In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
"It was a bet," says bridal and ready-to-wear designer Reem Acra about how she started her business nearly 20 years ago. "I don't know if we call it luck or not luck, but I think I had something that was totally different from what was out there."
But she was also prepared. Prior to that life-changing wager, the Beirut-born Acra honed her design skills at FIT and the École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode in Paris. She then worked for private label brands in product development until 1997, when, settled in New York, she found herself in a gambling mood. It's now lore that Acra encouraged a socialite friend to "say yes" to a suitor she had recently met ("you need to marry him!"). The friend countered with the stipulation that the designer would have to make her a wedding dress upon acceptance.
Slight issue: The high-society wedding at the posh Hôtel de Crillon in Paris was only three weeks out. With handmade floral embellishment skills learned from her grandmother (and further knowledge gleaned from a live-in seamstress since the age of five), Acra finished the gown. In a scrappy PR move, she also paid an "amateur photographer friend" $100 to take some arty still-life photos of said dress, which she then pitched to the New York Times. And the paper ran it. "It was unusual," says Acra, referring to both the style of the dress and the photograph itself, which you can see below. "So that's how it all started."
The New York-based designer added ready-to-wear to her portfolio in 2001, which was immediately embraced by celebrities for red-carpet appearances (oh hey, Suki Waterhouse). Reem Acra, the brand, will celebrate its 20-year anniversary next year. Since the label is showing its fall 2017 bridal collection today (bridal market is even ahead of the already-confusing ready-to-wear fashion calendar), the nostalgia might as well start right now, right?
So we caught a moment with Acra during a break between her spring 2017 ready-to-wear show and her fall 2017 Bridal Week runway to discuss her career highlights and get really real about this whole luxury retail upheaval. Read on for the highlights.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently when it came to starting your bridal business?
Yes, if I were to redo this, I would have — from the very beginning — put a business plan together and [not start my business] in a whimsical, fun way. Because after 20 years, you realize that really to sustain a business like this — and to be at the top of the game and to have a luxury brand — it would be much easier had you had the financial support from the beginning.
How do you see the luxury bridal market being affected by fast fashion or more mid-range brands?
The luxury market in bridal is changing. What I see is that [non-luxury] brands are making the same dresses that we have been designing for many years. I personally think that what's going on right now is exactly what I started since 1997. It's the style that I have created — all these beaded dresses, embroideries on the train, the matching veils, the mysterious look, the sexy, the transparency, the two-pieces — were all part of the beginning of the Reem Acra brand.
And there are too many newcomers in the business coming into the States and trying to figure out how they can to enter this market. So we don't know how or in which way it's affecting us because a brand like [Reem Acra] is a very strong brand and we know what we are doing. We keep leading and we have always the newest ideas. We've always been way ahead of the game.
What made you decide to manufacture in New York?
I live here. I have put two factories in business myself. When first I started, I picked up a few people here and there and told them, 'open a factory, we'll support you,' and those factories are still functioning. So I feel that at least in the bridal sector, I've led some businesses and I want to keep them alive. We're always about quality and the quality is always where you are around. You can't just expect great quality from another place where you don't have presence.
How do you feel about the see now, buy now phenomenon?
I think it's so new. Because even those who have started it, I don't think they know exactly what they're going to do. I think it's risky, it's challenging and it requires a lot more money injection in the business for them to even try it. So it's a tricky situation, but I know that the industry is changing and that something is bound to happen and whether it's see now, buy now or something else, we're still trying to discover it all. How do you satisfy your customer that really wants to see, buy the collection right now? It's tricky. We're getting custom-made orders orders [and customers want them in] six weeks. The collection just came out, so we have to work around the clock. It's harder. Everything is harder today.
Every season, everyone talks about how the calendar doesn't make sense or it's too packed.
Everything is too packed. There's too many newcomers. Too many people want to be in this industry, [but] don't know what the industry is. They come in and they're working from the kitchen and then they don't know how to price, so they price something totally wrong and they go out of business in another year. But then at the same time, they affect your business. If it was one or two, one would say, 'okay, it's just little stuff here and there, it doesn't matter.' It's kind of a question mark all over.
Is there an ideal way you'd like to see the industry work?
I always believe that the way we, in America, designed our bridal industry is a perfect [system]. It's the way all the other countries need to follow. Meaning, there is room to grow. Like 10 or 15 years ago, there were not many shops around the world that knew how to sell wedding dresses. They were all momma-poppa shops here and there — 'ateliers,' [with seamstresses] rather than real boutiques. So we are changing the way the bridal industry works all over the world and hopefully more international [retailers] will come and buy our product from here. I can see that there is a demand for that because we are strongest in the industry as far as design houses. The American bridal industry is stronger than any other one, so I think there's room for us to grow.
So early congratulations on the 20-year anniversary. What would you like to see happen in the next 20 years?
Survival. [laughs] To survive the next 20 years would be a good thing. No, I love what I do, I'm always thankful and grateful to everything that has happened to me, whether it's good or bad. I think I've paved the way for many people and for many young girls. And gave an example that sometimes you don't have to have the money, you just have to have the drive and the talent and you have to believe in yourself in order to achieve something.
As a woman, it's not something easy. Whether we like it or not, it is more challenging. I think I try to do everything the right way and I’m grateful and happy with the result I had. I never thought that I would go this far and would have a brand like this. Although deep in my mind, I always wanted this and I'm happy that I have a luxury brand because that's my taste.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.