Always 'a thrill' designing dresses for brides

Busy at work in the workroom of House of Kavina are (from front) manager Lyn Glendining, Barbara...
Busy at work in the workroom of House of Kavina are (from front) manager Lyn Glendining, Barbara Manning and Tansy Morris. Photos by Craig Baxter.
For Hilary Samuelson, the owner of long-established Caversham bridal specialist store House of Kavina, being ''invited'' to be part of a wedding is an honour.

And despite dressing thousands of brides since buying the business in 2006, Mrs Samuelson still gets a thrill ''every time'' she dresses one.

''I love it. I get up in the morning and I want to come to work,'' she enthused.

The style of weddings may have changed through the years but a box of tissues is still kept in close range for when a bride-to-be finds her dream gown.

From November, it is ''go, go, go'', preparing for the summer wedding season, and the first available booking at the shop is not until mid-February.

''At the moment, manic is the term.''

Hilary Samuelson.
Hilary Samuelson.
A hairdresser by trade, Mrs Samuelson spent 10 years working at the Dunedin City Council before spotting a brief advertisement in a Saturday newspaper, advertising a bridal business for sale.

''I said, `that's me, I could do that','' she recalled.

House of Kavina, which was about 30 years old, had been on the market for three years when she bought it. She has since extensively redeveloped the premises.

Mrs Samuelson has always sewn, dating back to her teenage years at school in Dunedin, and, aged 19, she made her sister-in-law's wedding dress.

On buying the business, she told friend and seamstress Barbara Manning, who had worked at fashion label Carlson, that she needed to come with her and they have ''been together since day one''.

While Mrs Samuelson always thought it was going to be a ''one-man-band'', the business has grown - ''every year it just gets bigger and bigger - and now employs five ''terrific'' staff, three of them full-time, alongside herself.

A downside of the growth, while welcomed, was that it had got ''too big, too fast'' and she joined the Otago Chamber of Commerce to upskill and found a business coach to help take her to ''that next level''.

Employing a manager, Lyn Glendining, was also allowing her ''to take a bit of a back step'', she said.

Describing herself as a creative person, she is particularly passionate about fabric.

''Often it's the fabric that gets me in the first place, rather than the design,'' she said.

Mrs Samuelson's own preference is simple and elegant - ''I don't do really fluffy'' - although all tastes and sizes are catered for. She encourages brides-to-be to let her take them ''out of the box''.

Whilesome brides still want ''that whole traditional thing'', those numbers are fewer than in the past.

There are hardly any cathedral weddings and services tend to be more relaxed, often being held in backyards or gardens.

Many brides now had their own families, which was a ''huge'' change from her generation, and there were also lots of brides getting married for the second time, she said.

The most difficult women to dress were those who were ''skin and bones''.

''You can't make something out of nothing. We love curvy girls,'' she said.

The dynamics of the business had changed through the years and the internet had played a major role in that. But while Mrs Samuelson once thought of that as a threat, she had reconsidered.

She was finding lots of brides who were coming in to buy their second or third gown, having ordered their previous dress or dresses from an internet site, only to find they hated them on arrival.

Some brides were getting married in three weeks and were urgently trying to find a replacement gown.

''They really need that feel, touch and experience. It's really important they come in, feel it, touch it, try it on, instead of just buying it from a picture. They can't buy the experience, can't buy the service, can't buy the try-on,'' she said.

While she believed Kate Middleton's wedding dress had an influence on a lot of lace being used, nobody had come and asked to ''look like Kate''. One or two had, however, asked to look like her bridesmaid Pippa Middleton.

Some dresses did provide challenges - remodelling one when the bride went from a size 16 to a size 8, but ''there's nothing we can't do, we think''. While brides were the main focus, the store also catered for evening wear and mother-of-the bride garments.

While the Caversham location meant there was not foot traffic, the business was a destination so it did not matter where it was based.

And, having been in the same spot for about 30 years, even if people did not remember the name, they remembered there was a bridal shop there so she had no intentions of moving, she said.


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