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Ahead of NYC flagship opening, bridal designer Claire Pettibone discusses 30 years of success

By Jackie Mallon


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People |Interview

Claire Pettibone gown with Florals by @letaverbena Credits: Elizabeth Messina

After 30 years in business, Claire Pettibone, founder of her eponymous wedding collection, is an anomaly in an era of conglomerate-owned brands: a successful independent designer with an unwavering point of view. Her clients have become accustomed to an enchanted experience when shopping for a bridal gown, but until now, they had to travel to her only brick and mortar location, a salon at The Castle, a late Gothic and Revival Romanesque building with a dramatic arch and gold leaf mirrored doors in Los Angeles. However, this New York Bridal Fashion Week, Pettibone will throw a party to celebrate the opening of a Manhattan store. FashionUnited caught up with Pettibone as she reflects on three decades of business, her devotion to all things vintage from a young age; and the appeal of her hand sketched dresses, with meticulously selected beads, embroidery and flowers.

How did you get started?

After I graduated from Otis, I got a job in the industry as a designer, met my husband and we started our business together out of our house. This year, it's going to be 30 years in marriage and business. I was designing lingerie and within the first year we outgrew our house and had to get an actual space because we were selling to Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, along with stores all over the world. We opened our own retail store in 2001, and that was when I started designing bridal.

Claire Pettibone gown with florals @letaverbena Credits: Elizabeth Messina

Why did you decide to move from lingerie to bridal?

I designed a wedding dress for a really good friend of mine. I already did very elaborate lingerie, beautiful peignoir sets and gowns and, in those days, bridal was very traditional with big, puffy ballgowns. So brides started having my nightgowns lined and wearing them as wedding dresses which sort of started sparked the idea. I think we placed an ad in a small wedding magazine, and from that we just started having brides fly in from all over the world. I always loved designing lingerie but a wedding dress is kind of the ultimate for me. When we did our first market in New York Bridal Fashion Week, it just went over so well, the press loved it and we got a lot of attention.

What connected your vision from lingerie to bridal?

I obviously have a very feminine style. I always had that. That's why I went into lingerie because at the time minimalism was very in fashion. And I just had a different idea of beauty so lingerie seemed like a natural fit. When I first started bridal, people would say it looks very lingerie inspired, which at the time was kind of unheard of. I just had a vision for what a bride could look like, very ethereal and romantic but special. If a bride wanted that uniqueness, 20 or 30 years ago, they usually went vintage shopping.

To what extent do vintage influences form part of your design process?

I have a love for vintage. When I was a child my parents bought this house in upstate New York and the previous owner had died and left things like 1920s beaded dresses and old handbags and all these photos. I think she'd been quite the fashion plate. As a four year old child looking at all of that, it just made such an impression on me of this other world. It kind of captured me and still does, the craft and those intricate and special details. It really has my heart, and especially for a wedding gown which is such a symbolic dress, putting the details and thought into it is really important for me.

From dressing celebrities to business longevity, was there a pivotal moment in your career when you realized you’d made it?

There have been a lot of moments, but I would say when Mark Zuckerberg’s wedding happened, that was a really big deal. His wife wore one of my dresses and it was kind of a surprise to all of us actually because she had used a fake name and it was kept secret until the day. But when that news broke, it was on a global scale. And it really helped put our brand on the map. Their wedding had been on the cover of People magazine and on Entertainment Tonight and all over the global news. I had a bride coming in the following week, I think from Canada, and going through customs the agent asked her what she was doing in the US and she replied she was shopping for her wedding dress. The agent asked her if she was going to see Zuckerberg’s wife’s dress designer and she said. ‘Actually, I am!’”

Detail of Pettibone's LA store in The Castle Credits: Elizabeth Messina

Why did you choose New York for the second store?

We have been feeling the need for a New York salon for many years. We have a lot of clients there and we've always known it would be a great opportunity. It was just a matter of timing. We've been selling to Nicole Bridal for over 10 years in Philadelphia, and they decided to open a New York store with the intention of a partnership, bringing together designers that didn't have another New York outlet, so we just felt like it was the right situation. We know them well and they understand our brides and take great care of them as we would do. And so we decided to open an in-store boutique. Half the store is branded with our look, and I've taken inspiration from our Los Angeles flagship which is a beautiful historic landmark. I’ve really tried to bring some of that to the east coast and I'm really excited about it. I think it's it's gonna be something special and a little different, and I think that our East Coast brides are going to love it.

What’s the secret to surviving a global recession, a pandemic, market ups and downs and the fickleness of fashion?

This business is not for the faint of heart. You have to really love it and be quite determined because there still are ups and downs that are so challenging. I don't feel like it ever gets easy. I guess the entrepreneur spirit is something you either have in your blood or you don't, and it helps to see you through those tough times. You have to be very open to change, where you are willing to take a look at your business, at what's going on in the world, and sometimes make changes or adjustments. For me, as a designer, being true to my vision has been really important. And it's been challenging at times, when the world wants to send you in a different direction or you think you should be doing this or that. But if you have really a strong point of view, then staying true to that vision is key to the success. I have found that the brides who love what I do, they just love what I do. We can't be all things to everyone. But if you're the best at what you have to offer, then I feel like that's everything

Claire Pettibone
New York Fashion Week Bridal
Store opening