My interview series with inspirational wedding professionals continues today with bridalwear designer Cynthia Grafton-Holt – a wonderful creative whom I had the joy of meeting last year.
Her designs are couture, bespoke, and absolutely exquisite – all hand-crafted and custom made to fit her brides. Not only that – she’s infectiously positive and has an unwavering, uncompromising work ethic that I truly admire. I’m so delighted to introduce her to you today, and hope you enjoy this little behind-the-scenes tour of her wonderful world of dresses to die for.
“I love working with brides who value and cherish themselves and choose a bespoke couture wedding dress as a treasure of their uniqueness. I offer a memorable creative experience, from nurturing my clients’ ideas to sketching, designing and making a beautiful bridal gown to epitomise that dream. And to be able to observe the joy and delight in the eyes of my bride, is reward enough and confirmation that our vision was accomplished.”
Welcome to the blog, Cynthia! I would love to hear a little bit more about you, your background, and you unlocked your unique style?
Thanks for having me, Valentina!
I work and live in London now, but I was actually born and bred in the West Midlands, in a small town known as Smethwick or the ‘Black Country’, which is something I hated telling people when I first came here! They would always mimic the accent – in a loving way – but which also felt a little weird!
My fondest childhood memories are of our Saturday night parties and going to church on Sundays, as that was when the women would wear their finest clothing. Their outfits were always copies of some designer dress they had seen in a James Bond movie, or worn by Princess Margaret or Dame Shirley Bassey… Dressmakers in my community, who were highly prized, in high demand and never out of work, worked tirelessly for their clients. I admired the way they could cut a dress in such a way that it looked even better than the one they were copying; personalizing it in such a unique way to bring out the best features of the woman who was wearing it.
On Sundays when we went to church, we would drive past a Sikh temple in the town centre, and I can still recall the vivid gold-embroidered silk saris draped loosely from the shoulders and pleated into the waistline. None of the details were lost on me and it has stayed with me to this day. It was the epitome of elegance and I adored it.
I recall the days when I was studying fashion at the London College of Fashion and my attempts to inject colours, softer sheer silks with draping and architectural details into my work. It was something my lecturers hated, actually! It didn’t fit their idea of fashion and they would tell me in no uncertain terms to either “toe the line” or leave. That was the beginning of my bridalwear journey, and I have stayed true to myself and those childhood memories all the way through.
What would you say are the core values of your brand – the ones that connect you to your brides in the most authentic way?
Being authentic, down-to-earth, and uncomplicated is what I would say my clients enjoy most! My brides want to know that they can trust me to understand their vision and to interpret it in a way that exceeds their expectations.
My clients are also accustomed to wearing high-end brands are well versed with quality and service, and that’s something I am always so proud to deliver. I am constantly working on being relevant to my clients, and making sure they know that they can unequivocally trust my advice, skills, and my attention to detail when it comes to their bridalwear.
Can you describe the one moment or experience in which you knew that bridalwear was what you wanted to do?
For a long time, I worked at various design houses creating complete dresses for high profile clients (by “complete dresses”, I mean cutting, preparing, fitting and making up the entire order from start to finish). The more capable I became, the more I was trusted to deliver more and more elaborate gowns and designs. Designers knew that I took great pride in my work, which helped me grow my reputation and my confidence.
After creating countless evening gowns and dresses, I think I reached the point where there was so much of my soul within each garment! It was at this point that I knew it was time for me to start my own bridalwear business, and build my own client base who would love and recognise my signature work as my own.
Can you tell me a little bit about your processes? How do you unlock a bride’s wedding day style?
I don’t have a secret formula for this I’m afraid! There is no template, because every bride is so unique – but, generally, I would say I’m guided entirely by the needs of my clients and will work in whichever way best suits them.
Listening is key to understanding the emotional and aspirational desires that every bride holds deep in heart. Unlocking that information takes time and is not a rushed process; she may not know the language, the names of fabrics, and all the nuances of my trade, so it’s my job to ask the right questions and guide her along. It’s so important to me that every bride feels that I am 100% on her side …not looking for vulnerabilities but seeking to help her unlock her potential!
We talk a lot about favourite outfits, and what feels good to wear, and why. From this information, I can then learn so much about loves, likes and dislikes, and use this information to start compiling and suggesting ideas that help determine silhouettes and details that will elevate the look and bring the dream to life.
When creating new bridalwear, do you usually work alone or do you have a team?
I much prefer to work by myself generally! There is a lot of information that requires concentration and calculation, so I prefer not to risk being distracted by others in the space. I do work with skilled machinists when we are cutting gowns as it is quicker and easier to work together when laying the fabric during the initial preparation. During the busiest times of the year it also helps me ensure I can always deliver the dresses within the timescales needed.
What does a typical client journey and timeline look like – from when you first start working to a bride to her wedding day?
There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all response here but I’ll to describe what the journey is generally like! At the first consultation, once we have a design, it takes around four to six weeks to assemble the samples, swatches, and trims. I also like to create the first toile (mock-up) of the corset so that we can make the most of the first appointment together.
