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Bridal store leaving Church St. after 33 years

DAN D’AMBROSIO 5:42 p.m. EDT July 30, 2014

 

Debbie Wells has been crying a lot lately. But it's the good kind of crying.

After 33 years building a bridal business, the last 20 at the top of Church Street in Burlington, Wells is changing directions. Some time around Christmas, Wells will close her retail store, Sewly Yours Bridal, and move to a 1,000-square-foot studio she's building on her ¾-acre property in Milton, where she will continue to make and sell bridal gowns.

"I want to be able to offer brides a much more private, intimate experience," Wells said.

Unlike her store on Church Street, Wells' business in Milton will be by appointment only. She may not even have signs on her studio, which will be surrounded by 5,000 square feet of gardens she and her husband, Bart Thomas, tend at home. Thomas owns Top of the Block Sandwich Shoppe, across the hall from Sewly Yours Bridal.

"That's part of the other reason this was so challenging to think about leaving," Wells said. "This is a lifestyle question."

That lifestyle has included 80-plus hour weeks in her bridal store. She said she's in the store until 10 nearly every night in the summer, and is looking forward to having more personal time once she makes the transition to Milton. Just how much personal time remains to be seen, Wells is planning to cut back to no more than 60 hours per week.

"I'm a workaholic, I know this," she says.

In 2008, Wells launched a wholesale business for bridal accessories, such as veils, garters and ring pillows. The business has grown 30 percent every year, and has drawn customers from as far away as Japan, Australia and Tasmania, she said. She devoted half of her floor space on Church Street to production, packing and shipping for www.missallaneous.com.

Her wholesale business will follow Wells to Milton, as will many of her current customers. She said she "melted" when a family from New Hampshire, who has used her services for a series of brides, decided to wait until her studio is open in Milton to buy a gown for the current bride.

"Instead of choosing to buy a sample at a huge savings, when they were aware of what was happening they chose instead to pay full price for a new dress so they could come to the garden and have this experience with me," Wells said.

Designer gowns at Sewly Yours range from about $1,400 to $4,000, while custom gowns made by Wells start at about $4,000. Wells puts as many as 50 hours of work into the production of some of her custom gowns, incorporating hand beading and antique elements into some of them.

 

Last year, Wells made a wedding gown for her daughter, Megan.

"That was incredibly emotional," she said.

Wells worked with as many as 200 brides in a year, but for the past 15 years she has worked with about half that number annually. Part of her decision to move to Milton comes from the changing retail scene on Church Street, which has brought more walk-ins to her store.

"I appreciate that the commercial infusion on Church Street is necessary to what's happening in the economy, but because of the demand of the work and the personal time and attention I need to give brides it's actually been very difficult for me to adjust to the extra traffic that comes into the store sometimes," she said.

That won't be a problem in Milton, where construction on her studio is planned to begin next week.

"I love what I do, this has been a tough decision, but the long days are starting to wear on me," Wells said.

Contact Dan D'Ambrosio at 660-1841 or ddambrosio@freepressmedia.com.

 

Vermont Vows Fall/Winter 2009:

Spotlight on Vermont's Finest

Debbie LaFromboise, owner of Sewly Yours & Once Upon a Bride in Burlington, Vermont, has been offering exquisite custom, vintage, and fine designer bridal wear since 2001. When you walk through the doors of her shop, it becomes apparent why La Fromboise's boutique is one of Vermont's premier bridal-wear establishments. Refined portraits of brides from the 19th century to the present adorn the antique tabletops, a picture-perfect illustration of how LaFromboise deftly stitches together old and new in a one-stop shop.

 

 

LaFromboise's passion for sewing began in her formative years, and she fondly recalls her early lessons: "I was so little, my grandmother had to put me on a phone book to reach the sewing machine." Over the years, she honed her talents and began a small home business while still in high school. Word-of-mouth referrals about LaFromboise's abilities poured in - and the rest is history.

With nearly three decades of seamstress experience, she knows what it takes to stand head-and-shoulders above the competition. LaFromboise notes, "To me, there is nothing as rewarding as making a bride happy. It is such an important day, and the smallest detail that is important to a bride deserves the utmost attention." Sewly Yours & Once Upon a Bride primarily selects designers who manufacture their gowns in the United States- it's an effort to support the economy, but also ensure exceptional quality.

The Dress, from vintage to custom care

By Sally Pollak, Burlington Free Press, May 2007

Deb LaFromboise was an 18-year-old Milton girl when she made her first set of bridesmaids' dresses. A few years later she designed and sewed a wedding gown for one of her best friends.  

