On most mornings, tiny handprints smudge the display window and front door of Shaline Bridal. Little girls, says owner Shaline Kirkpatrick, are fascinated by bridal gowns - the daily deposit of fingerprints is proof, and she's happy to see them at her Montpelier shop.
"There are people [with] the whole Cinderella attitude, who want the dress of their dreams," Kirkpatrick says in a lilting Canadian accent. "They drop their jaws when they walk in. I have some people come in and say, 'I don't care what it costs. This is what I want.' I have mothers that come in, dads, who say, 'She's my little princess. Whatever she wants, she can have."
Kirkpatrick, 37, has plenty to offer brides-to-be, from custom-designed gowns to off-the-rack models in various styles she's created over the years - nearly a dozen are pictured on her website. (She recently added a line of Winnie Couture bridal wear to her own collection.) Her stock models usually require some alteration, and Kirkpatrick has learned over the years not to clip the inside seams. "I can get almost 2 extra inches," she says. If those additional inches aren't enough to make the dress fit, she'll just copy it in a larger size.
Elaborate beadwork and embroidery are Kirkpatrick's hallmarks. She's known for her ability to work with clients to design a unique gown, and for her sense of which styles work best with a particular body shape.
Kirkpatrick is good at putting her sometimes-anxious customers at ease, and that's apparent in her State Street shop. Fittingly, the place is virtually all white and decorated with bridal accessories. It's light and airy, enhanced by classical music playing softly in the background.
Last June, Shaline Bridal had a grand opening in its current location, but Kirkpatrick hasn't always been so visible. After moving to Montpelier in 1999, she worked first from her home, and then from a second-floor shop at the Capitol Plaza Hotel. This is her first street-level business, and having a display window has been a boon. "The very first dress I had in the window, which took a long time to make, I thought would stay for a while," she says. The $3000 gown sold within a few days.
Kirkpatrick learned sewing from her mother during her childhood in a small town outside Ottawa. She also became adept at embroidery and other handwork. Stitching remained a hobby in her teenage years - enamored of Laura Ashley, she decorated her bedroom with flowing, billowy curtains she made herself.
Kirkpatrick's real passion in high school was the flute: She aspired to play in an orchestra. But breaking two fingers in a soccer game put an end to concert dreams and launched her in a different direction. Kirkpatrick applied to several colleges, contemplating an industrial design major, but ended up enrolled in L'Académie des Couturiers Canadiens in Ottawa. She's been designing, sewing and altering bridal gowns ever since.
In 1990, when Kirkpatrick finished the two-year program, she returned to her hometown and found a new bridal shop opening. "That was totally coincidental," she says. "I walked in and said, 'If you ever need anybody to do alterations, give me a call." That call came within the week, and Kirkpatrick began nipping and tucking gowns on a contract basis under her own business name, Shaline.
Alteration is a labor-intensive business. Kirkpatrick would go to the bridal shop, fit the brides, pin them, and take the dresses back to her studio to sew. "We would have over a thousand dresses come through the shop a year," she recalls. "I would have six weddings a weekend - each with a wedding gown and three or four bridesmaids." by 1995, she had three employees to keep up with the work. "A simple hemline could take an hour or hour and a half," she says. "Fittings alone, almost four hours."
Kirkpatrick notes that Canadians tend to make the process a little less hectic by planning their weddings a year in advance. "If you get engaged in April, you get married the following April. Here, it's usually three to six months."
Brides set the pace of the custom-gown business at Shaline Bridal. Normally it takes Kirkpatrick three months to produce a wedding dress, which starts at around $1200. (Off-the-rack gowns start at $750.) Multiple fittings are needed before the walk down the aisle, she says, explaining diplomatically: "When people get stressed out, they do [one of] two things. They eat a lot, or they don't eat at all."
Consultation is a key part of the process, and Kirkpatrick can spend as long as two and a half hours with a client - she locks the front door and wards off foot traffic with a sign reading, "Fitting in progress, please come back again." Later, she mails the client a proposal with sketches, ideas and fabric options. Some prospective brides end up buying; some don't.
But none of these sessions is wasted, according to Kirkpatrick. "This is the way I would want to have been treated," she says. "That person may not buy a dress from you, but they go back to work and tell a coworker, 'I had this amazing consultation. She made me feel so special.'"
And special is what weddings are all about, she adds. But they can also be stressful, and Kirkpatrick has plenty of experience in the art of soothing pre-bridal nerves. "The whole experience here is to relax and enjoy your dress fitting," she emphasizes. After all, a wedding "is supposed to be one of the most wonderful days of your life."
Has she fielded any unusual requests in her two decades of designing gowns? Some have been interesting, Kirkpatrick concedes. One custom job featured a plunging V-neck that was meant to highlight the bride's bejeweled bellybutton. The back took an equally revealing plunge. Because it had no straps, the whole affair had to be affixed to the bride's body with duct tape. "This was in the days before body tape," she says.
"Some people will come in and ask for a design. I'll say, 'OK. How are you going to get into that?'" Kirkpatrick remembers one woman who wanted no zippers of any kind. She had to sew the bride into her gown at the wedding and cut her out after the service.
The most expensive gown she ever made started out at $7000 and ended up at a whopping $12,500. It featured an Elizabethan collar that had to be braced on the bride's shoulders with poles.
Kirkpatrick's most memorable dress, though, may be the one a bride and her sister brought in for cleaning and preservation, a service Shaline Bridal also offers. "It was raining the day of her wedding, and [the dress] was covered in mud," she remembers. What's more, the bride wore this dress on her wedding night. "She loved her dress so much that she kept it on," Kirkpatrick says. "I think that's awesome."
After all these years, Kirkpatrick is still passionate about designing beautiful gowns. At least one of her customers is just as passionate about her . . . and more committed to Shaline Bridal, apparently, than she has been to marriage.
"I have a customer, a three-time bride, who has had me make her three different gowns," explains Kirkpatrick. "I said, 'Maybe you should go get a different dressmaker.' She said, 'Are you kidding? As soon as I get engaged, I know where I'm going.'"