To achieve legendary status in the bridal industry, a designer must know how to make women look -- and feel -- nothing short of stunning. The following tastemakers excel at just that. Their dresses consistently stand out from the crowd, and are worn by royals and regular girls alike. Meet their latest masterpieces.
Talk about bright beginnings: An apprenticeship with famed couturier Cristobal Balenciaga paved the way for de la Renta's debut collection in 1965. Since then, his own artistic genius and modern ingenuity (the brand's Twitter account has more than 72,000 followers) have helped him build a fashion empire. The Dominican Republic native added wedding dresses to his repertoire in 2006, and they've already been worn by thousands of brides, including Katherine Heigl and Jenna Bush.
Signature Style: "The dresses I make are for the most extraordinary day of a woman's life," says de la Renta, who is known for his use of rich ornamentation and curve-hugging shapes. "For that reason, everything is very feminine."
Words of Wisdom: Try on as many dresses as you can, and don't limit yourself to one silhouette: "Never before have there been so many options!" he says. "To me, that's inspiring."
About This Dress: The slim faille sheath and dramatic flounce nod to de la Renta's Latino background. "It's formfitting and ruffled at the bottom, like something a Spanish dancer would wear," he says.
Gown #33N46; Mark Ingram Bridal Atelier, 212-319-6778. A.Jaffe platinum ring, ajaffe.com.
A former Olympic ice skating hopeful and Vogue editor, this New Yorker turned to design and opened her first bridal salon in 1990. In addition to dressing notable brides (Uma Thurman, Victoria Beckham, and Chelsea Clinton, to name a few), she brings high-end design to the masses. Wang recently partnered with David's Bridal on "White by Vera Wang," a collection of gowns that start at just $600.
Signature Style: "My designs are original, modern, and imperfect," says Wang. "I think it's far more interesting to be a bit off. I try to bring something unusual to everything I make."
Words of Wisdom: "Stay true to yourself -- to your taste and what works for your body," she says. "My ideal client is a woman who really knows who she is and who she wants to be."
About This Dress: The dusty-pink ball gown's fitted bodice and voluminous skirt reference painter Edgar Degas's pastels of ballerinas. "There's a tremendous focus on a narrow waist in his work, so we highlighted that here," she says.
Organza gown #112812, 212-628-3400.
Inspired by her designer mother, Lhuillier was just 11 when she started sketching dresses to be made by local Filipino couturiers. She went on to attend design school in Los Angeles and discovered a passion for bridal while shopping for her own wedding dress in 1995. "There weren't a lot of high-fashion gowns," she says. A year later, she debuted her first collection. Since then she's sent countless brides down the aisle -- including, most recently, Reese Witherspoon.
Signature Style: Lhuillier is best known for her use of curve-hugging lace. "I work with traditional fabrics but cut them in a modern, sensual way," she explains. "My dresses are all about flattering a real woman's figure."
Words of Wisdom: Don't trust a picture -- ever. "The only way you'll know what looks best on you is to try it on," she says. "A gown could seem great on paper, but until it's on your body, you won't really know."
About this Dress: Named the "Catherine" but designed, ironically, before the royal wedding, it has sleeves, lace, and an A-line shape "for the girl who wants to look regal," she says. "It's sexy, but in a subtle, understated way."
Frustrated by the dearth of spare designs while shopping for her own 1985 nuptials, Ethiopian-born Aberra decided to take matters of the white dress into her own hands. In 1986, she placed a classified ad aimed at brides-to-be and began a business out of her apartment. Then, in 2001, she introduced her now-famous "blue sash" gown to the market. It quickly became the year's most popular style. "That," she says, "was exciting."
Signature Style: "I like very clean, understated dresses," says Aberra. "When I first started, I was the only one doing pieces like that, and no one wanted to buy them. Now it's what I'm known for."