 

She had sewed since childhood, learning the craft from her grandmother. She always knew she wanted to design and make clothing. When she stumbled upon bridal wear, she was hooked. 

"Brides are just great," said LaFromboise, 44, owner and designer of Sewly Yours/Once Upon A Bride, a bridal shop on the Church Street Marketplace. "Their energy is fantastic. It's an important day, they enjoy and appreciate being taken care of.

"Everyone has their own idea of what they think is beautiful. Being able to help them achieve that is very rewarding."

LaFromboise has had a shop on Church Street for 16 years, six in her current location. She creates a few custom gowns a year, dresses that start at $3,000 and include a $7,000 masterpiece with brown velvet-silk jacket, vintage fur collar, pleated bodice, waves of layered lace and a gold bustier.  

But custom work is not LaFromboise's focus these days. She carries gowns made by U.S. designers whose work she admires, sometimes embellishing a basic gown to meet the taste and style of a particular bride.

Bridal fashion, like other elements of style, runs in cycles, LaFromboise said.

Sashes are hot. Even hotter are sashes with a dash of color: mocha, sage green, bisque. For destination weddings, some brides choose more vibrant colors - like fuchsia or periwinkle.  For a wedding in Mexico, LaFromboise decorated the gown with a turquoise sash, the color reflecting the bride's sense of fun and desire to accent the colors of the place.     

Tiara's are out; hairpins are in. LaFromboise, who scours thrift shops and antique stores for vintage accessories, recently returned from New York where she found big droopy earrings made from a dozen pink and pearl florets strung together. She separated the flowers and made hairpins with them.

This satisfies a bride's desire for flowers in hair, without the hazards of wearing fresh flowers:  they die. Hairpins adorned with small silk or cotton flowers provide the floral look and feel, a spray of color and beauty, without the wilt.

Vegan brides are staying away from silk (pity the poor silkworm), in favor of natural fibers.

Vintage is in, and the Church Street shop has yards of vintage fabric and spools of vintage lace trim. Some brides opt for a touch of the stuff - embellishing simple shoes with a piece of trim that costs more than $100 a yard.

Others re-make and re-use their mother's or grandmother's gown, starting with a vintage dress and recreating it for today's bride. Each year, LaFromboise reconstructs about a dozen family gowns.

"People are taking an interest in using pieces of their own history," she said. LaFromboise is seeing gowns from the ‘60s, with their high neck and long sleeves.  She might minimize the neck and remove the sleeves - "get rid of fullness" - and create a kind of simple sundress from the original material.

"Brides who wear vintage are so fun," LaFromboise said. "The sentimentality of the gown is important." They tend to be easy to work with, which is important for a collaborative process, LaFromboise said.

"There's a lot of playing with what they want," she said.

Some brides go to the boutique to look for a dress about 2 weeks before their weddings. Most start shopping for a gown about six months before the wedding date.

They arrive in jeans and flip-flops, sweat shirts and sneakers - imagining, and finally realizing, a very different kind of costume.

Wedding Gowns at Sewly Yours

Burlington Free Press January 27, 2004

While the icy winds of winter blow through the top block of Church Street in Burlington with enough force to fell the sturdiest holiday tree, inside Sewly Yours & Once Upon A Bride, owner and designer Debbie LaFromboise is focused like a laser beam on preparations for the summer wedding season.

 

She and her staff at Sewly Yours, a salon specializing in custom, vintage and fine designer bridal gowns, are well into their busiest time of the year, January, February, and March, buoyed by the flurry of proposals that are offered and accepted over the holidays.

The bridal gown may be the first thing on a bride's mind, once she has set the wedding date. Some say the bridal gown will be the most expensive dress she will purchase during her lifetime. It certainly will be the most meaningful and the dress in which she will receive the most attention during her nuptials.

And that attention to detail begins from the minute she walks through the door of Sewly Yours at 2 Church Street, removes her shoes, dons a pair of white gloves and passes through the wrought iron arbor into a world dedicated entirely to brides.

Sewly Yours moved to the former Banana Republic storefront in the fall of 2001 after a 10 year residency in a much smaller space upstairs in the same building.

Coincidentally this classic Church Street brick block was the home of Abernathy's Department Store, serving the needs of generations of Vermont brides for a hundred years in simpler times before closing forever in the late 70s.

LaFromboise has been honing her craft for more than 20 years. "My grandmother taught me to sew very young. I was doing costumes right out of high school and sewing for the complete wedding party," she said during a recent break.