The second and third fitting (if needed) are usually all toile fittings. I don’t believe in taking short cuts with this crucial part of the development, as I want to make sure the fit really is completely perfect. This is also the stage where my clients can input their thoughts on how the design is taking shape, which I love. If there are any points that she’s unsure of or concerned about, we can still make small changes before we cut the dress.
Once we begin work on the dress, I make everything myself by hand in the studio and I don’t normally see the bride again until the dress is almost completed, at the final dress fitting. At this appointment, I encourage my brides to bring their wedding shoes, underwear, and accessories – which we would have discussed during previous appointments. Underwear isn’t generaly an issue though – I’m skilled at creating bespoke corsetry that is hidden inside the dress, so my clients don’t need to worry about purchasing a specialist bra!
The delivery timeframe is very important for both sides involved, and can be tailored to some degree. Some couples want the dress completed months before the wedding and some would prefer to leave the last fitting up to two weeks before the wedding. It’s very important that we are all agreed from the outset so that everyone involved is confident and fully aware of the deadlines, and the work is confirmed in the booking diary.
Whilst I can make a dress in six weeks, it has taken me over 30 years to amass the skills, knowledge and confidence to design and create outstanding bridal gowns which I am now so proud to create for my brides.
What tips would you give to brides currently looking for their bridalwear designer, or still deciding on their dress style?
Firstly, I would say that it’s important for brides to do their homework and keep in mind that not all bespoke bridalwear designers and makers will provide the same service (or have the same skills or experience, for that matter!).
Finding someone who has many years experience making dresses will mean he/she will have the necessary knowledge and skills to address a multitude of problems that can occur throughout the design process; and, to me, that peace of mind is absolutely essential to the overall customer experience.
For brides who are still searching to identify their style, my response is -don’t panic! Follow your instincts and don’t feel pressured to follow fashion or trends that may not be right for you.
What questions would you want couples to ask you before hiring you, to find out if you’re the right fit for one another?
Getting to know each other and feeling that sense of connection is essential to me, and I always encourage my clients to take their time with this! I’m quite laid back, and really love working closely with brides to fulfil their vision for their day. I would say – ask all and any questions that come to mind, and anything YOU need to hear in order to find that expert whom you trust and whose bridalwear you love.
I’d love to hear more about the behind-the-scenes of your work, and particularly aspects that brides and vendors may not know about. Could you shine a light on that for us?
Every client has different needs and responds to certain aspects in different ways, which means my goal is always to tailor the experience to suit their bespoke needs.
Behind-the-scenes is where most of my time is spent, developing ideas and finding creative solutions to solve specific problems – each dress is a unique project with it’s unique challenges, and that’s something I always relish. With every new order, a significant amount of time goes into research and testing or sampling with fabrics and trims. This time spent helps me to know exactly how best to construct areas of the garment when the time comes to bring it all together.
Something that isn’t very well understood generally is that, in the fashion industry, a style is made up two to three times before it is sealed (finalized) and sent to a factory to be made on a wholesale level. Can you imagine just how much I would have to charge if I had to make each dress fully three times? Traditionally, couture bridalwear is phenomenally expensive! However, against the rising prices of generic designer dresses, bespoke bridalwear has become a ‘mindful, intentional luxury’ with multiple choices for the discerning bride who considers her purchase in a whole new way. Working with an independent dressmaker is a very bespoke, personal, and unique experience, and of course the cost does need to reflect the time, skill, labour, and artistry that goes into each design. One thing to consider is that, with me, there are no hidden costs for alteration and fittings, as these services form part of the dress order.
Another thing I’d love to mention here is to encourage brides not to assume that, just because a dress is made by an independent designer, that it will be any less beautiful or well-made than a very expensive designer gown. I’ve actually made dresses for many big-name brands in my time, and so am very confident creating some truly exquisite gowns – just without the designer price tag!
What are your favourite sources of inspiration?
I love going to the V&A Museum, art galleries and out for walks in the woods. I love nature and use my daily jogs capturing shots of meadows, textures, shapes, butterflies, wildflowers, and so much more. I use these in my work to inspire bridalwear details, intricate beadwork, volume and movement.
I actually own a massive collection of Vogue magazines dating back to 1981 – that’s right! Every single copy, which I use regularly to explore the work of photographers, form, detail and fashion from that period.
I really hope you enjoyed getting to know the lovely Cynthia, and learning more about the way she works. I really admire her commitment to getting to know her couples, delivering her best work, and to being completely authentic and real when it comes to her style and messaging.
To get in touch with her about your wedding or elopement, head over to her website, which is just being updated as we speak – do make sure you follow her on Instagram to keep up to date with her adventures! You can also see more of her beautiful “Dream of Swans” editorial (which the images shown in this blog post are all from) here on Amber & Muse.
And if you would like any support planning your celebrations, do come say hello.