Event planner Elizabeth has always loved the neoclassical, Old World vibe of The New York Historical Society, so when she and her boyfriend David, a lawyer, got engaged, and it came time to choose a wedding venue, it was a no brainer. Her dress designer seemed to similarly be written in the stars as her now husband’s uncle Steven Birnbaum has been designing wedding dresses since 1979 and has become a go-to for modern brides looking for a relaxed, bespoke experience.
After studying costume design, Steven worked as a designer on and off-Broadway and constantly had performers asking him create their personal wardrobes in addition to their on stage looks. Over the years, he got lots of requests to do bridalwear. “This was the 1980s,” Steven says. “And there was very little available for brides who didn’t want a ‘princess gown’.” After realizing the hole in the market, he started focusing on wedding dresses full time with the goal of creating looks geared towards professional women who wanted a dress that reflected who they were: sophisticated, modern, and on the hunt for a more tailored look. She’s the kind of woman who is completely confident and comfortable shopping for her wedding dress alone if she wants to.
This felt in line with Elizabeth’s overall approach to all things bridal. “I was looking for a dress that would fit nicely with the venue, but not detract from such a special space,” she explains. “And like many brides, I ended up going with a style that was very different from what I initially had in mind.”
Originally, she thought she might want a sheath with long lace sleeves. “Steven can attest to my fixation with sleeves and straps,” she jokes. Ultimately, though, she fell in love with the Jacqueline dress from Steven’s most recent collection. With a sweetheart neckline and mermaid silhouette, the strapless gown is made of double silk organza, has hand-appliqued chantilly lace, a built-in corset, silk button closure at the back, and a cathedral-length train.
“When Elizabeth came to us, she had a completely open mind and was very happy to try many different silhouettes and styles,” Steven remembers of her first visit to his Chelsea atelier. “She initially worked with my assistant as I didn’t want to influence her in any way. And then, once she had narrowed down her choice to a few favorites, I stepped in to offer my thoughts.”
The gown the bride ultimately went with was the very first gown she tried on. Being the low-key, anything-but-pushy kind of guy that he is, Steven didn’t want her to feel pressured or obligated to choose one of his gowns, so he recommended that she visit some other salons and try on more. “When she phoned a few weeks later and told me that she had decided on one of our bespoke gowns, I, of course, was thrilled!”
“I loved the color and the multi-layer organza,” Elizabeth says. “It was the very first wedding dress I tried on, and obviously, the one I loved the most.”
The collection the Jacqueline gown is a part of is all about controlled volume, sumptuous fabrics, and an architectural silhouette. “My aesthetic is best summed up as whimsical meets classical,” Steven says. “Working directly with brides every day affords me the opportunity to see what they respond to, and I always strive to bring a modernity to traditional looks with an effortless approach that features exceptional fabrics with a minimal touch.”
With her irregular work schedule, the bespoke experience was exactly what Elizabeth needed and working with a soon-to-be family member was easy for both the bride and designer. “All of my fittings were very casual and quick” she says. “Steven was super accommodating. He was always open to hearing my ideas and critiques.”
“Most brides use our line of sample gowns as a starting place to customize a gown,” Steven explains. “It is very difficult for most people to completely envision what a silhouette will look like on their figure. If a bride is looking for us to design a gown, we start with learning about her vision and presenting her with a series of sketches.”
“We then move into a muslin fitting which allows the bride to see what the gown will look like on the body. At this point, the client is able to make alterations to the gown that will be revised on her pattern. For instance: setting the neckline to exactly where the client would like it to hit, raising or lowering the waistline, or making revisions in lace or embroidery placement. Since the fit of a bespoke garment is done on the actual client as the garment is being made, alterations are happening as the garment is being constructed, rather then after it is complete.”
Elizabeth, for example, was initially very set on adding straps to her dress, and Steven presented her with a variety of options to try on. “He took his time showing me each possibility while I sat there contemplating and slowly realizing that straps weren’t right for the dress,” Elizabeth remembers. “Steven on the other hand knew all along that even thin, delicate straps would totally change the look of the dress, but he was happy to adapt the design if that’s what I really wanted. Thank goodness I came to the conclusion that they cut me off and compressed my torso. I’m only 5′ 2″,” she says. “And these straps weren’t doing me any favors!”
“Having the opportunity to create a wedding gown for a family member is a great honor, but in some ways adds a very different set of pressures,” Steven admits. “Elizabeth was marrying my nephew, so of course everything had to reach our normal level of perfection; but knowing that I was responsible for making her experience as effortless for her as possible, and making sure that her mother, who lives in California, could be included as much as possible, was also important. One thing that made this experience even more special for me, was that we also dressed my great-niece, the flower girl, my sister, the mother of the groom, and my mother—so from a 4 year old to a 96 year old, four generations of my family!”
An added perk to having a member of the family in the bespoke bridal business? When there was a wardrobe emergency, he was there—ready to jump into action! “Minutes before I was set to walk down the aisle, someone stepped on my veil and ripped it towards the bottom,” Elizabeth remembers. “Steven sprang into action, found scissors, and trimmed off the damaged part, just in time for the ceremony.”
“Walking down the aisle, I felt super confident and beautiful,” Elizabeth remembers. “I just love the way the train fanned out in front of me during the ceremony, and the silhouette in each photo is stunning!”
To find out more about Steven Birnbaum’s bespoke collection and book an appointment at his Chelsea atelier, visit his website or call 212-242-2914.