Damn Fine Brides | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Business

Damn Fine Brides

Trouser designer Ava Bishop takes on wedding gowns


Published February 13, 2008 at 11:35 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Ava Bishop

Anyone who’s been through the grueling task of finding the right store-bought wedding dress may want to direct future fiancées to Ava Bishop. The 29-year-old custom couture designer is every bride’s fairy godmother: Tell her what you want, then watch her create it from scratch to fit you alone.

Her magic wand? Oversized sketchbooks and long, long hours.

“I’m not opposed to 14-hour days,” Bishop says with a smile, pushing a chair past her current project: a dummy draped in a 1975 wedding dress she is reworking. Her studio, a lofty section of the old brick Magic Hat brewery on Flynn Avenue, which she shares with an artist, is surprisingly homey. Projects in progress crowd the cutting table, and high-heeled shoes lie scattered beneath racks of finished party dresses.

Effusive and light-hearted in person, Bishop is seriously dedicated to the art of couture sewing. While finishing a major in photography at Humboldt State University in northern California, the native Vermonter began working with a solo custom dressmaker, meeting with brides and then cutting and sewing their dream dresses. The job amounted to a nearly five-year apprenticeship: “The boss gave me the keys” to her shop and studio, Bishop says, encouraging her to practice and experiment. The two created more than 40 individually designed wedding dresses.

When the owner moved on, Bishop found work at a nearby contract-sewing establishment — in mass production. Though the job was monotonous, she liked playing with new toys: “When you make 20 shirts, you lay out 20 layers of material and cut them all at once with a vertical handcutter — like a saw with a fine-detail blade,” she recalls. “The machines in this business are awesome!” That was about the only thing that inspired awe, though: Under the fluorescent lights of the huge warehouse, Bishop soon found herself sewing elastic on pink and blue crib sheets eight hours a day. She lasted three months.

In 2004, the South Albany native returned to Vermont and settled in Morrisville, where she set to work creating her own lines of clothing: the aptly named Damn Fine Pants and a collection of spunky, detail-oriented tops and dresses called Little Savage. By 2006, Bishop was selling out of the Made Boutique in Burlington and on consignment at Winooski’s Green Closet; she made a big splash at the first Art Hop fashion show, called “Strut.”

But making casual garments individually to sell at designer prices is a difficult proposition anywhere, let alone in Vermont. Made Boutique shut its doors in December, and Bishop has pulled her creations from Green Closet, which is run by fellow couture designer Xmas Maxon-Alley. “It’s very scary putting money down not knowing if it will come back,” she explains. Bishop shifted her focus to bridal wear when she realized that customers who expressed interest in a wedding dress were more likely to follow through than those who browsed through a rack of pants.

Five of Bishop’s wedding dresses made their first public Burlington appearance at “Strut II” last fall. Again, they were attention-grabbers: whimsical but wearable concoctions topped with wild sprays of white veil attached to the models’ heads. The gowns themselves ranged from a slinky white silk number that brushed the floor to a four-layer, flower-patterned skirt with a fitted, strapless white bodice. One dress was a bright, tongue-in-cheek red.

While she allows her imagination free rein at fashion shows, Bishop will happily produce exactly what each bride envisions. Occasionally she suggests adding funky details, but in general her Vermont customers have preferred a traditional look, she says. “What I’ve dealt with here is some off-whites and some stark whites with, say, a pink beaded top.” (Examples of her work can be viewed at her website gallery.)

To find her market niche, Bishop takes customers’ budgets into careful consideration; her dresses start at $450. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘I’ve gone shopping everywhere, and I haven’t seen anything I like in my price point,’” she says.

Three months ago, Bishop moved her operation to Burlington. She hopes to see customers by appointment rather than running her studio as a shop, in deference to the artist whose space she shares. Brides contemplating a Damn Fine Pants wedding dress — Bishop is retaining her original label and website name, for now — should give the designer a lead time of three to four months, she says. The first consultation — “where we talk about ideas” — is free. At a second meeting, design is solidified and fabric chosen. Bishop gets her materials mostly online, from Thai Silks in L.A. and Mood Fabrics in New York. By the third meeting, she says, she’ll need a deposit.

“My process is building on the bride from the ground up,” Bishop states. That means she first creates the bodice and skirt out of cheap muslin, adjusting the dummy to match the customer. Then she dismantles her work, lays each piece on top of the real material, and re-cuts and re-sews the entire thing. The work may go even further. Bishop picks up a strip of ruched material, formerly the waistline of a wedding dress that she altered for the customer to wear to parties. It took her four hours just to remove the strip, she says, which was anchored by rows of hand-covered buttons to the front and back.

For such painstaking work, Bishop spends long hours alone in her studio, sometimes bringing her cat along for company. “It’s a ton of work. It’s fun, though,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve acquired a lot of new music.”

Bishop also designs bridesmaids’ dresses, and she has begun a line of underpants, Damn Fine Panty Line. There’s crossover potential there, she admits with another chuckle. Most bridal shops offer extras, such as ring pillows — why not wedding-night panties? Bishop doesn’t want to specialize in lacy lingerie, though. “Ultimately, I like superhero underwear,” she says. “They should definitely be something you can dance around your house in.”

Bishop has drawn some attention outside Vermont. Two online craftmarts, Etsy and Stars and Infinite Darkness, recently picked up her creations — a business boon in the rare- fied world of solo couture creators.

“This is an ongoing learning process,” Bishop accedes. “It’s taken a long time, but I’m glad about that: I want to build it to carry me through my life.”