Caroline Castigliano has carved an international reputation for exquisite bridal and occasion couture. Absolutely Weddings meets the designer behind one of our favourite London wedding brands.
Words by Libby Norman
Caroline Castigliano is a go-to wedding dress designer if you want to guarantee an exquisitely designed and crafted couture wedding or occasion gown. With a flagship store in Knightsbridge, she is also stocked in elite bridal boutiques worldwide. But Caroline’s prodigious design skills were in evidence from childhood – she created her first successful label when she was just out of her teens.
A talented actor in childhood, Caroline initially believed the theatre was where her future career lay, but she hadn’t quite made up her mind. Then someone suggested she had what it took to be in business, and this casual remark caught her imagination. She found a product she liked – a lightweight dumbbell that you filled with sand or water to use for working out – contacted the Swiss manufacturers and secured the licence for the US market.
Then she put her exceptional sewing skills learned throughout her childhood to good use and fashioned a whole concept around those dumbbells, creating a co-ordinated range of sports garments and calling the collection ‘Survival Kit’. Travelling to New York, she managed to secure the business of a who’s who of the Big Apple’s department stores – all of them clamouring to stock her ‘Survival Kit’. It was considered so hot that she had to rush it into production in time to make Macy’s Christmas gift catalogue.
Although she was only 22, Caroline relocated to Fort Lauderdale to run the business, living the life of a successful sportswear entrepreneur. The label was a huge success, but she knew it wasn’t her long-term future. She says: “I hated living so far away from my home and family”. She was a frequent flyer back to the UK and eventually she was persuaded by her family to pause and take stock for a few months so she could decide what she would really love doing.
From sportswear design to wedding gowns
Caroline did take stock and did find what she loved – it just happened rather sooner than anyone had envisaged. She says: “I was helping a friend choose her wedding dress, and it inspired another idea. I spotted a florist that offered the right space and location, so I walked in and asked the owner if she would be interested in surrendering the lease and she was”. While sportswear had been an exciting testing ground for her design talents, Caroline knew pretty much from the day she created her first bridal store in Esher that this was her future.
Her unerring eye for cut and detail meant she knew instinctively which gowns worked – this meant, of course, she was also extremely discerning about the garments she allowed in the store. She says: “By this time, I had met my future husband and he was the one who first pointed out that instead of telling other designers where they needed to adjust the cut and balance to make the gowns work, I should be designing them for myself”.
Her future husband Chris helped organise a lunch with Jasper Conran – a designer she particularly admired – in early summer 1994, and this meeting went so well that Conran offered to design bridal gowns exclusively with Caroline Castigliano. “All the way through the lunch, Jasper kept saying ‘you know don’t you’, and we didn’t, but he had designed the gown for Sarah Armstrong Jones’ wedding to Daniel Chatto, which was a matter of weeks’ away”.
Sarah Armstrong Jones’ wedding dress – which was a huge critical success – meant that Caroline Castigliano had a just made a very successful design marriage. While Conran sketched the original ten designs that launched the label, he was clear from the outset that these were Caroline’s dresses. She established her own production arm that managed every onward stage of design and creation, from pattern creation and sample cutting to make up and finishing.
The Jasper Conran For Caroline Castigliano label helped springboard Caroline’s business and her name into the national press, and it was not long before she was also managing the bridal departments of London’s most prestigious department stores, creating the ambiance and the dresses that every bride-to-be wanted. More Caroline Castigliano designs were produced – and ten bridal design brands were bought under the Castigliano umbrella – ensuring a presence in prestigious locations across the UK. Caroline says it was word of mouth (always the best recommendation) that built her reputation, but continued critical acclaim cemented her name as a hallmark for British couture quality and eventually led on to the establishment of her flagship store in Knightsbridge.
Form and corsetry secrets
Form is a trademark of Castigliano dresses, along with luxury fabrics and painstaking attention to finishes; in particular, her concealed corsetry – the magic that sculpts that beautiful hourglass shape – has been refined over many years and provides the perfect combination of comfort and confidence-boosting support. For Caroline, the essence of what she does – the reason she continues to attract critical acclaim and a devoted following – is that her gowns offer the fundamentals that all brides want: timelessness; clean lines; silhouette. “There is what I call the life of the dress”, she says. “It’s about the shape, the cut and the way it moves. It should seem moulded to your body so that you feel and look beautiful, so that you stand well. Sitting down is also important – I always ask brides to sit down during fittings so they can see the wonderful effect it has from every angle”.
Caroline believes her role is not only to understand how brides want to look, but also ensure the couture experience is a cherished (rather than stressful) part of the wedding journey. Recently, TV station Channel 4 gained privileged access to her salon for the documentary How The Rich Get Hitched. Such was clients’ faith in Caroline’s judgement and ability to make them shine at every stage of the couture process, that some also participated in the programme, which aired in early September 2015 on UK television.
Caroline let the cameras film sure in the knowledge that wedding couture her way is not high drama. “People sometimes ask me if my work is all last-minute stress and panics, and I have to disappoint them. Even if a bride’s decision about a major element of the dress changes – and, of course, this can happen – what we do is calmly work through the changes she wants so that she looks and feels beautiful in her Caroline Castigliano.
“Our brides have to feel ecstatic about their choice of dress. It has to be ‘the one’ – the dress that means they are radiant, confident and happy when their husband turns and sees them and when they greet their guests at the reception. That is why we’re here, and it’s quite simply our job to get the dress perfect each and every time”.
* Caroline Castigliano, 154 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge SW3. carolinecastigliano.com