The couple welcomed a whopping 550 guests to their classic nuptials in New Jersey.
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The stars were bound to cross the paths of teenage Shqipe Berisha and Zenel Lulanaj—their respective best friends were brother and sister. At the time, though, Zenel thought Shqipe was "way out of my league," so he friended her on Facebook to play it safe. Not long after, the future groom suffered an accident that landed him in the hospital. Their just-friends dynamic shifted when Shqipe diligently visited him every day; it was then that Zenel first felt like their relationship was something more than platonic. They began dating shortly after Zenel's recuperation and have been together ever since.
Eight years later, Zenel, a New York State Trooper, insisted on taking his girlfriend (Martha Stewart's personal executive assistant) to a fancy restaurant in the middle of a huge snow storm. She thought this was both absurd and funny, especially since they'd visited the restaurant before. "A few years into our relationship, Zenel took me to [the same restaurant] and I thought for sure he was going to propose—until the steak came out. Steak is his favorite food and this place was known for their rib eye," Shqipe recalls. "He knew where my mind went and we still laugh about that day." So when her then-boyfriend insisted on visiting the same spot again, in spite of the bad weather, she felt that she couldn't say no. "I begged him to reschedule, but I couldn't stand between him and the rib eye," the bride says.
"I remember the classical music and soft lighting feeling so serene against the havoc on the other side of the glass. It felt like being in the eye of the storm, and with that thought in my mind, he proposed," Shqipe remembers. "I was completely shocked, but it couldn't be a better moment. He's always my calm in any storm."
Fifteen months later, the couple said "I do" on April 8, 2018. They welcomed 550 guests for an epic country club wedding full of Albanian Muslim traditions in a stunning, day-long affair that the bride says "was like a dream."
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Shqipe and Zenel opened their nuptials with fancy stationery, which was written in Albanian. The Minted invitations were a rich charcoal color with gold foil accents and stark white lettering. They also purchased a custom embosser to create their own gold seal and added in a piece of vellum paper for texture (and to protect the main invite card from the wax). "I think there was a time when people invested a lot of money in stationery. Now you order gorgeous cards at a reasonable price and add a few DIY accents and it can be just as special!" Shqipe says.
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Lots of Tradition
With big families from all over the Greater New York tri-state area, Shqipe and Zenel let their parents select the multiple locations for their big day. "Our wedding was just as important to them as it was to us," explains the bride, who wanted to make sure everyone was happy.
Shqipe's wedding celebrations began at 10 a.m. with a kenagjegj—a special reception hosted by the bride's family—at Eastwood Manor in the Bronx. Meanwhile, from Zenel's house in New York state, a select group of dasmore and dasmoresha (the groom's closest family members) gathered in preparation to pick up Shqipe for the next portion of the festivities. Around noon, they brought Shqipe to Zenel's house, where he was waiting to see his future wife. The bride's journey was only halfway over, however—she needed to go through a series of rituals before she could be reunited with her groom.
"The men closest to the groom escort the bride from the car to the front door where a mixture of grains, candy, and coins are thrown over the bride so that she enters the household with abundance," Zenel explains. At the doorstep, another close family member (in this case, Zenel's aunt) puts a loaf of bread under the bride's one arm and a holy book under the other ("These are symbols of prosperity, happiness, and good faith."). The bride then dips her fingertips in water mixed with sugar and taps the upper threshold of the door three times to foreshadow a sweet life in her new home. She must enter the house leading with her right foot first. "In other words, to 'start off on the right foot,'" the groom explains.
These practices only heightened the anticipation for their first look. "The smile on his face when we met for the first time that day will always be my most cherished memory," Shqipe recalls. Zenel agrees: "I was left in awe and just thought to myself, 'How did I get so lucky?'"
When the groom's family picked up Shqipe from the kenagjegj, some of the women (and this young lady) were wearing veshje e katunit, a traditional Albanian outfit from Kosovo. The striking handmade looks, made of natural materials, require multiple layers of garments and accessories. "This outfit was commonly worn by women dating back as far as the 1800s. Now it's worn during times of celebration, but can be quite expensive to have made," Shqipe says. "The jelek is the vest, which is also handmade and unique to each person that buys one. They often use real 24-karat gold thread and beautiful crystals to adorn [the fabric]."
