Kpoene’ Kofi-Nicklin is the Creative Director of Mignonette Bridal, which was named a Finalist in the Martha Stewart American Made Awards (Marthaaaaaaaa). Kpoene’ also serves as a design mentor for the Chicago History Museum’s FashioNext teen design program. She’ll be joining us today for a live chat to answer all the burning questions you have about wedding dresses, and we’re so excited to have her.
In fact, we’re so excited to have her that we made her answer some questions of our own before we turn her over to you.
Jezebel: How did you find yourself in the business of making and selling wedding dresses?
After costuming for dance and theater at Middlebury College, I moved to Brooklyn with a serious hunger for fashion. Over the next 9 years, I started a womenswear line and learned how to run a business at FIT, then started a design collective, the Ladies Independent Design League, with fellow small business owners, and started offering business coaching. I moved to San Francisco and became a corporate and then a museum buyer, taking time off from Mignonette with exceptions for the occasional wedding dress. In 2009 I was lucky enough to marry my amazing wife Anne, and had an “a-ha!” moment while designing my own wedding gown that inspired me to focus on the incredible tradition of handmade wedding gowns.
In 2010 Anne and I opened Mignonette Bridal in Chicago; we specialize in heirloom gowns for modern girls, and Mignonette Bridal’s vintage-inspired gowns are locally-made, lovingly handcrafted and completely romantic.
What general advice do you have for someone dipping their toe into wedding dress shopping?
I do want to start out with a couple of things – first, when you go shopping for your gown, only bring people who are going to give you useful feedback. By no means is it necessary to bring all your girlfriends, your MIL, mom, aunts, dad, fiancé(e), and sisters. That old saying about too many cooks is never more true than when you are trying to choose the most expensive dress you’ll ever buy and everyone has an opinion. Secondly, everyone is not entitled to an opinion. If people are lucky enough to be asked to go dress-shopping with you, they need to remember that if they aren’t being encouraging, positive, and enthusiastic, that privilege can be revoked. It’s your day, so trust your instincts. Third, your bridal consultant should be your advocate. She is there to help you find your dream gown at a price you can afford. If you find that you aren’t gelling with her, or if she doesn’t seem to be listening to your requests, cut the appointment short. There are millions of gowns in the world, and yours is out there. Fourth, and I cannot stress this enough: If you try on a dress, and there is even one detail about it that you just do not like, DO NOT BUY IT. Just don’t. In addition to bespoke wedding gowns, Mignonette offers couture alterations and redesigns and we get so many brides coming in with gowns they aren’t totally in love with but purchased because they felt pressured. If you do, you’ve wasted money and you hate your dress. If you only love a gown because the sleeves are pretty, or you want half the gown chopped off because you wish it was tea-length, save your money and keep shopping, or have a gown made.
For the love, can you explain bridal dress sizing to us? Why is it so evil?
Bridal sizing does seem nonsensical, but it’s no weirder than being one size at J Crew and another at Prada. In truth, bridal is the one area that hasn’t really embraced vanity sizing, as I discovered when my normally size-8 body would only fit into bridal 12s and 14s. It is a pain, but sizing is specific to each designer, so it’s actually difficult to predict what size you’ll be, and bridal specialists do their best to recommend the correct size based on your measurements. We would rather have to take your gown in during alterations than try to find miracle solutions for squeezing you into something which is too small.
What do you think of knockoff gowns?
As a designer who has personally had her designs stolen and reposted on a knockoff site, I can tell you: if it looks too good to be true, it is. There is a reason why a designer gown, or even a gown from David’s Bridal, costs hundreds or thousands of dollars – from superior construction to luxury materials, you are paying for an item which is meant to be an heirloom, so don’t be surprised if the $99 ‘designer imposter’ you purchase online turns out to be an ill-fitting polyester nightmare that only vaguely resembles the gown in the picture and ends up costing more to fix than if you had just purchased a decent gown in the first place. In short, just don’t do it. There are millions of wedding gowns in the world- even if you cannot afford your dream dress, you can find something reasonably similar without buying a knockoff.
What are your “feel the bride out” questions? Are there industry-standard questions that consultants use to suss out what styles a bride is interested in?
Because we specialize in vintage-inspired bespoke gowns and small local designers, we have very specific questions to get a better sense of who the bride is and if she is a good fit for our brand. I like to find out about everything I can about the bride before we even dive into the dress discussion –her profession, where she’s from, what the wedding is going to look like, where else she has shopped, what her fiancé(e)is wearing, who her other wedding vendors are, etc. We sketch while the bride is talking and by the time she’s done, we usually have a good representation of what she wants on paper to get the design process started. As far as industry standard, consultants usually need to at least know your budget and what styles you like, but each consultant brings their unique personality to the experience. Consultants who genuinely care about the bride tend to thrive in the industry.
Why is taking pictures so verboten?
I allow it because Mignonette does so much editorial press, but generally salons don’t it because brides (and sometimes factory spies, which has happened to me) will take the pic and then bring it to a seamstress or pattern-maker to knock off. Knockoff gowns are a huge problem for the industry.
Do you have any suggestions for what type of foundation garments brides-to-be should wear when trying on dresses?
I always recommend that girls get fitted for a brand-new bra or bustier that they plan to wear just for the wedding. Spanx aren’t always needed, but if you’re going to wear them, get the ones that come up under the bust and go down to the knee. If you are planning to wear one of those gowns with a very low back, and you have anything other than a super-perky bust, you need to invest in a bustier. A clever alterationist can always lower the back of a bustier, and you will be amazed at how wearing one will change the shape of a gown.