She no longer does bridesmaids dresses and other members of the wedding party "but we do flower girls because they are so much fun," she laughed. For the wedding party dresses, "we recommend ECCO, Monelle, Ann Taylor, Talbots or Banana Republic. We have so many great places in Burlington," she said.

These days, her business is a combination of complete custom design of bridal gowns, a collection of original vintage bridal gowns from the 1800s to the 1960s and gowns from a select number of custom houses like Priscilla of Boston and Justina McCaffrey.

"While we do ordering and fitting, we still do one of a kind gowns that take anywhere from 30 to 70 hours. We do a lot of embroidering and hand beading."

"We work with a small group of designers and we have a lot of flexibility. We can make pattern adjustments and customizing so that once a choice is made, they will come back for three fittings." Delivery time is 12 to 22 weeks while full custom gowns require ordering six months in advance."

"With full custom, a girl came in the other day with just a picture. We can do that. Some come in with a piece of fabric. Recently a bride who was a dancer came to Sewly Yours and ordered a gown lined in bright red so that when she danced at her reception, the red lining showed. There are so many options," she said.

Designing and creating a full custom gown may require anywhere from eight to 12 fittings to complete and, yes, they sometimes get orders from out of state and brides fly into Burlington for fittings that are adjusted for their convenience.

Bridal gowns at Sewly Yours range in price from $1,400 to $4,000 with their most popular gowns averaging $3,000.

"This is an important event and this is a very special piece," said LaFromboise, noting that trends locally are very different in Vermont than you would see nationally. She sees simple and elegant as the look most often requested.

"People choose a simple lifestyle here. You can't buy a beaded gown on Church Street. A lot of brides are getting married in a field in a tent, and they are unique in wanting something elegant and simple and sophisticated."

A custom made bridal gown from Sewly Yours may be elegant, simple and sophisticated, but behind the scenes it has been expertly designed and lovingly crafted to play a starring role in a once in a lifetime production.

Organza Extravaganza: How To Buy A Wedding Dress In 20 Minutes

By Alexia Brue
Seven Days, February 5-12, 2003, pg. 21A

There's no shortage of unsolicited advice for the bride-to-be. As I prepare for my July nuptials, most of it has to do with what I'm going to wear. The wedding dress seems to be one topic about which all women feel qualified to offer suggestions. At first, I welcomed the counsel. I didn't know the first thing about wedding dresses. But with each new pearl of wisdom I began to suspect that shopping for a wedding dress could amount to at least a part-time job, and that if it wasn't rocket science, it was close.

 

From New York, I called my mom in Burlington to ask about her dress, a vintage Victorian garden dress that she'd bought in a Georgetown shop for $35. But the linen dress I remembered so fondly from the photographs had spent the last 30 years lying in a plastic bag in the attic-more later on why this is death to any dress.

There was no escape. I would have to buy a dress. I started to listen to the advice. "Slip dresses don't photograph well," I was told. "Lace is really popular this year," another advisor offered. Still another announced, as if she were throwing down a gauntlet, "The Vera Wang sample sale is next week."

The more I learned, the more overwhelming the whole process seemed. I logged onto the Knot's website, hoping for a quick primer. But under a tab marked "gowns," I found over 200 featured designers and a complicated glossary. Sure, I knew what brocade and chiffon were, but shantung, honiton lace, and leg o' mutton sleeves? Forget princess for a day, I just wanted a white dress that wasn't going to make me look fat.

My recently married friend Liz urged exploratory research at both the Manhasset Bridal Salon on Long Island and Brooklyn's Kleinfeld's-the ultimate bride emporium, where customers don't actually get to look at the merchandise. Instead, your assigned salesperson, who has worked with 15 other anxious brides that same day, decides which of the 3000 dresses in stock will suit you best.

It sounded dreadful, but I dutifully made my appointments.

Others recommended bypassing the retail bridal salons altogether, finding a picture of the perfect dress, and having it custom-made. A Chinese friend named Lonnie had a $10,000 Vera Wang dress knocked-off in Hong Kong. While she looked gorgeous and, no doubt, photographed beautifully-a big consideration when wedding-dress shopping-the stiff ballroom skirt gave her about as much maneuverability as the antebellum hoop skirts worn by women of the Old South. She struggled throughout the evening to pass between the tables without knocking over chairs. Dancing with the groom was out of the question.

