Little girls dream of wedding days and dresses. Linda Stewart dreamed of designing those dresses.
"I've never wanted to do anything else," she says. "From the time I was 4 or 5, I drew dresses and almost all were gowns. I didn't really know what a fashion designer was until I saw a segment on TV of the iconic designer Edith Head. I saw her take a three-yard piece of fabric and drape a stunning evening gown on a live model. I could then put a name to what I wanted to do.
"There is no gown more important to a teenage girl than her prom gown, and no garment more important to a woman than her wedding gown. Both events are full of joy, and I get to be part of that.
"When I design I like to add a bit of whimsy, something unexpected: live flowers or a wild lining to an otherwise sedate dress. I want the wearer to walk into the room and have heads turn. But the gowns need to complement the wearer – not overwhelm her," she says.
Stewart started her preparation for fashion design by drawing, because that was easy for her, but soon discovered that fashion design required additional skills.
"I've always been an artist. I took art and polished those talents, but I didn't know that to be a really good designer you needed to know how to sew. You have to know how those garments realistically can be made. The designer Erte is a good example. His drawings are amazing, but many could not be translated into garments," she says.
She taught herself much of what she knows about fashion design and then found two couture teachers.
"I had every intention of going to design school, but I met my future husband and my direction changed. The desire to design did not. I was in Bristol with a husband and two daughters and no design school near. I figured if I could not go to the design school I wanted to go to (Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City), then I'd bring the school to me. I ordered the school's class catalog then ordered the textbook for each class and studied on my own. So, I have no degree, but I have the knowledge and that is what is important.
"I also studied under and took training from two of the best couture teachers in the U.S., Susan Khalje of the Baltimore area for couture and Kenneth D. King of New York City, for the moulage (form of a muslin)," she says.
Her work fits the definition of true couture. There is no mass production of any of her designs. She consciously chose that path in the fashion world.
"I have complete control of the quality. I am designing for one person, not the masses. I like the fact that I can give perfect fit with no alterations. Each gown is made to fit the client to perfection. That is part of the definition of couture. Many well-known designers have a "couture' line, but that is a misnomer as couture means perfect fit, perfect fabric choice and impeccable workmanship on a one-of-a-kind garment. True couture is never mass produced," she says.
The process takes time. The minimum turnaround time for a wedding gown is six months. This allows time to perfect the design and the fit, source the fabric, construct the gown and add embellishments in time for the bridal portrait. The first step to a Stewart gown is a consultation about the client's desires and budget.
"Custom is not inexpensive, so if your budget for a wedding gown is under $2,000 then I'm not the person you need. I may be the person to alter the dress you buy but not the one to make you a custom wedding gown.
"After the bride and I decide on the design, then we decide on the fabric and any trims or embellishments. This takes time to source, as there are no longer local shops that carry this. I work mostly in silk fabric, but often I use a high-quality duchess satin that is polyester and makes up beautifully. Again, this has to be ordered. Once I have sourced and shown the bride the fabric and any embellishments, I then make a muslin of at least the bodice of the gown and if it is a form fitting style, I make a muslin of the entire gown, less any train. A muslin is a basic shell used for fitting often made of muslin fabric or a fabric that mimics the drape of the fashion fabric. The entire fitting is done on the muslin. I can add boning, padding, re-styling lines, almost anything that needs to be adjusted.
"Once the muslin is perfected, I take the muslin apart and use it as the pattern for the fashion fabric. The muslin process not only allows the client to see the silhouette and design lines of the gown, but also allows me to sew an almost perfect fitting gown first time. Usually there is only tweaking of the gown after the muslin process," she says.
She then adds embellishments such as lace, sequins, pearls and beading by hand, which is labor and time intensive. And when she's done, she waits for her favorite part, her client's approval.
"Part of my job is to make the client look her best. So, I know how to use design lines to accentuate her best features and downplay those she considers "challenges.' In many cases women don't know how to analyze their bodies to choose clothing that is flattering, nor are they used to having custom garments made to fit them perfectly," Stewart says.
"My garments are made for special occasions, not every day wear, so Cinderella is always in the back of my mind."
For more information about Stewart and her designs, visit www.lindastewartcouturedesigns.com.