Design Talk with Designer Steven Birnbaum
1) What type of looks did you debut your collection with? Would they hold up today?
I first entered the world of bridal design by making custom gowns for private clients in New York City. When I started, very little was available to women who didn’t want to look like a dolled-up princess and the industry was still catching up with the notion that professional career women might want something more sophisticated than they could find in most bridal shops.
When I debuted my first wholesale collection, it was as “Birnbaum and Bullock,” a collaboration with my friend Robert Bullock, which started the new concept of “alternative bridalwear.” I have always been concept-oriented, and we developed a collection of corsets and skirts that each bride could mix and match to suit her taste. After hearing of brides who fall in love with the top of one gown and the skirt of another, we gave them components that they could combine to make their dream gown. We built on this concept for many years, season after season, adding new pieces that we jokingly referred to as “Grranimals” (remember those?) for brides. We also offered gowns that were more “fashion” based and pushed the boundaries of bridal wear. It was an exciting time in the industry - a time that launched the careers of many independent designers whose ideas are what we now think of as the “norm.” But while styles have changed, the technical skills and attention to both fabric and detail have not. As you can see from my very first editorial, by none other than Rachel Leonard in “Brides,” good design and fine workmanship never go out of fashion.
2) How have you evolved as a designer over the years?
I think the biggest strides I have made as a designer have been in learning how to edit and distill. I’m at a point in my career where it no longer interests me to create gowns that no bride would ever wear. I’ve learned when to stop, and not over-design. I have also learned that a confident designer always remains true to his or her vision. My style has remained constant always, and I pride myself that I don’t bow to trends.
3) What inspires you when designing a new collection?
Well, I’m a bit of a sponge, and I absorb thing from many places! I’m very inspired by popular culture, both current and historical. Also, I’m a big non-fiction reader and love learning how fashion and history reflect and influence each other. I am also very lucky to travel often and I love to see the ways that women dress and style themselves in different countries. I love the history of fashion, and the art of fashion, and travel has given me the opportunity to see many fascinating museum exhibitions around the world. My husband and I have the good fortune to have a home in Paris, so the innate style of Parisian women is a constant inspiration to me. What with that and the modern, no-nonsense flair of the women of New York, I’m usually overloaded with ideas!
4) Who is your bride?
Well, my two collections both reflect the same aesthetic, which is a modern interpretation of classic bridal silhouettes. My bride is a confident woman with an effortless sense of style. She is not looking for a gown to define her, but rather to exemplify her individuality. While the Steven Birnbaum Collection reflects the bold exuberance of American sportswear, and the Steven Birnbaum Bespoke line is a more Parisian interpretation of that same starting point, they both reflect a love of fine fabrics and a dressmaker’s skill in terms of fit.
5) Tell me about the bespoke line - how does that work?
A bride who chooses one of my bespoke gowns can customize anything she wishes and is able to influence every step in its creation. Obviously, we make each one to order. We start with a muslin fitting: this enables me and my team to customize each element - from the placement of the lace to the width of a waistband - to suit the bride’s individual vision and figure. Based on the muslin pattern, we then cut the precious fabric and start to fashion the final gown. Many of our brides find that it’s a real pleasure to witness and participate in the process of creating a couture gown. A bespoke gown is not just the ultimate in customized beauty, it is also an extraordinary experience, a truly once-in-a-lifetime memory.
The process isn’t so very different for bespoke brides who purchase from a retail store: based on a series of over 25 measurements, we cut a muslin which we send to the store for the bride to be “pre-fit” in. The store sends photos to our atelier so that everything can be matched to the bride’s proportions. The muslin is marked for a hem with the bride in the shoes she will wear for the wedding, so alterations are normally minimal.
6) Is the bespoke only available in your Atelier?
Currently the bespoke line is available at Neiman Marcus in Dallas and our Atelier.
7) What do you learn about brides by having your own atelier?
Through meeting and working with brides on a daily basis, I have the rare opportunity to hear what brides are looking for, and what they are finding in the market. I have tremendous respect for my clients, and have learned to not only hear what they are saying, but also to listen to what is influencing them and what they are hoping to see reflected in their choice of gown.
8) Since you have seen a lot over the years, how would you like to see the bridal industry change?
I find brides overwhelmed by the onslaught of images through the immediacy of social media, but much less educated in substance. Back in the day, the bridal magazines were the main source of information for brides: they explained the difference between a “couture” gown and a lower priced, mass-produced one, so that brides understood about the different level of quality in fabrics and how different embellishments would be reflected the prices. The magazines also showcased what independent, smaller houses offered in terms of innovation and integrity.
Today, many brides seem to choose their gowns without even knowing what style would look best on their body shape. In many ways, they are much less educated consumers. I wish that more retailers would give their brides more guidance and would push less to close sales. I went into this industry because I love brides and treasure the romance of the wedding, the joining of a couple in love. I always ask my client what she thinks her future spouse would be overwhelmed to see her in, what would take his breath away. I can’t tell you how often I am told that no-one ever asked her that!
9) What is great about the bridal business today?
What I love about the bridal industry is that it is constantly evolving and that new designers that are still pushing the boundaries. Bridal offers designers the opportunity to hold on to their integrity and offers brides a product that can be a true labor of love. There is a place for designers who reject compromise and are not solely interested in profit margins.