At my local newsagent, I bought four bridal magazines, feeling shame I hadn't experienced since purchasing The Bridges of Madison County. Leafing through pages and pages of confectionary dresses, I tried to imagine myself feeling comfortable in any one of them. I looked at the prices. The gowns started at $600 and went up to $8000 and beyond for Badgley Mischka and Dior. The cost of this single-use garment was starting to make me nervous.

My almost-mother-in-law didn't help matters when she decided my dress was the only aspect of my wedding that merited her attention. She seemed to know about every wedding sample sale and trunk show taking place in Manhattan, and wasn't shy about sharing all the details. She recounted with relish stories of friends' daughters scoring $6000 gowns for a mere three grand. In her world, there is no greater surrender than paying retail. I love a good bargain, too, but I don't think there's any shame in forking over the full price.

Before the Vera Wang sample sale-where people line the block at 6 a.m. for a shot at a 70 percent-off Vera that may have stains or a rip-I went to Vermont for a long weekend. My mom had made an appointment at Sewly Yours and Once Upon a Bride. The store's two names indicate that in addition to the five lines of new dresses, they carry a huge selection of vintage gowns.

I hadn't considered the possibility of buying my dress in Burlington. I figured there wouldn't be much selection, and that you had to try on hundreds of dresses before finding "the one." But with wedding dresses, as with men, sometimes you get lucky.

Sewly Yours is an ideal place to buy a wedding dress. It's slightly fussy-they make you remove your shoes and put on white gloves before entering the store-but fun and personable at the same time. Owner Debbie LaFromboise and salesperson Bridget Mora manage to indulge the inner bride while helping her maintain perspective: this is, after all, a dress. And the wedding is just a party.

LaFromboise opened Sewly Yours and Once Upon a Bride 11 years ago and now outfits roughly 85 brides a year, lavishing lots of personal attention on each. An expert seamstress herself with over 20 years' experience in custom and restoration work, LaFromboise carries Priscilla of Boston, Justina McCaffrey, Adele Wechsler, Jane Wilson Marquis and Wearkstatt. The vintage gowns span from turn-of-the-century to the 1960s.

Bridget, my mom and I circled the store examining the dresses. "We usually start with six dresses in different styles, then we can focus on whichever style or designer you feel most comfortable in," Bridget explained. This was relaxing, even fun.

We gathered up six radically different dresses, and I first tried on the one worn by the mannequin bride in the window. The white lace dress made me look sallow and bloated. Maybe this wasn't so fun, after all. But before I could get too critical about my body's shortcomings, Bridget declared with authority, "The stark white washes you out and a strapless gown will be more flattering."

It was the dress's fault, not mine. Thank you, Bridget. The next dress had a name, like all the Wearkstatt dresses-a line of mid-priced wedding frocks designed by a husband-wife team from Germany based in Manhattan's SoHo. Not only do all Wearkstatt dresses have charming, evocative names; they also have an ingenious double zipper mechanism, which flatters the body like a perfectly cut Armani suit.

I tried on the Cornelia, a strapless A-line dress in ivory with "all-over embroidery on tulle," as the label described it. To me it was an ivory strapless dress, with cute little bows on the back, that didn't make me look like a puff pastry. Once Bridget zipped me in, I walked out to the viewing area and mounted the little pedestal. Strains of "Here Comes the Bride" echoed in my head. My mom's expression said it all. This was the dress and we both knew it. I never wanted to take it off. I looked at a string of zeroes on the price tag. Unfortunately, the amount was closer to the "average price of a wedding dress" than my mom's Georgetown steal.

Maybe I could revive the old custom Edith Wharton wrote about in The Age of Innocence: "It was the custom, in old New York, for brides to appear in this costly garment during the first year or two of marriage." Why not? Bridget grabbed a floor-length veil and attached it to the crown of my head and the transformation was complete. In a flash, the wedding went from a blurry, far-off event to a wonderfully real rite of passage that was fast approaching. As if I needed more convincing, I tried on others-the Livia, the Carina, the Emanuelle. But with Cornelia, it was love at first sight.

Tying the Knots: Designer Debbie LaFromboise Takes The Stress Out Of Dressing Brides

By Elizabeth Wood
Seven Days, February 6, 2002, pg. 13a

You've got to take off your shoes-and don a pair of white satin gloves-to gain admission to Burlington's Sewly Yours & Once Upon a Bride. Embroidered in eggplant-colored cursive, the warning sign at the entrance of the shop sits on an antique table among pots of purple and white flowers and a wrought-iron trellis. It marks the transition from urban, slush-covered Church Street to a modern-day Cinderella shop.