How much money do bridal retailers make on the dresses vs the accessories? Why are the exact same dresses different prices at different stores?
Every retailer is different, and larger retailers have more room to sell items close to wholesale than smaller boutiques do. The companies that produce the items usually have a recommended or required markup. As for gowns/accessories being different prices at different stores, that is usually because the store owners have chosen different markups.
How much should a bride expect to pay for tailoring and alterations?
This depends on the style of gown and what you need done to it, but budget at least $500 if you have an elaborate gown or if your gown is more than 1 size too large. For instance, if a gown has a lace hem which needs to be shortened, you are looking at $300 to start. If we have to take in a gown and do anything that requires taking out the zipper or a lot of handwork, that is at least $200. It varies from shop to shop, but it is worth it to trust your gown to someone who specializes in bridal alterations, not just whoever will do it the cheapest.
What’s the average dress spend in your store, what are the single least and most expensive dresses you carry? Do you work on commission? Do bridal consultants generally work on commission?
Our boutique is tiny enough that we don’t need to work on commission. Our gowns are produced entirely in Chicago, so the price is higher than off-the-rack’ they begin at $2,200 for custom and $2,100 for revamps (restyling an heirloom gown). We also carry local designers, including Amanda Archer, who retail between $900-$2,000.
How many brides change their minds after they put down a deposit on a dress?
Since we specialize in bespoke, changing their minds is just part of the process. For alterations from other salons though, we see it all the time, in fact, much more often than we should. I cannot stress enough – if you don’t 100% love it, don’t buy it. Leave the salon, eat lunch, think about it, sleep on it, whatever you need to do. If you can’t forget it, go back and buy it. If you’re still having doubts, it’s not the one.
How many people is too many people to take dress shopping? And, related to that, how many brides do you get coming in (and buying) dresses without anyone there to provide input?
We love a girl who knows her own mind, and I never understand why brides bring an entourage with them for fittings. If you have been dressing yourself for 25 years without help, why can’t you do it this time? Unfortunately, asking brides to not bring another pair of eyes is impossible, so if they do choose to have their gown made with us, I stipulate that they must bring the same person to every fitting, and if they want the whole gang to come, they must wait until the final fitting. It is too easy to get overwhelmed by everyone else’s ideas and opinions without even realizing it, which often results in a purchase you regret later.
How often do you see tears?
Getting married is such a fraught undertaking – you become the representation of everyone’s hopes and dreams and opinions for what women should be/do/look like. It is an emotionally exhausting and financially draining process, even if you are just throwing a bbq in your yard. My goal is to make sure that all of clients feel supported, even if they are just coming in to buy a pair of earrings. This is going to sound bizarre, but I am happy to let brides cry if they need to, because often they feel like nobody is really listening to them during the wedding-planning process. Besides all the catharsis that’s going on, we get a lot of happy tears, which is what we want. I cry every day, sometimes from frustration, sometimes from happiness. My seamstresses cry when sewing isn’t going the way we need it to, or when a bride is being obsessive during a fitting. This is a very difficult and stressful job, and the fact that we are dealing with very emotional people all day gets to us.
What’s the worst fight you’ve seen?
It wasn’t a fight so much as the saddest mom-daughter interaction I’ve ever witnessed. Heavily-tattooed, curvy, beautiful bride and her mother came to discuss a bespoke gown, and mom insisted that the daughter have her arms covered because she was so offended by the tattoos. Daughter wants short sleeves and a low neckline, so we end up designing something that looks like short sleeves and a low front/back but is actually covered with that thick illusion mesh that figure skaters wear that looks like weirdly-tan skin (ick, and guaranteed to be very constricting and hot). Mom then shares that her own mother planned her entire wedding for her and so she didn’t get a say in any of her details, and proceeds to tell the daughter that because she always dreamed of having certain things for her day and didn’t get them, the daughter is going to have them instead. This is said completely without irony or any apparent awareness that she was doing literally exactly what her own mother had done to her. This was interspersed with constant references to the bride’s tattoos and how much mom hated them, and also, bizarrely, mean comments about the bride’s body shape, which was exactly the same as her mother’s. The bride got quieter and quieter throughout the appointment and then just clammed up completely. They left pretty soon thereafter and the bride never followed up with us. I hope she got married, but mostly I hope that she has found a way to manage her mother. We also get a lot of jealous sister/friend/mom experiences, where the bride’s +1 is clearly (though subconsciously, I hope) out to sabotage the bride and make her feel bad about her choices. From comments to “I looked at the weather, and it’s supposed to rain on your wedding day,” to “well, you’ve never been the one of my daughters that had any taste,” I’ve heard it all. It makes me terrified to ever have daughters in case I accidentally become a passive aggressive nightmare while they are planning their weddings.
How do you handle it if a bride-to-be tries on something TRULY unflattering but loves it? What do you say as the consultant in that situation?
I am a designer so I usually steer brides towards shapes that I think are flattering for their bodies. When brides come in with alterations, and the gown isn’t my favorite, I remind myself that this isn’t about me and work to make sure they still feel beautiful or offer suggestions to help get them to that point. If they walk out of the dressing room and their entourage starts offering up shitty comments, I kill them with kindness or outright ignore them and chat up the bride until everyone gets the hint.
Kpoene’ will be here for two hours to answer your questions — fire away, brides!
UPDATE 4p: Okay gang, we’re about to wrap up. Thank you for your great questions, and thank you to Kpoene’ for joining us!!!
Image via Mignonette Bridal.
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