Like millions of other brides, Amsale Aberra wanted to find the perfect wedding dress. Her preference was something simple yet sophisticated, but that wasn't so easy to come by in 1985, when the billowing ball-gown style made famous by Princess Diana was still the rage. "I looked through all those wedding magazines, and at that time you could not possibly find something simple," she recalls. So Aberra, an assistant designer at a sportswear label, made her own dress. It had clean lines, a simple chiffon skirt and illusion sleeves.
A few months later, thinking that "it cannot be that I am the only one who wants something simple," she placed a classified ad in a bridal magazine before heading off with her new husband on a vacation to her native Ethiopia. They returned home to "tons of calls" from other brides in search of a more elegant look and to the start of what would become a $20 million bridal-gown business. Aberra's trademark remains fashion-forward simplicity. And when the producers of ABC's Grey's Anatomy were looking for a wedding dress for Sandra Oh's no-nonsense character, Cristina, to wear on the season finale of the hit medical show, they chose a $6,600 strapless mermaid style by Aberra.
The sexy silhouette might belie Cristina's tough-girl attitude, but the choice is in keeping with the current trend for tastefully revealing bridal gowns. As a fashion-conscious sensibility infiltrates so many design categories, even the traditional wedding-gown market is getting trendy. "I had no idea brides were so ready to bare it," says Aberra, pointing to another of her recent hits, the Reese dress, a silk faille design with a completely bare back and plunging neckline.
Aberra, 53, came to the U.S. from Addis Ababa in 1973 to study commercial art at Green Mountain College in Vermont. Four months after she arrived, the Ethiopian government collapsed, and her diplomat father was imprisoned, leaving Aberra without any financial resources. She moved to Boston to live with her half sister and took a job waitressing in a hamburger joint. After she was fired for speaking too softly, Aberra found another gig, as a cashier at a small coffee shop at the Harvard Science Center, but dreamed of becoming a clothing designer. "I always made my own clothes when I was younger," she says. "My parents bought me a Singer sewing machine, and certainly when I had no money here, I made everything myself." She eventually followed her then boyfriend, a Harvard Law School grad, to New York City, where she enrolled in classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology and, after a while, landed a job at the sportswear label Harvé Benard.
Wedding dresses were the last thing on Aberra's mind until her future husband proposed, she made her own gown, and that casually placed ad revealed that there were other brides searching for a more stylish look. For three years she operated a custom business out of her Manhattan loft--considering it mainly a hobby until department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman came calling. Her business now includes her signature line; a more romantic label, Christos, which she acquired five years ago; and the traditional Kenneth Pool, which she bought two years ago and has entrusted to Austin Scarlett, a Project Runway contestant.
Aberra still claims she learned everything about the wedding-gown business from working one on one with brides. "It's the emotional aspect of the dress," she says. "I get the bridezilla thing. I know why they are so stressed out." That's also how she refined her aesthetic, often defying buyers' demands and listening to brides instead.
When buyers insisted in 1987 that brides needed sleeves, Aberra stuck to her vision and created a sleeveless organza design that remains a best seller. In 2003, when bridal buyers were resisting color, she created a dress with a pale blue sash that was that year's most popular style. This season Aberra is banking on the "destination" dress, an airy tulle princess-line gown designed for brides who want to get married on a beach.
Today she is one of the top three bridal designers at Saks and a favorite of celebrities like Julia Roberts, who wore Aberra in the movie Runaway Bride, and Salma Hayek, for whom Aberra has designed evening gowns. "The bridal business tends to be very traditional, and she has worked toward moving it forward, yet still keeping her dresses elegant and sophisticated," says Joseph Boitano, Saks' general merchandise manager.
Although Aberra has branched out into evening wear, she still sells custom wedding dresses in her Madison Avenue boutique, where a made-to-order dress starts at $25,000. "It's a service business," she says, "and weddings now are such a big thing, people are willing to spend a lot of money for something very special."