Snow-white gowns with trains running a mile long may be a popular choice for a walk down the wedding aisle in the United States, but some local brides are embracing a new look – the color, vibrancy and allure of ensembles that use the rich silks found in couture fabric shops in India and opulent Bollywood movies.
The look reflects cultural changes that run deeper than what is seen on the surface.
“It’s a growing trend,” said Namrita Chettiar, a bridal-wear designer who operates from her home studio in Los Altos.
Chettiar described the transition she’s witnessed since opening her small custom bridal design business six years ago.
“When I started this business, I was doing very traditional dresses,” she said. “The people who come in today are looking for something brighter, beaded, something Asian. Most of the couples that come to me are cross-cultural. … A lot of Caucasians are getting married to Indians. … It’s a growing spectrum.”
Approximately 80 percent of couples that Chettiar now dresses for weddings are cross-cultural, a trend she attributes to the growing diversity of the Bay Area. The Pew Research Center’s 2012 study on “The Rise of Intermarriage” reinforces the perception, reporting that between 2008 and 2010, nearly 22 percent of all newlyweds on the West Coast married someone of a different race or ethnicity.
Although Tanya Mulvey didn’t have much experience with Indian weddings when she began planning her big day, she knew that she didn’t want her dress to be too traditional or “overdone.”
A bit apprehensive, Mulvey reached out to Chettiar for a custom bridal gown on the recommendation of a friend.
“She somehow took my blurry vision of nontraditional Indian-American wedding dress and created the most beautiful wedding dress I’d ever seen,” said Mulvey of the three-piece Lehenga-style dress Chettiar designed for her.
On her wedding day last fall, Mulvey shone in a brocaded corset framed by delicate gold and red straps that flowed into a multipanel skirt adorned with silver, gold and red beadwork. The silky skirt fabric layered atop tulle grew slightly more voluminous as it culminated in a strip of shimmering gold trim and a delicate edging of red beads. A translucent gold pallu-style wrap wound around Mulvey’s gown to add continuity to the piece.
“I loved everything about it,” Mulvey said. “It was perfect for the whole event, bringing two cultures together.”
Stitching together a niche business
For Mulvey and many other brides planning a multicultural ceremony, Chettiar is not only a gifted designer, but also someone who has the ability to fuse cultures.
According to the designer, many of her multicultural couples seek to blend the artistry and traditions of their Asian roots with a more contemporary American look and feel for their wedding gown and bridal party attire.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” said Chettiar, who grew up in India. “They want the best of both worlds.”
As a child, Chettiar was mesmerized by the tailoring work of her grandfather, an Indian atelier, and the fashion flair of her aunts. Pursuing an education in engineering and science took precedence over her creative aspirations, so it would be a number of years before Chettiar rekindled her passion for fashion.
After completing studies at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in San Francisco, Chettiar launched the first Indian bridal design house in the Bay Area.
Inspired by American designer Vera Wang and the glamour and color of Bollywood and Indian royalty, Chettiar’s work is extravagant yet simple. She noted that the traditional thinking for Southeast Asian wedding attire is that “there is nothing you can’t do to outdo someone else.” Chettiar’s dresses celebrate the small details that accentuate the beauty of the bride rather than detract from it.
“As much as my collection isn’t like (Vera Wang’s), it’s very modern, updated and reflects the desires of the modern American woman,” she said. “I love color, but I’m very controlled in the way I use it.”
Demand for her custom-designed bridal wear has steadily increased from a few walk-ins a weekend to as many as 45 appointments with prospective clients on the average Saturday. To balance demand with capacity, she currently meets by appointment only.
Each custom dress Chettiar designs begins with a visit to her studio to view and try on different dress styles. Working with her client’s desired style, colors and tastes, she creates hand-drawn sketches that become the basis for the manufacturing and beadwork completed in her partner shop in Delhi, a process that can take up to six months. Chettiar said her clients’ budgets range from $500 to $5,000. As a small business, she takes on 15-20 brides per month.
Chettiar also offers a ready-wear bridal line, VASTRA, “garment” in Hindi. The ready-made options make for a one-stop shop for the trousseau. And given the growing influence of the Internet as a wedding-planning tool, more and more of Chettiar’s prospective clients discover her work through her online collections.
As Chettiar prepares to unveil her 2014 collection, scheduled for release in March or April, she is picking up on some trends for the new year.
In addition to the rise in popularity of the Pantone Color of the Year 2014 – Radiant Orchid – and hues of the lush purple that are not new to the color palette in South Asia, Chettiar sees requests for the infusion of other colors and elements, including lace.
“Lots of golds, creams, reds and traditional Indian colors … tones of pinks,” she said. “After dinner, I see more blues and shades of green.”
Regardless of how styles evolve, Chettiar expects to dress even more brides for their multicultural weddings as her business grows.
For more information, visit namritachettiar.com.