Chances are if you’re on the search for the perfect wedding dress, or you’ve been tediously planning your nuptials since middle school, you already have a favorite bridal designer. And it’s likely that Claire Pettibone is on your shortlist. The couture bridal designer is the go-to for well-heeled women all over the world including Priscilla Chan who wore one of the designer’s pieces in her wedding to Mark Zuckerberg in 2012. With an aesthetic that feels ethereal and romantic, her pieces are known for their opulent detail and feminine charm. To get a better idea of what makes Pettibone one of the most sought-after bridal designers, we talked with her about the inspiration behind her collections, her dislike of ball gowns and what a bride should really look for when shopping for a wedding dress.
Getting her start at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, Pettibone initially started out as a lingerie designer after realizing that the simplistic trends of the decade were far from her preferred aesthetic. “I had a very feminine sensibility always, and at that time, minimalism was in fashion. I thought, well, in lingerie and bridal I could always be feminine, no matter what was going on in the trends, so I started working in lingerie,” she told JustLuxe. “I just became known for very romantic, vintage-inspired design sensibility.” In 1994, Pettibone launched her lingerie line, and married her husband and business partner Guy Toley. The two had a successful run, selling lingerie to Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and a number of international upscale boutiques. She set up a flagship store in LA, and only played with ready-wear pieces in her spare time in an attempt to expand her repertoire.
In fact, she didn’t start designing gowns until almost a decade later when a friend asked her to create a custom piece for her ceremony. “That was the first real wedding dress that I created, and it didn’t really occur to me until that moment that that could be an avenue for our business,” she laughed. “I hadn’t considered bridal before then, but I loved it so much.” Having spent the last decade working with the finest laces, brocades and embroidery, it was a natural transition for her to expand from lingerie into bridal. “It seemed like a fun challenge and something new. I didn’t realize at the time that it was going to be taking over my world. Now I do very little lingerie and almost all bridal. I love it, I mean I loved lingerie as well, but with bridal I have complete freedom to use the ultimate embroideries and laces and go all out with it. From a design perspective it’s like heaven.”
The industry, however, didn’t agree. Satin ball gowns and voluminous dresses were at their peak and for most, romantic, body-skimming designs dripping in textured fabrics didn’t have the same appeal. “When I launched the collection we had a wonderful response from the press and media, but a lot of buyers were like, ‘what is she doing?!’” she laughed. “They definitely pigeonholed me as ‘oh well its lingerie influenced’ because I was a lingerie designer before, and because the dresses were soft and not completely structured and obviously I used a lot of lace and embroidery. So there are similarities to lingerie, but now no one says that it’s lingerie inspired, now that there are tons of dresses that I actually look at and say ‘well they’revery lingerie inspired! She’s practically naked!” She noted that eventually the trends caught up; today she’s one of the most coveted couture bridal designers.
Pettibone has stuck to her aesthetic for over a decade despite the constant waves of trends that wash over the bridal industry. In the early aughts when she presented her inaugural collection amid a plethora of strapless, princess-esque ball gowns, she simply ignored the trend—it wasn’t for her, or her brides. “I know that look is still around, and it can be done beautifully, it’s just not my forte, it’s not my thing, I don’t relate to that,” she explained. “I think there’s another way to be feminine and striking and beautiful and all those things we want to be on our wedding day. I also feel like it’s a very personal and significant day in your life, it should be really genuine. You’re promising your love to someone for the rest of your life, that’s kind of a big deal! I think if you are truly you on that day, that’s a good thing. Obviously your most amazing beautiful you, maybe more beautiful than you ever imagined—that’s my goal!” It was an idea she emphasized again and again, the importance of finding a dress that speaks to your personality, style and who you are as a woman. “It is such a significant dress, it’s probably the most important dress that a woman will wear in her life. It has that significance beyond just a lovely piece of clothing. Which is great too, but that emotional quality that it takes on—my brides really develop quite a passion for their gowns and it really takes on much more meaning than any other piece of clothing.”
Her brides are one of her favorite aspects of her brand. When she first started her line, her designs were so unique from anything else being sent down the runway that women would fly in from all over the world to purchase her gowns. Today she has women from all walks of life who are shopping for her feminine and delicate pieces. “We have such a diverse range of brides and I think that’s part of what I love about it. I get girls that are extremely feminine and romantic, but then I also get super-cool tattooed girls which I love. I think the juxtaposition of the tattoo with the embroidery can be really awesome and beautiful,” she explained. “I get my little Goth girls, then I get, maybe a woman who’s a bit more mature and this could be the second time and she’s really looking for something that’s more elegant or maybe more relaxed. She may have done that ball gown back in the day and now she wants something that really expresses who she is. It’s just such a range.”
Brides are flocking to Pettibone for her unique designs and her willingness to play with color and texture. Her latest collection, The Gilded Age, uses beautiful gold filigree, embroidered lace and sparking gems to embrace the beauty of the decade. “Each season I create a story for myself. It really gives me a focus and a direction as I’m creating the gowns. I love costume history and I love all things vintage, and I felt that that era had such a rich, decedent quality about it. I wanted to play with that while still maintaining my look, so it would never be overdone,” she told us. “I try not to make dresses that are costumes. Although I draw on different eras of history and I love old world lace, we live in the time that we live in and you don’t want to look like you stepped off the theater stage or something. You still want to look like a current, modern girl, just in a really romantic way.” For each collection she always makes one over-the-top piece that represents the collection, something designed purely as a creative outlet. “My brides tend to really love those dresses, so it’s really cool that they’re willing to step out there and do something that’s different,” she said. “I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker and kind of went my own path, so it’s really awesome that my clients go there with me.”
She isn’t going to let her brides take too many risks when it comes to their wedding dress, but she’s more than willing to work with every woman to create a piece that’s right for them. She’s added huge trains, adornments and once even mixed and matched a gold lace sheath with a blue lining to create a French Rococo look. “I wouldn’t let a bride do something that I didn’t think was beautiful. If she came up with some crazy idea, I’d be like ‘no….lets steer you over this direction’” she laughed. “It is my name on it so I care and I want you to look amazing. I think if someone asked me to do something really outlandish that I didn’t feel was good, I’d find a way to nicely guide them in a different direction.” She also suggests brides take their time to find the dress of their dreams. She says women should pace themselves, making no more than one to two salon appointments in a day and really taking the time to consider what they love. This also means ditching the 10-person entourage. “It’s your day so why do you have ten people telling you what to do? They’re all going to have different opinions, and a lot of people are very happy to share them, whether you want them or not,” she explained. “You can’t hear yourself when you have too many opinions being shouted out at you. You can’t really settle into yourself and just think it through or hear your own voice.”