WORDS LIZ FRENCH / PHOTOS QUINN O’CONNELL / SUPPLIED
Jules Bly has designed and made 100s of wedding gowns over 25 years and has never tired of the magic of helping create a real life fairy tale with one heroine, the bride.
The Sleeping Beauty might well be Jules’ favourite fairy tale. A vital consideration in every gown design is whether the bride could fall asleep in it!
Jules is very aware that when the bride dons her gown for the big day it’s the culmination of a huge and exhausting build up. Jules has usually been there from the beginning. “The most important person at a wedding is the bride and the most important thing is ensuring she not only looks amazing but also feels wonderful, and wonderfully comfortable,” says Jules. “My aim is to give her a fantastic experience right from the start. I treat every bride as though she is the only one. By the time I carry her gown to the car I will have been a privileged listener to her personal wedding ‘story’.”
A bride with the perfect gown is a happy bride and Jules clearly derives her pleasure from creating a dress the bride adores.
She finds her clients are pretty ‘bang on’ about what they want. “They used to come with photos, now they show me examples on their phones.” She does a full figure analysis before the design process starts. It will be three to five months later when the bride comes in for the final fitting. “I suggest she brings her mother,” Jules says, “who invariably cries at the sight of her beautiful daughter.”
The story of how Jules Bly came to be a creator of wedding gowns started many years ago and like any good fairy tale has its share of twists and chances, gilded promises, several Cinderellas and of course a handsome prince.
By the time Jules was four she had started dressing the dog and her dolls and when she was seven her mother taught her to use a sewing machine. Her career path was set. The family moved to Tauranga from Waikanae Beach when she was eight and her sense of place was set. During her high school days she worked at Arthur Toye Fabrics using her wages to pay off her machine and to buy material to sew.
She will be forever grateful that she studied for the London based Druleigh Diploma at the NZ College of Fashion Design in Auckland. “We learnt to draft patterns from blank paper. Precision and tailoring was instilled into us as was the ability to handcraft. These skills have been fundamental to my success,” she says.
Jules worked in the mainstream fashion industry in Auckland for four years before she was offered a position at Leslie De Pra, one of the city’s premier bridal couturiers in the 1980s. “We did a lot of intricate beading and sleeves were larger than your head.” (Conjuring visions of Princess Di.)
Jules passion for bridal gowns was kindled and so was her desire to deliver to the market gowns with less ‘meringue’ and more fluidity. She went out on her own in 1989 and in 1997 brought her business back to the Bay of Plenty and to Papamoa where she has been living her own fairy tale ever since.
The way her business has bloomed may stem back to that conviction that a bride should be able to be a sleeping beauty in her gown. Jules designs are definitely referenced by the environment she lives in, by understanding that a heavy suffocating dress does not work in a light bright hot climate, by appreciating that the happiest bride will be the one who does not have to think about her dress beyond the confidence she looks stunning.
THE DESTINATION WEDDING
It was partly this lightness of being which first attracted the overseas bridal industry. Also the advent of ‘destination weddings’ where, instead of a major production at home, couples were taking groups of friends to share their celebrations on tropical islands.
A wedding gown she created for a Hawaiian bride resulted in her being contacted by the editor of high end Hawaiian bridal magazine who wanted to include her gowns in a photo shoot.
‘Gold’ to a wedding gown designer. It established Jules in Hawaii with an agent and many invaluable contacts for building her brand in a luxury market. “We have done some wonderful shows there, like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and a waterside high tea at the Bayer Estate which is a turn of the century luxury wedding venue.”
Having a stockiest in Hawaii resulted in many commissions, one notable one when she met the bride’s ‘brief’ with two dresses in one – a boned bouffant affair (not so Jules Bly) which morphed into a slinky sinuous number (much more Jules Bly) for dancing at the reception.
Jules’ gowns have since graced many an island wedding, the most important one her own. Enter the handsome prince! Eight years ago Jules married her partner, Chef Mark (Zeph) Pieterson, not just in Hawaii but on Lanai’i Island where Bill Gates got married.
Jules does not like to gloat however she thinks that despite the fact that Bill took over the entire island for his wedding to Melinda, and that included the airspace above it, the spot Jules and Mark chose for their ceremony had a better view! They held the reception at the Four Seasons Hotel where she was well known from previous photo shoots. Except that this time she was in the limelight in a light as air gown with blue grey Chantilly lace shimmered in silver, over a central panel of white, a one off Jules Bly design. Mark played the part of prince to perfection. “He’s a beach boy, never seen dressed up,” laughs Jules, “But so handsome in a light toned bespoke Crane Brothers suit.”
