Tying the Knots: Designer Debbie LaFramboise takes the stress out of dressing brides | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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Tying the Knots: Designer Debbie LaFramboise takes the stress out of dressing brides 

click to enlarge ANDY DUBACK
  • Andy Duback

You’ve got to take off your shoes — and don on 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 longsleeved, 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 LaFrom-boise 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 alterations on 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 Market-place, 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 a 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 officer 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 rigeuer. 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.”

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