Inside the doors, all is decorous, feminine and lovely. Racks of dresses wait serenely for their big day, along with other bridal accoutrements such as garters, purses and ring-pillows. Wedding photographs scattered around the shop enhance the atmosphere-19th -century brides formally posed next to their husbands in elegant, old-fashioned gowns and more recent just-marrieds clad in trendy yellow, lilac or white designer dresses.

The woman who makes it picture-perfect is the energetic dressmaker presiding over the shop. Debbie LaFromboise, 38, has found a bustling business in outfitting brides-to-be. Recently relocated from cramped, second-floor quarters upstairs from a new, high-profile address in the former Banana Republic, LaFromboise offers services from new-gown tailoring to vintage-gown restoration and sales. Unlike most bridal shops, hers caters exclusively to brides-bridesmaids need not apply.

Strapless or long sleeved, lacy, embroidered or beaded, the gowns here are ready to be custom-fitted. Some are brand-new, made by well-known designers like Priscilla of Boston and Adele Wechsler; others date back to the turn of the last century. LaFromboise has sizable collections of antique lace and fabrics from which she restores older dresses or crafts new ones.

"Simple and elegant is always the catchphrase," LaFromboise sums up. 

"But every customer has her own idea of simple and elegant."

Intricately beaded with crystals, pearls and miniature crosses, one ring pillow took LaFromboise more than 60 hours to construct. Hand-beading is the most time-consuming task, requiring both precision and patience. LaFromboise recalls one dress bodice made entirely out of a muslin lace pattern that was almost impossible to match. But such laborious details don't deter her from taking on the most involved and complex projects.

"Simple profiles marked by hand-beading and embroidery are more in vogue than the more passé layers of skirting and taffeta," says LaFromboise. "Most brides today want functional dresses. They don't want to stand staunch and straight next to their husband holding his elbow; they want to be able to dance and move around in their dress."
LaFromboise's own success story is Cinderella-esque, starting with a few scraps of fabric and how-to books. Taught to sew by her grandmother, she opened Sewly Yours and began doing alteration son everything from futon covers to bridal gowns as a part-time job after graduating from Milton High School in 1981. With no formal education in business or fashion, she worked her way from the bedroom of a rural trailer to the top of the Church Street Marketplace, pleasing more than 2000 brides in the process.

"It makes me laugh now," LaFromboise recalls with evident satisfaction. "I was told this was not a viable career option."

Eventually LaFromboise decided to focus just on brides. Constructing multiple bridesmaid dresses was both time-consuming and complicated, particularly since some of the women in wedding parties inevitably live out-of-state and had to mail in their measurements. This created the potential for less-than-perfect fit, LaFromboise explains.

Twenty years later, she's certainly earned the last laugh. Right now she has more than 40 gowns in the works, and customers call daily for appointments. The move last July allowed LaFromboise to expand her retail line and spread out some of her fabric and lace collections. 

There's also room to display some 200 vintage gowns she's picked up from antique shops and private sales.

The unrestored gowns, which start at $700, are organized by decade and hung in the back of the store, waiting to be revived and take their turn on the sales floor. Between 30 and 50 restored gowns are ready to sell, says LaFromboise, who also happily resurrects gowns that have been in families for years.

The combination of vintage dresses and exclusive retail garments, which range in price from $1500 to $3000, offers an impressive and unique selection for incoming brides. But they can still have them made to order. Most women come in with a general picture of what they want in a wedding dress, LaFromboise informs, whether it's a picture from a magazine or a specific type of fabric or detail.

"I had a clear idea of what I wanted," says former customer and current office manager Bridget Mora. "The bodice I wanted had a lot of lace appliqué; it was very intricate."

LaFromboise worked with Mora to design the gown she'd imagined, making changes every step of the way, altering the sleeves, adding and removing boning. "A really small difference, like not putting lace on the sides of your torso, can make you look five pounds lighter," suggests Mora, who started working full-time for Once Upon a Bride last summer.

As with other aspects of big traditional weddings, planning ahead is de rigueur. Custom gowns take LaFromboise about six months to construct, involving eight to 10 individual appointments and start at $2500. During the initial consultation, which is free, she matches the bride-to-be's general ideas with her own expertise and attention to detail. The next few meetings involve a draping process in which LaFromboise uses the bride's body to shape, pin and measure the dress.