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After completing the cultural traditions at Zenel's house, the couple and wedding party jetted to Martha's farm in Bedford, New York, for photos. "We knew April was going to be a tricky month for outdoor portraits," the bride says. "So, we needed to think of a place that, with or without bloom, is still architecturally striking and perfectly maintained year-round and there is no better place than Martha's property."
Zenel was blown away by the estate. "I was very grateful that Ms. Stewart allowed us to do a photo shoot at the farm. It was just amazing to see something so beautiful in the heart of Westchester," Zenel says.
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One Great Gown
The stylish bride approached the often-overwhelming process of selecting a wedding dress with one sweet intention—her groom. "I only thought about Zenel when picking my gown. He's the only one I wanted to impress. Most of my guests probably forgot what my gown looked like but, I knew the memory would last a lifetime for him," Shqipe says.
After trying on around 50 different wedding dresses without feeling wowed, the bride decided she wanted something with "good bones," so she set out to make her own gown. The dress she ultimately chose was a Stephen Yearick number purchased at Bridal Reflections. "From the lining, to the overall silhouette, to the hem line, it was completely transformed to my vision at the hands of Amelia at Bridal Reflections, who was so persistent in making sure I was happy," she says. Martha also dazzled, wearing shimmering gray pants with a creamy silk blouse.
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Shqipe completed her look with glittering accessories. "I knew that I wanted my hair down and very full so I wanted something dainty as a headpiece in order to maintain a balance," she says of her Etsy headpiece. "I also purchased two veils, one cathedral style [from Vera Wang] to make my grand entrance and a fingertip veil [from Etsy], which I switched into after. I felt it was important to have a veil on the whole time. It's that staple accessory that you only get to wear as a bride and I wanted to soak it in!"
The crafty bride even made a little something for her bridesmaids—Albanian hankies called mindila. "It's an accessory used to dance with! I thought it would be a nice keepsake that I also made to match the belt on their dresses," Shqipe says. Her own bridal mindila was handmade by her sister, Shkurte Shala.
On her feet, Shqipe wore a pair of crystal embellished Christian Louboutin heels, which were a gift from her mother-in-law. She later changed into a pair of comfortable platform sandals for the evening reception.
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Her Favorite Jewelry
On the big day, Shqipe kept her favorite jewelry close. She wore her promise ring that Zenel gave her after one year after dating and another special ring from her mother. "I also had on a beautiful set of diamond earrings and bracelet from my lovely in-laws [from Sofer Jewelry] and a David Yurman bracelet gifted to me at my bridal shower by one of my dearest friends, Valentina," she says.
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Shqipe's word of advice for other brides-to-be is to start a skincare regime long before the big day arrives. "Include a skincare regimen and start ASAP! It takes dedication and even a bit of trial and error so, don't wait. Most people begin dieting right away, I think seeing an aesthetician is equally important," she says. "You're going to be face-to-face with all of your guests (and photographer!) and you'll want that confidence from radiant, glowy skin."
"Planning a wedding can be very stressful and really take a toll on your skin, so drink lots of water and don't skip your monthly facial!" Shqipe adds. She got ready to put her best face forward with a little help from the team at the Skincare and Brow Lounge. On the morning of the wedding, Shqipe's hair and makeup were done by Liljana Fusha and Vjosa Pacuku respectively.
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The couple worked on their big-day flowers with Robert at Dalsimer Spitz & Peck, who they say was a true professional compared to some of the other pros they considered. "Our meeting with him was very different. He understood that buying this many flowers is uncommon for most people. He led the meeting by asking our color palettes, music, and ambiance," Shqipe says. "He really wanted to make us happy—that's a passionate craftsman!"
Together, they selected gorgeous, classic, and neutral blooms for an organic look that flowed throughout the big day. Shqipe's bouquet was made up of white calla lilies, roses, ranunculus, and peonies.
