shmancy New York designer. But not just any designer; one with a story.

Amsale (Ahm-sah'-leh) Aberra grew up in Ethiopia and came to the U.S. in 1973 as an international student. A revolution broke out in her country just a few months after she left. Her father, a diplomat, was thrown in prison. Going home did not seem a good option. Amsale stayed in the States to study commercial art and support herself by working odd jobs, starting with a gig as a waitress in a hamburger joint. She was interested in fashion but had no idea she could make a living at it. Nobody in Ethiopia did that! But she did have a Singer sewing machine...

"I would design and sew my own clothes because I couldn't afford to buy new things," she says. She was good at it. By the mid-1980s Amsale had attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and landed a job as assistant designer for a a sportswear company.

Amsale Aberra
When she decided to get married she started looking around for the perfect dress. It was nowhere to be found. Princess Diana had left her mark; all those 1980's dresses seemed just too poufy and overdone. Amsale wanted something simple and elegant. So she made her own, and wondered if there was a unfilled niche in the wedding gown business.

Turned out there was. The custom-wedding-dress company she operated from her Manhattan loft turned into a $20-million business favored by celebrities and high-end department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstorm's.

"Dahlia" retails for $7400; a used one
can still set you back a few thousand.
One of her goals is to design clothes that are stylish and fashionable but will still look great in pictures 20 years from now. Yes, she's got a lot of those strapless ballgowns I was trying to avoid, but many of them have clean, classic lines. The tend to be simple and elegant. When the producers of Grey's Anatomy were looking for a wedding dress for a particularly no-nonsense character, they chose one from Amsale. The last one Julia Roberts wore in Runaway Bride - after she'd figured out who she really, authentically was, as a person - it's an Amsale gown.

The dress I bought? I think it must have been from one of her much earlier collections. I haven't been able to find any pictures of it online.

Don't you just love a good story about an immigrant whose dreams came true?

More Amsale gowns

1 comment:

Jenni Duenes said...

That's a great story! Wish I could sneak a peek at your dress.