For most brides-to-be the wedding is really all about the love and special moments between friends and family, and—okay who are we kidding, it is literally all about the dress. Not a single woman could enjoy the day if she doesn’t feel like the most beautiful and important person in the room. And why shouldn’t she? It’s her wedding. And while some brides look to iconic puffy ball gowns, their mother’s wedding gown or the dress they saw a Kardashian wearing at one of their many nuptials, others need a dress that speaks to their own personal style and is uniquely their own. New brand Isabelle Armstrong is catering to the latter. Designing some of the most exceptional dresses that we’ve seen (and a lot have come across our desks), the selection here is as varied as the women who wear their gowns. From classic princess puffs to sequined ombré, they’re dressing the modern bride who knows what she wants in a dream gown. Speaking with company president Tara Fiore and lead designer Johanna Kraft, we found out what makes their designs unique, their favorite things about working with brides and what brides are really looking for in a dress.
Starting a bridal business requires a passion for larger-than-life design, patience (there are more than a few bridezillas out there) and a love for all things wedding—and these women definitely have it. Both have a background heavy in fashion and design: Fiore started at Tommy Hilfiger working on special events and marketing before freelancing for publications like Lucky Magazine and W, while Kraft worked in production and design at Anna Maier Ulla-Maija before they came together to start Isabelle Armstrong. “It was a little interesting making the switch from ready-to-wear to bridal,” Fiore confesses. “But I did and I loved it. It seemed the perfect opportunity to take a greater step and dive into the couture bridal world even more and kind of have a hand in launching this collection.”
They spoke excitedly as we began to discuss the differences from ready-to-wear to bridal, the two both agreeing that there’s nothing like seeing a dress come to life on a bride. “There’s a much closer connection with the client, especially when you’re in the couture world; you’re working hand in hand in design, sourcing these amazing fabrics and literally being able to work with a client, putting gowns on a client, making custom design changes and things like that as a opposed to ready-to-wear,” Fiore says. “Bridal is, I think, sort of the height of design in terms of dresses and what we’re able to do on a day-to-day basis,” Kraft agrees. “Working with brides and being able to create these one-of-a-kind pieces and it’s such a wonderful opportunity.”
But inspiration for such varied styles can be hard to come by, which is why the team at Isabelle Armstrong works as a unit, brainstorming and taking inspiration from artwork, each other’s ideas, or even fabrics. “We have a design team so there’s a full team of us that work together on every collection, so there’s not one singular design direction or designer per se, but we all meet together, we all come up with different sketch concepts and we work to source fabric from all over the place,” Fiore explains. “We also work to design custom embroidery, custom artwork—we’ve done painting, unique paintings on gowns and things like that. We all work together to develop that idea for each collection.” Of course once they have an idea that’s when the true work starts. “We’ll pick different inspirations that come to mind—we’ll explore those, we’ll research them historically, we’ll go to vintage shops and look at pieces there that fall into that same feeling,” Kraft says. After that, fabric textures, colors, resources and manipulations come into play to make their designs come to life, and can include cutting, painting, ombré painting and even foil detailing. “That’s the hardest part in bridal. You want to think outside the box so much, but at the same time the bride always—there's always the timelessness and tradition no matter what kind of girl she is that you have to maintain,” Fiore explains. “You can’t go too far avant-garde because then they don’t get it, or their mothers don’t get it, or their grandmothers don’t get it. That’s the hardest part in bridal—to be beautiful and different and unique without crossing the line too far that it doesn’t make sense.”
Realizing not all women are going to want similar dresses, Isabelle Armstrong works with brides to customize their gowns into their fantasy wedding dress no matter if it’s adding a detachable train, sleeves or even painting it to the bride’s desired color. “There are some certain design changes they might need for cultural or religious reasons, or for personal preference reasons in terms of buildups or straps or things like that that they might add to one of our existing styles, but for the most part they’re never asking us to design something totally custom,” Fiore explains. “They’re coming to us loving something we designed and maybe building upon it a little or adjusting it a little to suit their needs.”
Aside from creative brainstorming and fun designs, their fabric plays a major role in making sure each piece stands out and makes a statement. Sourcing their lace from unknown mills or brands that don’t sell to other bridal companies allows them to keep their materials couture and rare—perfect for the discerning bride. “We really pride ourselves on finding and working with mills and building really strong relationships with people that don’t necessarily supply other people in the bridal industry. So that’s really important to us and I think the brides really appreciate that,” Kraft explains, and Fiore readily agrees. “That’s really our goal, to always seek out and find maybe smaller mills and factories, but places that have very unique, different kinds of things. Like we have this one open weave tulle and it was so hard to source and once we found it we [didn’t] see it anywhere [else].” Using Italian, French, Spanish and even Turkish fabrics makes these dress part of the one-of-a designs that make Isabelle Armstrong stand out amongst others.
“Girls today, especially in the world of couture when the price point is what it is, they want something different and unique and something that’s really going to make them feel amazing and special,” Fiore says. “So that’s what we work so hard to achieve. We want our gowns to stand out amongst whatever else that’s hanging in whatever door we’re in.” Telling stories of brides that needed trains without bustles, full collar and sleeve buildups, straps and the like, shows their commitment to giving women what they want on their wedding day. When pressed to describe their most demanding bride with the most customization, they acted as if even the biggest projects were a pleasure to perform—which are the kind of people anyone would want designing their dream gown.
This outlook is how they carry the company, knowing that while the dress is one of the most important pieces of the day, more than anything the wedding is about the love that two people share; and it’s this special moment for one special couple that they truly want to capture. “The mantra, if you would, for our company from the very beginning is ‘splendor, passion, grace’—that’s how we think—that’s how we want every one of our brides to feel; it’s how we want the collection as a whole to feel,” Fiore explains. “And it’s just about the brilliancy and the gorgeous appearance, and then the passion—powerful and compelling and overwhelming feelings of emotions you feel on your wedding day; and then the grace which is just all about the elegance and the beauty and the charm of the girl who carries the gown.”
While remaining poised throughout the interview with almost too-perfect answers, one question left them both stumped for just a moment: what is your favorite dress in the collection? Since “all of them” was not an acceptable answer, they hesitated a moment before agreeing on some of their best pieces. “I think Isabella is absolutely stunning. I’ve not seen a ball gown that looks like that. I also love Mia, [which] is airbrushed with an ombré and then silver foiled,” Kraft decides. “Those are also two of my favorites as well!” Fiore jumps in. “And Ariana is another one that we just did—in cut strips of lace and organza that go together; it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.” And that’s the same reaction they love to hear from women around the country. “We love to see people grab the gowns and just say ‘I’ve never seen anything like this, this is beautiful. It’s seriously a work of art.’ And that’s our goal,” Fiore says excitedly. “And it makes you feel so good when you work so hard, and to see everything come to life; I mean obviously it excites us so much, but it’s so much more rewarding to hear that from a just an everyday person who’s shopping.”
Now that Isabelle Armstrong has established itself as a new label for brides that desire the best, most personal pieces in bridal, the two want to continue to grow and be seen as a brand that every little girl aspires to wear for their wedding. “We want to keep building the brand, we want to keep getting the name out there,” Fiore says. “Like anything in the beginning we’re so small and tiny, people don’t know that much about us as of now, but the more feedback we get, the more we get out there in those major markets. We’re in these beautiful, great, great, great, major markets, that we just want to keep the momentum going for the brand.”