Words of Wisdom: The ideal gown reflects a bride's personality, she says. "Think about what you wear every day -- are you classic? Avant-garde? -- and go from there."
About This Dress: The silk-faille fabric and sculptural origami pleats represent Aberra's aesthetic to a T. "It's incredibly simple, yet you'd still make a statement," she says.
In 2004, a lightbulb went off at the J.Crew offices in New York City. The company had been getting large orders for its cotton beach dress, followed by photographs of brides and bridesmaids wearing it. "We realized that this could be a huge opportunity for us, so we introduced bridal to the catalog," says head designer Tom Mora. The line took off like wildfire, prompting an Internet frenzy -- and the 2010 opening of the J.Crew Bridal Boutique in Manhattan.
Signature Style: "It's all about casual, comfortable elegance," says Mora. "For that reason, many of our dresses have pockets -- they allow women to relax and be themselves, which is really the goal."
Words of Wisdom: Take a chance. "We showed a Mongolian fur vest with a satin dress in our catalog, and a woman came in and bought the look for her wedding. She knew what she wanted, and she went for it. That was very cool."
About This Dress: "Delicate beading makes it formal, but the flow of the skirt is very nonchalant -- like what Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy was married in," he says.
Gown #48030, bracelet, and Jennifer Behr "Pearl Violette" headpiece; jcrew.com. Stephen Russell platinum ring, 212-570-6900.
The world-renowned Venezuelan aristocrat attended her first fashion show -- Balenciaga -- at the tender age of 13, which inspired her to introduce her own line in 1981. She created her first bridal collection in 1987, after Caroline Kennedy put in a special order for her big day. Herrera's designs -- each one as timeless as her signature collared shirt -- have attracted everyone including Jackie Onassis and Renee Zellweger.
Signature Style: Trends come and go, but brides consistently turn to Herrera for elegant, understated, and impeccably tailored pieces.
Words of Wisdom: Herrera is adamant about making important decisions alone. "Go dress shopping by yourself," she says. "A lot of opinions will only confuse you, and at the end of the day, it's only yours that matters."
About This Dress: The three-quarter-sleeve satin gown, with its removable overskirt, "is exactly how I see today's bride: romantic, feminine, and sophisticated," she says.
If you've paid any attention to the red carpet or the women who walk it, you've seen Badgley Mischka dresses in action. A favorite of the Tinseltown set, designers Mark Badgley, right, and James Mischka joined creative forces in 1988 and sent out their very first bridal gowns in 1993. "Hollywood is everything to us," says Badgley. "Celebrities helped us build our business, and we just opened our flagship store on Rodeo Drive."
Signature Style: The duo can't get enough of -- you guessed it -- Hollywood glamour, and it shows in their designs. "Our dresses reflect it all: the films, the Avedon portraits, and stars like Grace Kelly and Brigitte Bardot," says Badgley.
Words of Wisdom: "A good fit is so important," says Mischka. "If it suits you perfectly, even a basic gown can look incredible."
About This Dress: The ruched silk-satin bodice and skirt of pleated tulle fans took cues from "great party scenes in our favorite films, such as 'The Women,' 'All About Eve,' and 'Now, Voyager,' says Badgley.
"Anastacia" gown, 310-248-3750. Siman Tu large hair comb, julianas.net.
Named after an eccentric Italian heiress, this enchanting line was established in 2004 when Chapman (far left) and Craig met at design school in London. Seven years later, "we feel very fortunate to create gowns that play such an important role in a woman's life," says Chapman. And the brides they've dressed -- including Emily Blunt and Nicole Richie -- undoubtedly feel fortunate to have worn them.
Signature Style: The duo are known for their incredible attention to detail, including glittering embroidery and three-dimensional floral applique. "Everything is completely handcrafted," says Craig.
Words of Wisdom: When choosing a gown, go with something that highlights the features you like most. "If you don't feel completely comfortable, you are simply not going to look your best," Chapman says.
