Written by Tracey Sgambato
Photo Credits: Wedding Photos by Nenaji Media Photography; Bottom Photo by Colligan’s Fine Art Photography
Tabitha Bethune is a multi-talented local fashion designer, brand developer, storyteller and author, among other things. The bespoke wedding gown she designed for one customer led her from the fashion drawing board to the “board boom” with her self-published book due out this month, entitled “The CEO Bride.”
It all started when bride and model Priscelle Elease Holman was looking for a wedding dress for her upcoming wedding to Ebo Holman, a man she’d met in Baton Rouge who is from Ghana in West Africa. After dress shopping, a friend posted a photo on social media of her in her chosen gown. Priscelle was simply crushed that her “big reveal” was spoiled. So she talked it over with her fiancé and the pair agreed that a couture gown was the best solution to make it right.
Having made the first decision to find a bespoke gown, the next decision was easy. She’d head straight to see Ms. Tabitha Bethune. Priscelle had met Tabitha a few years earlier when both were involved in New Orleans Fashion Week 2012. Priscelle had modeled some of Tabitha’s dresses for the show. When Priscelle called on Tabitha to design her wedding gown, the two women began to discuss and explore different ideas more than a year before Priscelle’s wedding.
Following in the rich tradition of African-American story telling, Tabitha designs one-of-a-kind couture gowns and other garments. An important part of her creative process is the extensive interviews she conducts with her clients. This allows her to determine what story to tell through the design. Tabitha says that she “loves to design big gowns for big personalities,” and especially for “big moments.” She also likes to “add a surprise element” that she knows “they’ll love.”
After several meetings with Priscelle, Tabitha decided that the gown should reflect the intertwining of two cultures. “I try to tell their story through the dress.” Tabitha said that this dress is all about this couple’s wedding day, and the couple themselves. Since Priscelle was born and raised in the local area, Tabitha designed her dress to honor and reflect her New Orleanian heritage.
Tabitha immediately thought of a Mardi Gras ball gown, which, of course, has been a significant part of the local culture since the first Mardi Gras ball in the late 1850s. “I wanted this beautiful, old 1800’s-style gown,” to represent Priscelle’s heritage. With a tall, beautiful bride who was also a model, Tabitha knew Priscelle could carry off the grandest of ballgowns so she didn’t hold back. She wanted to achieve a flowing “airy” feeling with the dress, so she designed layers of billowing ruffles with white taffeta.
Next, Tabitha set about designing aspects of the gown that would intertwine the two cultures. She selected Ghanaian wax print fabric to edge the ruffles of the dress. An African wax print, also referred to as Dutch Wax print, is a fabric, generally cotton, that is made from a batique process. These prints are usually a bold design with vivid colors, and can be found in a variety of traditional and contemporary patterns, often a mixture of the two in the same pattern.
Since Tabitha wanted Priscelle to be surprised by a completed dress, she made a mock-up of the dress to use for fittings. After the dress was nearly complete, Tabitha securely stitched ten crystals inside the dress to surprise Priscelle, who never saw the dress until it completed about a month before her wedding. Because the couple had been together for ten years already, the crystals represented each year of their relationship.
The end result, as described by Tabitha is an “American style gown with a fresh design.” She said the runway description would be: “a hand-sewn couture two-piece wedding dress with decadent ruffles and Swarovski crystals. The ball gown skirt features ruffles with wax print through out.”
Tabitha said that since Priscelle is a model, “she wanted to do a powerful model walk with her hands in her pocks,” and she wasn’t interested in carrying a bouquet. Tabitha designed something big and bold that would achieve the “wow factor” that Priscelle wanted for her big walk down the aisle. Tabitha put it simply: “I wanted her to have a big moment.”
Just as fabulous as the couture gown, are the additional separate pieces Tabitha also designed to accommodate the bride’s wedding day agenda. Tabitha explained that the dress weighty nearly 50 lbs., so while it was very important for Priscelle to be able to have her grand entrance and big reveal, the dress was too heavy for her to wear for the entire evening. “Then there was no way for her to be able to second line in the dress,” said Tabitha. Therefore she had “no other option but to make it multi-pieces.” So in addition to the bodice and ball gown skirt, she designed coordinating high waisted harem pants with pockets and a crystal belt, as well as a second top that incorporates the tiered ruffles with wax print edging.
“As her day progressed, I wanted her dress to progress,” Tabitha said, but she also wanted it all “to hold true to the dress.” So Priscelle wore different pieces of the ensemble as the evening progressed, but it all had the same affect and feeling of airy ruffles and Ghanaian wax print trim. After the wedding ceremony, Priscelle changed the classic and simple taffeta bodice to the livelier ruffled top. Tabitha wanted the wax print to be on full display as Priscelle greeted friends and family at the reception. As the reception moved from greetings to toasts and dancing, Priscelle changed out of the tremendous ball gown skirt into the harem pants so she was all set when it was time to join the second line!
Needless to say, Priscelle was show-stopping in her Tabitha Bethune couture gown. Her wedding was all the stuff that dreams are made of. But if you are thinking by now that you might like a wedding dress just like Priscelle, you will have to talk to Tabitha. She likes to interview her clients thoroughly. When asked if she had any plans to make this dress available to others who might want the same design, Tabitha said she “is always looking for new clients to tell new stories.”
Between designing Priscelle’s dress and all her work as a brand developer, Tabitha started to find a lot of analogies between planning a successful wedding and running a successful business. She said “to do it well, you really need to think like a CEO.” She kept thinking about this and how it related to the other work she was doing with brand development. She decided to put pen to paper (so to speak) until pretty soon, she had the makings of a book. Tabitha expects her self-published book, The CEO Bride, to be available on iTunes in May 2017 with a print edition to follow later this year.
A New Orleans native, Tabitha Bethune has been designing and creating bespoke gowns for 15 years. Her studio is located in Lower Garden District of New Orleans. She and her husband work together to produce limited, short-run and curated products, like the dress for Priscelle Holman. They also aide other creative entrepreneurs in developing their brands. Visit: www.thewildlifereserve.com or follow Tabitha on Twitter @LAPLAYBILL