BARE FEET IN NEW YORK
Jules bought her wedding lace in New York in 2005 during one of two frantic trips in preparation for her collection appearing in The Wedding Channel Couture Bridal Show. The chain of events was started when her work in the Hawaiian magazine was noticed and picked up by Grace Ormonde Wedding Style, the definitive ‘go to’ magazine for the American society wedding. This led to the invitation to appear in the The Wedding Channel’s show, the biggest event on the bridal calendar, attracting media from around the world and the most influential stockists of bridal wear, including the world’s largest wedding store. Participants were expected to take a suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel at thousands a night. “I only had a few months warning to not only ‘create and perfect’ 20 gowns for showing but also plan my marketing, choreograph my show, select models and enlist an events planner in New York to co ordinate my collection’s showing. My assistant came with me and we were beading on the plane. Then because it was New York and because my husband is a chef I was determined to eat out every night, before preparing for the next day. Those expensive beds did not get slept in much!”
The standard practice was for buyers to attend runway shows but nothing Jules does is standard. For a start she, bringing a breath of fresh air from the Antipodes, had decided that her models would not wear shoes. This created the first flutter. Then instead of a catwalk Jules Bly showed her gowns in a salon atmosphere, a la Coco Chanel, where buyers could study each gown in an intimate space. The largest wedding store’s buyers came, loved what they saw and, determined no one else was going to get a look in, they signed Jules Bly to their New York store with exaggerated promises. “It was the exclusivity they wanted, but their orders did not reflect this. For me, a lesson learnt.”
Jules also learnt a bit about the average American bride. “She is far more brand influenced. In choosing a gown she wants reinforcement that others have worn this style. Rather than putting her off, it encourages her.”
The Global Financial Crisis ended the days of the $5,000-$10,000 dress but played into Jules’ hands as her gowns ($2,800-$3,500) have always been seen as exceptional value for custom designs. Fast fashion too has had its impact, but comes with a warning. “Brides can purchase for about $200 something that photographs a dream but when it turns up it looks like a plastic bag and behaves like one,” she points out. “Also there is no emotional attachment to the gown.”
Jules Bly values emotional attachment. There is no fairy tale without it. She tells of the bride who brought her grandmother’s lace wedding dress to her. By deconstructing and reconstructing Jules created a gown for today which referenced its family history; a gown that might be reworked and worn again by a granddaughter in a couple more generations.
She had another client who, while working on the super yachts in the Mediterranean, discovered a lace store in an Italian port where she bought a bolt of fabric intending it to be used to garnish the bodice. Jules discovered it was enough for an entire gown; another heirloom in the making.
POETRY IN MOTION
Jules loves lace and she loves beading but she also loves simplicity and movement and highly tactile fabrics. For her nothing can replace the natural quality of fabrics like pure silk. She cites Carolyn Bessette Kennedy in that spectacularly simple bias cut sheath.
Her annually updated Jules Bly Collection displays deceivingly simple poetry in motion. Ask what Keats, Marlow, Coleridge and Byron have to do with wedding gowns and Jules Bly will reply, “Romance.” Her “The Natural Bride” collection demonstrates this. The twenty gowns are photographed in Hawaii (short sunsets create wonderful light) and illustrated on her website with names, descriptions and appropriate verses. Most important is that each can be customized to fit the bride. Ill fitting wedding gowns are anathaema to her. “I always measure in millimetres,” she says “Everyone has a different body shape and it is in those tiny adjustments that I get the perfect fit.”
Twenty gowns a year plus all those bespoke designs, plus bridesmaids’ dresses and ball gowns. That’s a lot of creativity from one person. Jules says she was once asked what would happen if she ran out of ideas. She says her problem is not running out of inspiration but of time. She recharges daily by running on the beach, and says that’s when a lot of the thinking happens. “It just takes a pattern in the sand, a formation of foam flung onto the beach, a vignette of nature, to see me reaching for the sketchbook as soon as I get home.”
GIVING BACK, PLANNING FORWARD
Making people happy does not stop with brides. Jules is committed to “give back to this wonderful community that we live in”. Her high teas for Breast Cancer Research started with 45 people in her own courtyard and by the third one attendance had increased to 350, it had moved to a larger garden venue, and raised $16,000. This year she is again working with Bettie Monroe on a fashion show, Pimms and Pretty, to be held 16 October, which will support a subject close the heart of this animal lover, the ARRC Wildlife Trust which rehabilitates wild animals and birds.
While the passion and enthusiasm Jules applies to her day to day designing never wanes she says to cater for an ever growing NZ and Australian market it is necessary to expand and has her heart set on becoming the creative force behind a global brand. It is not enough to have her gowns worn in New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and the Napa Valley with representation in American stores. She has plans for expansion and is willing to work with the right people to make it happen. She has no plans to leave the beachside lifestyle at Papamoa. “There’s no need to move to a major city to be successful. The internet has changed that.”
As this story was writing itself Jules was completing a silk gown for a wedding in a castle in Switzerland. Another gown, another story…..