The last fittings generally occur one to two weeks before the dress is to be picked up, and involve only minor alterations. Weight loss is almost inevitable, explains LaFromboise, who reports that most brides shed about 10 pounds prior to their big day. One woman, though, presented a special sewing challenge: She dropped more than 60 pounds in the months before her wedding.

Far less common are the women dressing for two. LaFromboise has a number of styles especially designed for pregnant brides, which can be altered at the last minute to assure a flawless fit. She recalls one woman who was planning on wearing her grandmother's 1920s wedding dress, a straight and closely fitted gown. When the woman discovered she was pregnant two months before her wedding, 

LaFromboise was able to open up the back panel and add extra fabric, creating more room in the dress. "There's always a creative option," she contends.

That attitude has kept the customers coming. LaFromboise attracts clientele from all over Vermont, as well as from New York and Montréal. "We provide a very intimate and personal service," says Mora. "But we have a good time, and people relax. You get to know these women very well. They're so excited, and when they finally find the right dress and they come out of the dressing room crying, it's nice to be a part of that."

Bridal Shop Changes Spaces

By Aki Soga, the Burlington Free Press, June 2001

Sewly Yours in corner spot

A locally owned bridal shop is taking over the space at the top of Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace.

 

Sewly Yours/Once Upon A Bride will move into 2 Church Street, at the corner of Church and Pearl streets, on July 7, said storeowner, Debbie LaFromboise.

"We are on the second floor right now, and we’re moving downstairs to that gorgeous space," LaFromboise said.  "We’ve been up here for about eight years, and we’ve run out of space."

The storefront has been empty since Banana Republic moved its store farther down the Marketplace in August.

Sewly Yours/Once Upon A Bride occupies 1,600 square feet spread out among several rooms.  The new store will be 3,100 square feet. 

LaFromboise has been designing custom wedding gowns for about 20 years.  She opened her first shop in a 12-by-12 room connected to a fabric shop in Milton in 1988.  She opened Sewly Yours above Tina’s Home Design on Church Street in 1990, then moved into the current space in 1993.

In addition to custom-designed gowns, the business offers gowns by Priscilla of Boston, a high-end line starting at about $1,500.  LaFromboise also sells and restores antique gowns.  

"It is a huge part of our business," she said of the antiques. "We have girls bringing in gowns dating back to the 1800s."

A Marriage Of Past And Present: Burlington Shop Owner Restores Vintage Gowns

By Stefan Hard
The Sunday Rutland Herald & Sunday Times Argus, May 9, 1999, pg. E1

They're not like the hundred other wedding dresses hanging on racks in Debbie LaFromboise's bridal shop above Church Street in Burlington.

As soon as LaFromboise puts one of the antique bridal gowns on a dress form and straightens and smoothes the white or cream fabric adorned with fine lace or beads, something happens.

First, a smile breaks out on LaFromboise's face and stays there, uninterrupted by her excited speech, as she fingers the vintage fabric with tenderness and carefully buttons up the back. Then she stands back and looks at the garment as if it were, right now, inhabited by a bride. For her, the past has come alive in her hands. Her eyes widen with delight.

"It's soooo romantic," she says, her eyes rolling up, then sideways as if slipping into a dreamy state.

LaFromboise has made restoration of vintage wedding dresses a specialty since she opened her business, Sewly Yours, two years ago. 

She once thought restoration might be only a fun niche portion of her bridal business, but it's proven to be a passion, and one in high demand by her customers. Of the 150 wedding dresses she typically stocks in her shop, one-third are antique gowns, some of them dating back to the late 1800s.

"It's great. So many of the young women who come stop when they see the antique dresses in the showroom when they come up the stairs, and then when they come into the shop, they just get drawn to the vintage wedding dresses right away," says LaFromboise. Turn-of-the-century-style dresses are the most popular, especially since the showcasing of such formalwear in the blockbuster romantic film "Titanic." The antique bridal gowns range in price up to $1,500.

LaFromboise gets her vintage wedding dresses from dealers or individuals, or she finds them herself. But for her, the most fun comes when a young bride-to-be walks into the shop with her mother's or grandmother's wedding dress and wants to know if it can be restored or modified for her own wedding.

"These are my favorite customers-someone who comes in with an antique dress because they appreciate the history behind it, because they love the fact that Mom saved it all these years, and they want it to be part of their wedding," she says.

"A dress LaFromboise is currently working on has been worn by two generations and will grace a third this summer. To meet the latest bride's wishes, LaFromboise is converting the early-1900s dress, which originally had a high neckline, into one with wide shoulder straps for a cooler feel and a more revealing, modern look.