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Passionate about the details, Zenel went for a "classic and timeless" custom tuxedo from My.Suit. "The red and black paisley lining and label with his name on the inside were subtle reminders that this suit was one-of-a-kind." Shqipe felt exceptional in her bespoke gown and wanted her future husband "to have that same feeling," she says. "That attitude accompanies you throughout the day!"
"I wanted something different in a shirt, something I could probably only get away with wearing on an occasion as important as our wedding," says Zenel, who went with a pleated shirt from Hugo Boss; his bow tie and suspenders were also created by the same designer. He completed the look with an Audemars Piguet watch and Belvedere shoes, which were a gift from the bride.
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The couple and the wedding party journeyed from Martha's farm to a New Jersey country club for the ceremony and reception. Around 5:30 p.m., a small, religious service was officiated by a family friend. A highlight? The live processional music, which was performed by Lindon Gjelaj and Liria Dedvukaj (a gift from the father of the bride). "Everything was turning out to be so formal and sophisticated that we wanted to break the ice with something exciting and upbeat," Shqipe says of the selected song choice. The bridal party walked in to Ardian Bujupi & Dalool's "E Embel," an Albanian house song that's title translates to "Sweet."
Gjelaj and Dedvukaj then played "Bow Down" by Enca featuring Noizy, another popular, upbeat Albanian tune, which put everyone in the mood for the celebration to come.
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All 550 guests arrived at the venue just in time for cocktail hour, which began at 6 p.m. Partygoers munched on "just about every kind of cuisine" while a mixture of classical music, including hits by Frank Sinatra and Michael Bublé, played in the background.
After the merrymakers took their seats for dinner, Shqipe and Zenel made their grand entrance as husband and wife. "Looking out and seeing such a large crowd of people, all full of happiness because of us, was pretty amazing. It's sort of hard to explain, because leading up to that day all I thought about was just Zenel and how excited I was to marry him. I didn't expect the warm, powerful embrace from over 500 people," Shqipe says of another favorite moment. "It was a very unique feeling. From our perspective, not a single thing went wrong, I could relive that day forever."
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Shqipe, ever the creative, made over 600 menus for the reception. "I designed the layout and printed them on an ivory, textured cardstock. Then I used the Martha Stewart Crafts edge punch on the corners to give it something special," she says.
Guests dined on a first course of rigatoni pasta with tomato and basil, followed by a tri-color salad with baby arugula, radicchio, and red and white endive served with extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon. Then, there was a choice of three entrées: a duet of chateaubriand and chicken bruschetta served with seasonal potatoes and vegetables; pan-roasted Chilean sea bass; and artichoke-spinach risotto with tomato, scallion concasse, lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil.
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The lush, floral centerpieces featured white and cream blooms like tulips, hydrangea, roses, and dusty miller.
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"Our cake topper was handcrafted to look like us by Mudcards on Etsy. I kept this as a surprise for Zenel," says the bride, who didn't want her husband to know what her wedding dress looked like ahead of their nuptials. From the back, it had a silly surprise—the bride and groom cuffed together.
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The First Dance
The newlyweds took their first married spin to "I Can't Help Falling in Love" by Elvis Presley. "Zenel shared the Elvis version with me when we first met and it makes us smile every time we hear it," Shqipe says.
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The special evening drew to a close around midnight, when guests were sent home with bottles of raki (an alcohol comparable to grappa or moonshine.) The liquor was made by Zenel's Uncle Omer and the labels were created by Shqipe. They featured photos of the happy couple from their engagement shoot, which was captured by Boyko Photography.
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The Adventure Begins
After their day-long festivities, the newlyweds set off to their honeymoon in Cape Town, South Africa, where they enjoyed everything from wine tours and shark diving to safaris and a hike up Table Mountain. They shared all of their first married trip photos on The Martha Blog.
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Photography and Videography, Albapro
Kenagjegj location, Eastwood Manor
Flowers, Dalsimer Spitz and Peck
Bride's skincare, Skincare and Brow Lounge
Hair, Liljana Fusha,
Makeup, Vjosa Pacuku
Flower girl's dress, Dollcake
Groom's tuxedo, My.Suit
Escort cards, Amazon
Favors' label photography, Boyko Photography