Aimee Lauren's studio is in Manchester inside Plant Zero. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
"It meant everything to me. It meant the world,” says Kathleen Durant of her decision to wear her mother’s circa 1969 wedding gown. “Honestly, it was a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t I want to wear it? I never even gave it a second thought about looking for another dress.”
Durant isn’t alone. More brides are opting to don dresses that their mothers or grandmothers wore, rather than purchasing new. “I think people are really starting to realize the value of meaningful things and relationships,” says Aimee Lauren, owner of Aimee Lauren Atelier in Richmond. “I hope that the trend is to be more thoughtful, and by being more thoughtful, things matter more and you have things that mean more to you.”
Aimee Lauren in her studio (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Durant chose Lauren to redesign her mother’s dress after learning about her through a friend. Lauren turned the 1969 gown that Durant compares to Princess Diana’s wedding dress into a more modern version, while keeping elements intact. Lace was saved from parts of the train and from the collar. An important aspect of her mother’s ensemble was the long sequence of buttons that went down the back. Lauren made sure to keep those on the redesigned dress.
Lauren has been restoring and redesigning dresses for nearly 15 years. She says that she has always been a creative with a love of art. Her mother, Aisayisha Silbursch, owned an antique shop in Marin County, California, and passed on her appreciation for older, well-made items to her daughter.
Lauren earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Fashion. She landed in New York City after college, where she worked as a clothing designer and fashion stylist, along with several odd jobs. She honed her redesign skills after her sewing services were requested by a few local drag queens.
That led to her bridal work. A couple of photographers she was working with at the time became engaged and told Lauren they were having trouble finding something they really liked. They requested Lauren’s services and at first she was hesitant, nervous about whether she could make something they would be pleased with. “I was very scared, but it all just kind of happened very organically,” she says.
To Restore or Not to Restore?
Durant was lucky. Her mother’s dress hadn’t been properly preserved, but it was still in good enough condition that it could be restored. Not all dresses fare as well. Lauren says they should be stored in a dark, climate-controlled environment — no sweltering attics or musty basements. Sometimes, preservation treatments weren't done well, and chemicals weren’t completely rinsed out. “There’s all sorts of things that can change the half-life over time: fibers break down, silk is a protein, wool is delicious to moths … there are so many things that can go wrong, but there are tons of things that can go right, too,” Lauren says. She notes that sometimes she’s pleasantly surprised when a gown has been stored in less than desirable conditions, but remains in fairly decent shape. “The dress can have wine on it and it can have tears and the beads can be coming off, but if it was protected to the degree that I can work with it … you’re good to go,” Lauren says.
Lauren adds restored lace from a gown to a new veil. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Lauren has worked with gowns where the material literally fell apart in her hands. Sometimes, nothing can be saved, as the dress is too far gone. In other cases, she can use elements such as lace, beads and buttons, and transfer them to a new gown. She often creates veils using the organza and lace from heirloom gowns.
“I would say about 80 percent of the time, the heirloom itself is more often than not the major contributor to the redesign,” Lauren says. “It is not as often that the heirloom itself is what the bride wears.”
Lauren carefully reviews the integrity of the fabric, lace, beading, linings and closures. She cleans all the components she hopes to use for the renewed and re-envisioned gown. (Photo by Aimee Lauren)
Restoration or Redesign?
Lauren will analyze the gown to determine if it is structurally sound enough for restoration. “Sometimes just even by smelling it, I’ll know it’s been in an attic, it’s been somewhere musty, it’s gotten wet or it’s been somewhere where it was dark and hot,” Lauren says. Touch is another way to assess the integrity of the fabric; it should not be able to tear away as if it were tissue paper.
If the dress is structurally sound, it is a good candidate for a simple restoration, where the dress is dipped in cleaning agents and necessary repairs are made. Minor modifications and alterations may be made, but for the most part the original gown remains intact. If the dress is not structurally sound, it is a good candidate for a redesign.
Some brides feel obligated to wear an heirloom dress. “I get calls about it every day, all day. Sometimes it’s because grandma wants them to wear her dress and says, ‘Oh, I saved this for you.’ ” Lauren explains that this guilt trip will often send brides into a panic, contacting Lauren about their options. “I’m like, ‘just bring it in here. Maybe part of it is so trashed that you won’t have to wear her dress, but you can wear part of her dress, and she can be just as happy.”
In these scenarios, a redesign is usually the route Lauren will take with her clients. She’ll sit down with the bride-to-be, discover her wants and dislikes and then will work together with her to establish what will be possible to make that gown become something she’s excited to walk down the aisle in.
The Money Question
Lauren lets brides know before any work is done what their options are and if it is cost effective to pursue. Some brides will be willing to spend the extra money to hold onto a piece of their past. Others may choose to just preserve a small part of the gown and create their own vision. Lauren recently worked with a bride who did just that. She had a set budget for her gown, but Lauren could not make the dress in the fashion she wanted with that amount. So, she sent her to Church Street Bridal in Lynchburg where she purchased a couture, discounted dress with proceeds benefiting the YWCA of Central Virginia’s domestic violence prevention and intervention programs. Lauren was able to alter the strapless ball gown into a mermaid dress with a slit. The budget was met with the dress ultimately coming in at just under $1,100. “If I can’t make that beautiful dress that you want, we’re going to find that dress that’s as close as possible and we’re going to make that dress the beautiful dress that you want,” Lauren says.
So while some heirloom restorations and redesigns can reach into the thousands, Lauren says a dress in decent shape with some age and a simple silhouette with minor alterations and modifications will usually range from $1,200 to $1,500. However, every gown is different so costs will vary.
Making a Memory
The underlying reasons for having an heirloom dress restored or redesigned is the sentimentality of wearing a piece that has been passed down through family or close friends. Durant says, “I definitely felt when I put that dress on that it was my day and I felt very empowered and I was excited to walk down the aisle to my husband.”
Kathleen Durant's wedding in 2014, wearing a renewed version of her mother's dress (Photo by Hay Alexandra Photography)
“It’s really cool to see the mom see her daughter walking with her father who married [the mom] in that dress however many years before and there’s their child in it,” Lauren says.
A sentiment Durant’s mother, Mary Durant, can agree with. “I thought my heart was going to burst when I saw her in that dress knowing that 45 years ago [I wore it],” she says.
And ultimately the dress is a symbol of family bonds.
“It symbolizes family and loyalty and commitment and weathering whatever everybody had to weather to get to where they were as a family,” Lauren says. “Being a family is not easy, it’s not for the faint of heart, being a tribe is hard work.”