The passion and skill LaFromboise shows for restoring old garments comes largely from her own grandmother, Ardelle Wells of Shelburne. When LaFromboise was only 5, her grandmother would give her a piece of scrap fabric and show her simple techniques for making wraps and skirts. The tutelage continued with more advanced skills as LaFromboise grew up.

The vintage dresses come to her in all conditions. Some are well preserved and need only a gentle cleaning. Some are badly creased from being folded and packed for so long, and smell of mildew. Others are stained, decayed, torn and missing buttons or lace. Then LaFromboise has to clean more thoroughly and work some of her needle magic.

"I clean everything at home, by hand, in my bathtub," she says. "The process is a secret, but I can tell you I use a mild handwashing soap and a non-chlorine powder bleach."

LaFromboise searches literature for hints on how to clean vintage fabrics, and she's received valuable advice from the Shelburne Museum. Some techniques she reads about sound too risky to try, such as using the juice from boiled rhubarb for removing red wine stains.

At Sewly Yours, LaFromboise won't give a customer an estimate for restoring a dress until she sees how well it cleans up. Some stains disappear, but some won't and require that the piece of fabric be removed from the dress. Some fabrics and threads will change colors after cleaning.

Usually, LaFromboise's restoration efforts go well, but just once, a cleaning turned into a disaster. A beautiful beaded dress with silk satin sleeves that LaFromboise bought at an antique shop cleaned up well but then, when she hung it up to dry, broke down. "It shredded. It was a disaster," LaFromboise says, laughing. "Thank God it wasn't a dress for a client."

When parts of a dress won't restore to their original beauty, LaFromboise is ready. She buys some old dresses just for parts, cutting fabric, lace or buttons off them to bring other dresses back to life. 

Sometimes the material needed to replace fabric or to fashion new elements can come from the original dress. A grafting of fabric from a full skirt or long train is often sufficient to make alterations.

In most cases, LaFromboise has to increase the girth to fit modern bodies.

"Brides used to be thinner…before the days of McDonald's. I rarely get a bride that zips right into a vintage dress."

LaFromboise says she has never turned anyone or any dress away. 

Only rarely, the best she can do with a tattered dress is to transfer one or two elements of it onto another garment.

Like the quality and craftsmanship of the antique furniture she restores at home, the quality of the vintage dresses impresses LaFromboise.

"The handwork in these old dresses is incredible. I mean, this lace was all done by hand," she says, showing off a cream-colored turn-of-the-century silk charmeuse dress with an abundance of elaborate cotton lace. Then, bringing out a simple but elegant satin dress from the 1930s, she raves about the hand-blown glass beads that decorate the fine netting of its illusion neckline. "You'll sometimes see inside seams of a sleeve stitched over with lace," she says.

One of the most unusual vintage dresses she has taken in was one made just after World War II from a silk parachute. The groom, a paratrooper in the war, wanted his bride to wear his parachute on their wedding day. With no one to hand the gown down to, the owner recently sold the dress to LaFromboise and gave her a wedding photo to go with it. It may be one of the best-made dresses in her shop, with its ultra-strong fabric and wide, quadruple-stitched seams.

LaFromboise draws the line at the days of disco, when cheap imported wedding dresses started flooding the market. She usually won't bother with restoring dresses made after the mid-1970s; she says their quality often is so poor she can't work with them.

It's not just the old dresses that make LaFromboise's restoration experience so enjoyable. She says it's the people, too. Clients who want her to restore their mother's or grandmother's wedding dress show an appreciation of the past, and a care for detail with their wedding plans that makes LaFromboise want to work even harder to make everything perfect.

A recent client who had elements of her mother's dress worked into her wedding dress wrote to LaFromboise after the ceremony: "I loved telling people where the buttons and the lace and the material came from, from (my mother's) dress. I think that my mother loved seeing her gown become part of my gown."

LaFromboise even ventures that a customer's desire to preserve and honor the past by wearing an antique dress might transfer favorably to her approach to marriage.

"Those kind of people are just better people at taking care in what they do."

Vintage, Ultra-Modern, Custom-Sewn Gowns

Options as '90s Brides Display Personal Taste

By Barbara Young
Champlain Business Journal, December 1998, pg. 23

The Champlain Valley bride has a selection of gowns to choose from that ranges from an antique Victorian heirloom to a 1990s gown featuring a tank top. And the price range is as broad as the styling possibilities.

