What to Expect When You’re Expecting… a Couture, Made-to-Measure Wedding Dress

12 Jun 2015

Brides contemplating investing in a made-to-measure wedding dress are offered words of wisdom from couture designer Cara Wagstaff of Cocoa Couture.

It’s likely to be the most expensive item of clothing a woman ever buys, so it isn’t a purchase that should be rushed, or compromised on. So what do you do if you can’t find your dream dress lining the rails of your local wedding dress shop? Many turn to the carefully honed skills of designers and seamstresses for a specially designed, made-to-measure dress of their dreams. 

Image gallery

Image gallery

Bride talked to Cara Wagstaff of Cocoa Couture – a brand celebrating its 45th year - in Cheltenham, to find out the steps you can expect when having a couture made wedding dress.

What makes a custom dress shop different to a normal bridal shop?
Our main point of difference to other bridal shops is that we are a couture house in the original, purist sense. With Cocoa, our dresses are made from scratch to be the perfect fit for each individual bride. By that, we don’t just mean made to measure but designed as the dress of their dreams.

It’s hard not to make it sound cheesy, but so many brides tell us not just that it was the most beautiful dress they have ever worn, but that they felt like a princess. As soon as they put it on, many say it gave them the self-confidence to not only walk down the aisle but to truly enjoy their day.

No two Cocoa dresses are the same because no two brides are the same. I’m not sure that people truly understand the difference unless they’ve bought a dress from us and gone through the process.

Most bridal shops stock core ranges from designers that they buy in, with the dresses invariably produced in a factory in the Far East. This is clearly an efficient way for the shops and designers to make money, but these gowns are not the unique one-off creations that most brides say they want. These brides are measured and the closest stock size of dress is ordered. Subsequent fittings are really alterations appointments to make the template dress size fit the real bride. There is nothing wrong with that, but it’s not couture and it’s not how we do things at Cocoa.

A Cocoa Couture gown is made only for each individual bride, designed by me, with as much input from the bride as she wishes. It’s then hand-stitched by me and my team of seamstresses in Cheltenham.


Are brides restricted in style when they have a couture gown made?
We make all types and style of wedding gown - from elegant and classic to vintage to theatrical - the only limit is the bride’s imagination. Some brides have a very clear idea of what they want and come in with pages from magazines, photographs and colour swatches; others find the whole idea a little daunting.
Our first job is to put the bride-to-be at ease and listen, picking up as much from their personality and body language as what is actually being said. We have around 200 sample dresses, of all sizes and styles imaginable for the client to try on or get inspiration from. The bride might like the neckline of one and the skirt of another, with some antique beaded detailing. It’s all possible, with the end goal of producing the bride’s dream dress.


The dress shopping is a famously significant day out for the bride and her closest friends and family – how does the experience compare when you’re having a wedding dress made?
There are always dresses that can be tried on. With 200 sample dresses in our collection, it would be very rare to find something that didn’t appeal to the client as at least a starting point.


Where do the fabrics come from and what makes them so special?
I’m a hoarder and a collector of interesting, rare and antique fabric pieces - whether lace, embroidering or decorative beading. Long before I bought Cocoa I was gathering fabric pieces; dealers knew the kind of thing I was interested in.
The previous owner of Cocoa had her own collection - which I acquired with the shop. I will often hold on to pieces for years before I use them in the perfect dress. I have pieces of silk, lace and embroidery that could well be 300 years old that I have held onto for three decades before using them. I have some Spitalfields Silk that dates from 1720.


Once they know what they want, how does the custom dress process progress?
I always aim to get as much information from the bride as possible at that initial meeting; their likes and dislikes. It’s also helpful to know if they have any body issues; perhaps areas they are self-conscious of.
The popularity of strapless bridal gowns, for example, can be a real challenge to a manufactured dress but a Cocoa dress can be made to give the shape wanted and the security that the gown will stay comfortably and safely in place for the duration. We factor this in at the design stage. I can then go on to draft the pattern - based on the bride’s measurements.
On average I see a bride three or four times during the making process. Once in a while I’ll see a bride for up to 10 fittings... just because some feel that they need to come more often. That’s up to them and I don’t charge more for this. It’s understood that it’s their big day and if we can put their mind at ease we will.


How long should a bride allow for a dress made from start to finish?
Ideally, I like to first meet the bride around nine months before the big day. It’s a little like having a baby; each dress is made with love and takes time and care before it’s ready to be seen. If the bride comes to see me too far in advance, I can’t get excited about it. I have made dresses at far shorter notice, which is always a fun challenge.

What if a bride changes her mind at the fittings and wants to make changes to the design?
Fittings are intended to give the bride the opportunity to request some changes. Small changes can usually be accommodated and incur no extra charge. Bigger alterations are usually a sign that the bride has changed her mind - which is why it’s so important for the client to open up and be honest at the initial consult.


Roughly what price are brides looking at for a custom dress?
Depending upon the fabric used and whether we have included any antique pieces, a Cocoa Couture gown retails, exclusively from our store in Cheltenham, at around the £2,500 mark. That includes VAT and fittings (there are no hidden charges).

Are veils and belts usually included in the price?
A belt would be considered integral to the dress, and therefore included in the price. We are often asked to quote for making a matching coat or cape, especially for winter weddings. We always give a competitive ‘all-in’ price.

We’ve taken a step away from making veils and headdresses and instead recommend brides use Willow & Lace - now based in store with creations by Gaynor Jones. Bridal Millinery and Crystal Bouquets can be made to match any Cocoa gown. Gaynor and her designs complement our range perfectly.


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