About This Dress: "The delicate embroidery, high neckline, and long sleeves maintain that romantic, feminine aesthetic that we love so much," says Chapman.
When Rose unveiled her ready-to-wear line in 1998, she soon realized that many of her clients were altar-bound -- not just brides, but bridesmaids, mothers of the bride and groom, and even shower attendees. In 2006, she made it official and branched out into bridal. "We were used to dressing women for events, so it just seemed like a natural fit," she says. And it was -- the proof is in her rapidly growing brand.
Signature Style: "We're not really about the shiny white gown," says Rose. "It's more about using natural fabrics and incorporating handmade details." Case in point: "When a bride buys a dress, we sew her wedding date to the inside."
Words of Wisdom: "A lot of women come in and choose something off the rack because they don't want to wear a 'wedding gown,'" says Rose. "But why not? You're getting married -- it's the one time when you can really go for it."
About This Dress: "It has a gorgeous peplum shape, but my favorite part is the fabric," says Rose. "We designed it with metallic thread, so it's the perfect blend of something old and something new."
"The Chateau" gown, Hitched; 202-333-6162. Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry earrings, ivankatrumpcollection.com. Roberto Coin "Fantasia Collection" bracelet, Neiman Marcus; 888-888-4757. Kwiat platinum ring, kwiat.com.
A background in architecture continues to influence this Venezuelan creative, who rose to fame in his home country before bringing his bridal designs to the States in 1999. "One of the reasons I think my line was so well received is because I learned early on that just as no two women are alike," he says. "I create each dress with a very specific person in mind." Music to a prospective bride's ears.
Signature Style: Poufy and heavily ornamented? Not Sanchez. "Everything I do is sleek, precise, and contemporary," he says. "I'm an architect, so I concentrate on the lines and proportions more than anything else."
Words of Wisdom: "When you find 'the dress,' you'll know. If you don't feel an instant chemistry when you look in the mirror, don't buy it!"
About This Dress: Though Sanchez was inspired by corsets, there's nothing stiff or restrained about this sheath. "It has a definite shape, but it's soft and light," he says. "When the bride moves, it dances with her."
Perez was born to design -- literally. "My mother was a seamstress who sewed wedding dresses for our community in Cuba," he says. "I saw how much joy that brought her and always wanted to follow in her footsteps." Twenty-five years after creating his first piece, he helms not one but two labels: Lazaro and Tara Keely. And to the delight of brides around the world, he can't imagine doing anything else. "I still get swept up in the happiness of it all," he says.
Signature Style: Known for his fanciful embroidery and beading, Perez sees dress potential all around him. "It starts with something as simple as wallpaper or a flower and evolves from there," he says.
Words of Wisdom: Embrace the spotlight, advises Perez. "If you're proud of the way you look in your dress, why not flaunt it?"
About This Dress: "It's all drama," he says of the embroidered strapless ball gown. "I love big, opulent shapes like this. It was made for the bride who wants to be noticed on her big day."
The Lebanese designer (pictured with beloved dog Lou Lou) was discovered by a fashion editor while attending college in Beirut. But she didn't launch a formal line until 1997, when she was asked to whip up a wedding gown for a friend. "Everyone was raving about it, so I sent a photo to a few magazines," she says. "All of a sudden I got an order for 30 dresses." Fourteen years later, the craze hasn't died down.
Signature Style: Brides seek out the label for its luxurious beading, embroidery, gold bullion needlework -- and cachet. The gowns have shown up in royal weddings around the world, but "to me, every bride is a princess," Acra notes.
Words of Wisdom: Hard as it may be, try to avoid trends, says Acra. "Years from now, you don't want your children to ask, 'What were you thinking?' Your wedding look should never go out of fashion."
About This Dress: This delicate cap-sleeve fishtail number "is light and airy, with an interesting neckline and a lot of sparkle. I was influenced only by my brides and what they want in a gown. This is it!"
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