FEATURE — Winter 2004



One Look: Exquisite

Art alumna Paula Varsalona is one of New York City's top designers of wedding gowns, and she's been making brides and their maids beautiful for 30 years.

by Judy H. Watts

It's afternoon on Broadway near 37th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, in the heart of New York City's Fashion District. Top-heavy trucks shudder and bang over the streets without running down the rack of garments a man is shoving through the traffic. Above the din, in the fifth-floor headquarters of Paula Varsalona Ltd., one of the industry's leading bridal designers is at work. In black sweater and slacks, dark hair loose to her shoulders, designer-manufacturer-retailer Paula Varsalona strides intently through the rooms in back, calling to one of her 15 full-time employees. She stops near a bank of sewing machines to check one of the exquisite details for which her gowns are known. Then she moves past a cutting table to a dressmaker's form fitted with silk organza, meticulously pinned with dozens of tiny hand-rolled flowers of Alençon lace.

Up front is a mirrored showroom, where buyers from as many as 60 exclusive stores around the country gather twice a year to see Varsalona's latest collections for brides, maids, and mothers—which retail for between $1,000 and $10,000. And opening into that room is Varsalona's exuberant office, full of papers and boxes, with a tiger-print carpet, faux-leopard chairs, four-foot antique Chinese urn, and gilt Oriental screen on one wall. From here Paula Varsalona oversees her to-the-trade bridal business and her posh by-appointment-only Madison Avenue boutique. She loves every minute of it all. With her soft smile, she says: "I'm a Type A personality!"

Paula Varsalona obtains some of the world's finest silks for her Madison Collection (fall 2004 Madison Collection).

A  heady sense of possibility

She had better be. For 30 years, the woman New York magazine ranks among the top 10 in her field has designed approximately 200 new bridal and wedding-party gowns a year and supervised the sewing and shipping of nearly 200 orders a month. She orders full-cut Austrian crystals from Swarovski and lace from Lyons and Alençon. She commissions hand-beading in India, and for her sumptuous Madison Collection, she obtains the finest silks: in satin, wool blends, organza, crepe, gazar, charmeuse, chiffon, and taffeta—all from Italy, Japan, and Switzerland.

Among Varsalona's lines is her V Collection of gowns in synthetic fabrics—beginning at $1,000. "The dresses cost less than our natural gowns," she says, "but we buy the best synthetics, such as Boselli satins from Italy. They're as expensive as Chinese silks—which we never use, because the quality just isn't there for us."

Always changing, tuned to popular culture and social realities (recently NBC-TV's Donald Trump show, The Apprentice, spotlighted her in a bridal-gown episode), Paula Varsalona constantly reinvents what the company offers. When she began, all her gowns were lace with sleeves or jackets. "Now we're doing strapless."

Brides themselves have changed. "Remarriages are big, first-time brides are older, and clients know more what they want. First-time brides come in with their friends; often they bring their mothers in later—if at all—to show them what they've chosen. Many return three or four times to try on dozens of gowns, spending hours at the mirror, and they can be very demanding. Some of my competitors charge for extra appointment time, but I don't do that."

Among Varsalona's lines is the V Collection, made from the best synthetic fabrics (fall 2004 V Collection).

Varsalona does do all her own advertising, marketing, scheduling, and payroll; helps hire models and attends photo shoots; arranges trunk shows; and pays the bills. She even designed her Madison Avenue boutique, "Paula Varsalona for the Bride"—whose neighbors are Valentino, Lauren, and Armani. "What I learned at Washington University about texture and design, color, proportion, and balance helped me be multifaceted, so I just called in people I needed and told them exactly what I wanted in my store."

To see the boutique—where the gowns have such presence they seem larger than life and bridesmaids' dresses glow in rare, opulent hues—is to understand more about Varsalona herself. Imagine a visual romp that conjures joy, fun, creativity, elegance, and a heady sense of possibility. In the mulberry-candle-scented welcoming room are a Mackenzie-Childs settee and desk featuring handmade and hand-decorated majolica feet, tufted tartan brocade with glass-beaded fringe, checks and dots, gold leaf, and floral designs. Five mirrored fitting rooms are painted with different delicate colors and flowers; the bathroom ceiling, with animal print and découpage blooms. "I want people who are shopping Madison Avenue to remember us and come back!" Varsalona says. And they do.

Before and beyond the bridal gown

Despite the rigors of hands-on design, manufacturing, and retailing in a city not known for repose; in a field legendary for its brutal competition; and in a time when increasing numbers of bridal gowns are computer-generated knock-offs of couture designs like Varsalona's—burnout is simply not an issue. "Washington U. trained me well," says Varsalona, B.F.A. '71, who still uses her rulers and pattern notcher from school. "We worked extremely hard. When my dad met Betty Hearsh (former instructor in art), who taught accessories, he told her, 'I want you to give my daughter hell.' And let me tell you, she gave me hell! She made me be the best I could possibly be.

Named for her daughter, the Alexandra Collection features gowns for bridesmaids (fall 2004 Alexandra Collection).

"Washington U. prepared me for constant deadlines. I mean, I can ship X number of weddings this week, but next week, orders are there all over again! You can't get tired! You can't get burned out! The school shaped the professional I am and equipped me to keep up with it all."

Varsalona's parents in hometown Kansas City prepared her, too. Her mother taught her to sew, and she was using the machine by the age of 6; by seventh grade, she was helping her teacher instruct students. Her businessman father encouraged Varsalona to advertise her ability in the newspaper, and at 13, she earned money putting in hems. In high school, she worked with a dress designer, and her dad encouraged her to sew her own clothes by promising to pay for any fabric she chose—once the garment was completed. And he suggested she study at the School of Art.

When Varsalona married commercial attorney Joseph Marino after graduation, her memorable gown and accessories were like a rapturous tribute to her husband, parents, and professors alike. The credits would read as follows: dress design and creation, silk-illusion veil, and najwa-feather cap headpiece by Paula Varsalona; gown's handmade white lace covered with handmade flowers, along with five-yard train, by Brussels nuns; closed silk pumps and silver party sandals by Charles Jourdan.

Today, Varsalona and her husband live in northern New Jersey with their daughter, Alexandra (the bridesmaid collection carries her name). Varsalona continues to serve as a member and board member of numerous national and international professional and service organizations and of colleges, a professional school, and a Catholic high school. Life is full, her business is at its height—and her energy is blazing. "I have an insatiable drive to use my talent in whatever areas I can. My dream now is to license my name and do shoes, hosiery, table linen, bed linen, china, silver—anything pertaining to a bride or a new home. That's my next goal! I'd love to do that!"

And Paula Varsalona will.

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.