REDRESS YOURSELF by Adrianna Donat
When your gown, like your love, is sustainable
By tradition, wedding gowns are opulent, meant to be worn once…then forever afterward relegated to a corner of the attic. As much as we love the idea of an extravagant wedding gown, many people getting married today embrace a “low waste wedding” ideal. And industry critics are turning an especially furrowed brow toward expensive wedding gowns that are only worn for a few hours. But how can a bride find a gorgeous, unique dress without all the waste?
Wedding gown designer Christine Carlson has spent the last few years fine-tuning the solution: one-of-a-kind, upcycled vintage dresses reimagined using sustainable fabrics. It sounds like hard work, but it’s a labor of love for her.
Carlson studied fashion at Parsons School of Design and spent her career in the wedding gown industry, working for well-known design firms such as Arnold Scaasi (famous for dressing the likes of Barbra Streisand and Barbara Bush), Victoria Royal (known for its gorgeous bead work), and David’s Bridal (a place to find a treasure trove of big-name bridal designers, with 400 stores in the U.S. and U.K.).
Carlson loved her time in the industry, and spent it steeped in fabrics, intricate laces, and delicate beadwork. She developed a line for Oleg Cassini. And she even made her own wedding dress.
But though she adored her job, things got bumpy for her when David’s Bridal closed its design shop in New York City. “Many jobs moved to China,” she says. “This also meant many bridal designs started to have a cookie-cutter look about them.”
And there was a larger issue: so much industry excess. She knew she could make more distinctive designs while using less.
“My daughter is a social justice warrior,” says Carlson. “She would bring me to vintage clothing stores and ask what I was doing with my old clothes.” It made her look around at what was happening in her industry.
She started reading books such as Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, by Maxine Badot, which opened her eyes to exactly how much harm the fashion industry was doing to the environment.
“In my previous jobs we would create 200 dresses to develop 15,” says Carlson. “It was crazy wasteful.”
Carlson started to realize this was an issue she could do something about. A way to make the world better, not hurt the environment, and feel proud about it. “I wanted to take vintage clothing and make it work for modern people,” she says.
But anyone who has tried on vintage clothes knows they are not for everyone. In fact, they are not for most modern-sized humans.
“My petite 14-year-old daughter models the vintage clothing for me,” Carlson explains. “Women in the era of much of the vintage clothing got married earlier; they were shorter, and overall much smaller than we are today.” It’s easy to make garments smaller. But finding a way to make the clothing larger meant Carlson would have to find creative solutions.
So she starts by scouring vintage shops looking for pieces with potential. She looks for pieces with distinctive lace patterns, hand beading, embroidery, and unusual materials. Once she finds something she finds interesting, Carlson generally needs to deconstruct the dress to get it ready for its renewed life as a modern wedding dress.
Often the first step is to take out the pellin lining. A little like paper, but heavy, pellin was used in older dresses to help keep the fabric stiff and opaque. Carlson likes to replace this older, uncomfortable lining with more modern fabrics that are softer to the touch. But on the visible parts, she sticks to vintage elements.
Most of the clothes need significant adjustments. And that can be challenging with vintage wedding gowns made with fabric that can be hard to match. How do you find cloth that matches a wedding dress that was made in 1960, when the fabric overages from the original gown are long gone?
Carlson’s clever and eco-friendly solution is using deadstock – yardage that didn’t sell or that was left on the cutting room floor the first time around. It gives Carlson the additional fabric to redesign and make the smaller vintage dresses larger, longer and more appropriate for modern humans.
As an example, in Carlson’s Maybelle NYC Collection the “Sophie” gown was created with an Oscar de la Renta deadstock fabric she found and immediately loved. “I was inspired by the [very pale blue] color, and I redraped the top to make the gown more size-inclusive,” says Carlson of her find. Carlson’s gowns are size-inclusive, ranging from size 4-18W.
“Upcycling is a smart idea,” says former fashion executive Gail Haines. “Using materials from [existing] dresses to create something more appealing to modern brides seems both trendy and ecologically responsible.”
And Carlson doesn’t limit her designs to wedding gowns she finds in vintage shops. Many of her clients bring her dresses worn by their mothers, grandmothers, or other family members. For some, the dress is simply too small. For others the dress fits, and the new bride wants to add her own touch. Either way, Carlson can help.
The idea of having a beautiful, one-of-a-kind wedding gown that is also gentle on the environment is gaining popularity. Carlson’s first client walked through her door in October of 2021; five months later, business is buzzing. Right now, Carlson is working out of her home studio in Maplewood, and doing pop-up shops on the side. Her next pop-up is at 14 Midland Avenue in Montclair on May 14 and 15 from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Come to see Maybelle NYC dresses, because, as Carlson says, love, like a Maybelle dress, is unique…and like love, it’s best when it is sustainable.
Adrianna Donat is a writer who was shocked to find her wedding dress may be considered vintage. She spent the morning buying gear to hike the Appalachian Trail on hearing that news, but it was worth it.