Expert Advice: Mara Urshel

Martha Stewart Weddings, Spring 2009

Mara Urshel
Business: Kleinfeld
Known for: Outfitting fashionable brides with the country's largest selection of designer wedding gowns
Where to find it:
110 West 20th Street, New York, New York, 10011

See Mara's Top 20 Dress Picks from the Runway 

That first dress-shopping trip is seriously overwhelming. How can you prep for it?
Focus on what you really want and bring in no more than five or six pictures of dresses that you like -- any more and you'll be unfocused. You can look up designers' collections online or visit a bridal shop's website to get a sense of their inventory. We have most of our dresses on our site so brides can check them out before they arrive. But more than 90 percent of the time, the dress a bride ends up buying is nothing like those in the pictures she brought with her. What you see on a model in an advertisement often looks much different in real life.

When should you start looking?
Start as soon as you book a venue and have a sense of whether your wedding will be formal or casual, indoors or out, and so on. You should begin at least six months before the wedding, but nine to 12 is really ideal. Many designers require a long lead time to manufacture a dress, and if you leave it to the last minute you may have to pay extra for rush charges.

Is there an ideal time to shop?
You'll have a more relaxed experience if you book a time during the week. I don't recommend making an appointment on a weekend -- those are usually the busiest shopping days -- but sometimes that's the only time you can get your family together. If you can't avoid the weekend, try Sunday -- it's still busy, but the pace is a little bit slower. I also think mornings are best. Appointments can take several hours, so it's a good idea to be fresh and full of energy.

What should you wear to the fitting?
Get dressed like you're going out to dinner, and be sure to do your hair -- when you look good, you feel good! As for undergarments, I think that no matter what you wear it should be a neutral color -- preferably not something black. I don't know why, but we see a lot of black.

Who is the best person to shop with?
More and more brides are coming in solo, especially if they're the ones paying for the wedding. That said, most brides arrive with their mothers. Whomever you end up choosing, I suggest bringing no more than two or three close friends or relatives. And you want to make sure they're people whose taste you share and whose opinions you really, truly trust.

What if your mother doesn't exactly share your sense of style?
If you think you'll have a hard time agreeing on something, why not do the first screening of dresses with your friends, then bring your mother in for the second appointment? Of course, you don't have to tell her it's the second screening -- even if you've already selected the dress and put a deposit on it! You can simply show her the dress you've chosen, and hopefully your enthusiasm will convince her to fall for it, too. It's a nice way to get the look you want without completely missing out on the mother-daughter bonding experience.

How do you know what size to order?
Each manufacturer has its own patterns and sizes -- that's why bridal sizes are so varied. We measure the bride's bust, waist, and hips, then order the dress size that fits the largest measurement. That's the part that has to fit from the start, and taking fabric in is always easier than letting it out, especially if it's delicate.

What's the most popular silhouette today?
We see more than a hundred brides a day, so there's a lot of variation. If I had to pick one, I'd say most brides choose the dropped torso with a fuller skirt. Ruched and draped bodices are also popular because they're very forgiving and look good on lots of different body types. Of course, strapless styles are always a hit, no matter how many times we show brides other things. They'll never go out of style.

What styles tend to be the most flattering?
Halter, V-neck, and sweetheart necklines work well on a large bust. A full skirt or A-line dress is a great way to hide a large derriere. If you have a tummy, you might want to stay away from a fuller skirt and avoid an empire waist, as these shapes can emphasize your problem area rather than hide it. Smaller women should pay attention to proportion and avoid dresses that have a dropped torso. And tall women can wear just about any style, but I happen to love the way sheaths look on them.

What trends are you loving right now?
We're seeing so many exciting details right now, like combinations of two different laces on one dress, uniquely placed bows, and laser-cut flowers. There are also some really fun short dresses and one-shouldered looks. Buying two dresses is a growing trend too: one formal gown with a full skirt for the ceremony, and a simple or lightly laced sheath or short style that's easier to dance in at the reception. Brides tend to love that because it gives them the chance to make two entrances, not just one.

Is shopping harder if you're on a budget?
There are lots of ways to spend less without trading down in quality. First of all, there are plenty of moderately priced dresses available. Visiting designer sample sales is also a great way to get a discounted sample from a previous collection. It's a good idea to check bridal salon websites frequently to hear about sales and sign up for mailing lists whenever you can. We review our stock every few months and have four blowout sales each year. They're incredibly popular.

What's the most important thing for a bride to remember?
You have to be confident about your taste. The search can be overwhelming, so it's important to stay true to yourself and not get caught up in other people's opinions. The most important thing is that you know in your heart that you've found the right dress for you.

Prickly problem: You're having second thoughts. Can you cancel your order?
Yes -- but do it as soon as possible. Manufacturers cut dresses to order, so if your pattern is already cut and in production, you own it and will have to forfeit your deposit. Of course, if the manufacturer can find another client for the dress, you may be able to recoup your deposit. Before you go ahead with the cancellation, ask customer service to call the company and find out what your options are.

Prickly problem: Your salesperson is too pushy. Is it rude to ask for another?
Not at all. If you're less than pleased with the service you're getting, ask the store manager if someone else is available. The job of your consultant is to help you find the right dress, so she should never talk you into something you don't like. After all, it's your wedding!

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