 

A visit to Debbie LaFromboise's Church Street showroom at Once Upon a Bride is a tour through the history of bridal fashion. The Burlington-based bridal shop houses a collection of original and restored antique gowns gleaned from antique shows and estate auctions. The 100-gown collection also includes samples of period patterns custom sewn by LaFromboise.

The business serves young brides as well as women in their 30s and 40s. "Vermont brides tend to be very conservative and tradition," she said.

One-half of the business is custom gowns. The other half is divided between women who bring in their mother's or grandmother's gown for alteration or women who purchase vintage gowns.

The bridalwear retrospective at Once Upon a Bride begins in the late 1800s. All of her vintage gowns are at least 25 years old, said LaFromboise.

Turn-of-the-century bridal attire is characterized by a high neckline and a cinched waist. The circa 1890 to 1910 gowns have a traditional Victorian look. The fabrics used are white silk and cotton embellished by hand-embroidered lace.

The "flapper" gown reigned in the 1920s. The predominant feature is the sheath-style of the dress. Necklines vary and waistlines are both natural and dropped. Some of the gowns are characterized by a bias cut at the hemline which gives it a flip effect. Usually the fabric is silk chartreuse. Orange blossoms were used in this era to decorate the gown at the waistline, hemline and on the cap. The flapper bride wore a small cap called a cloche with her gown.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the fabric used for bridal dresses became heavier. The swing and ease of the flapper yielded to heavy satin. The heaviness of the fabric is balanced by minimalism of design. The classic look is emphasized by a small amount of lace or decorative embellishment. Dresses are styled with a fitted bodice and full skirt.

The 1950s is the decade of "poofy" taffeta. The fabrics are silk organza with Chantilly lace appliquéd on the skirting. The fitted bodice gives way to full skirts reinforced by petticoats. If this "party girl" look is too much for a customer, LaFromboise can remove the stiff interfacing and clean the gown. The result is a softer, flowing effect.

LaFromboise has developed an expertise around storing a bridal gown. For the woman who hopes her daughter or granddaughter may one day wear her dress, proper storage of the dress becomes paramount. The fabric of antique dresses can become dried and disintegrate if the wrong paper is used. She has consulted with people knowledgeable in fabric restoration at the Shelburne Museum and advises clients to store their dresses in an acid-free box with acid-free tissue paper. Packing materials can be purchased from her for about $65.

The prospective bride who hasn't found the right gown can design an original that LaFromboise will custom sew. The customer seeking a unique gown does not need to be constrained by traditional notions of fabric. One of her most beautiful gowns was done in black velvet for a woman in her 40s, said LaFromboise.

Although women yearn for a traditional look in their gowns, they appear to have moved away from the demure gaze under the wedding veil. The woman with the black velvet gown wore rhinestone clips in her hair. Other brides favor a tiara or a floral circlet. One woman wore a Juliet cap with a point at the forehead. The headwear provides an opportunity to add color. The flowers in the circlet, whether silk or dried, can include color. Or the circlet can be wrapped with ribbon, such as burgundy velvet with dark burgundy roses.

June is no longer the most popular time to get married. Most of LaFromboise's customers marry from mid-August to early October. Because of this seasonality, most of the dresses she sells are a lighter fabric. There are more December brides than ever before although this time is constrained by the weather and concerns over guests' travel plans.

At Needleman's in Newport and St. Albans, bridal consultant Tracy Reed finds that 80 percent of her customers marry from May to October. Since the lead time for the sale of a wedding dress is about eight months, she is selling now for next spring and summer's bridal season.

Her customers favor a one-piece gown with a boned tank top and A-line skirt. She sees a lot of customers preferring ivory instead of white in fabrics from silk to matte satin to chiffon. The headpiece of choice is a tiara of pearls or rhinestones. A lightweight tulle veil is attached to the tiara and falls to waist length.

The age of Reed's customers span a thirty year period. In the same day, she sold a gown to a 23-year-old and a 45-year-old woman. Dress preference does not seem to differ according to the age of the customer or previous marital status. With 30 percent of the business being women entering a second marriage, Reed finds women still want a traditional gown with all of the frills.

Reed sees a preference for a detachable train. After the formal pictures are taken, the bride likes to remove the train and kick up her heels. 

With a preponderance of outdoor weddings in the spring and summer, the removal of the train also protects it from grass stains and tearing.

Needleman's gowns are priced from $99 to $1,280. The majority of the business falls in the $500 to $800 range. The store sells about 300 to 400 gowns a year.

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