Suzanne Neville is an iconic British name with an international reputation for making brides and red-carpet goers look and feel like stars. Absolutely Weddings meets a designer who says there’s a wedding dress to flatter all brides
Words by Libby Norman
Suzanne Neville is, no doubt about it, a leading light of the British bridal industry. With a star reputation (and a star-studded clientele to match), she has been a go-to name since the early 1990s when she helped to define a new style for brides.
The thing that everybody who’s worn Suzanne Neville will tell you is that it’s the superb construction and fit that makes the gowns so special. They make the wearer look and feel her very best self. While there is definitely something magical when the dresses go on, this requires both an understanding of the technical business of construction, and of the wearer. As Suzanne says: “A good wedding gown is all down to fit and quality of materials. It must flatter your shape and also work with your style”.
Suzanne served her apprenticeship at London College of Fashion. She had known from the age of ten that designing clothes was what she wanted to do, left school at 16 and then threw herself into the training. “LCF ran a really technical course in those days so you learned everything from scratch: how to sew a seam, construct a pocket, cut a pattern. It was the whole process of designing, right down to fashion illustration, and I loved it.”
“Fabrics are cut by hand, with scissors, the time-honoured way. There are no shortcuts to the process of perfect fit”
After a brief foray into high-street fashion, she decided she wanted to work with the best materials and processes and that meant wedding dresses. Business started cottage-industry style and grew organically. Suzanne made a few gowns for family and friends and then opened small premises in Harrow on the Hill, north-west London.
Harrods and Liberty vied for Suzanne’s first small collection of bridal gowns and she chose Harrods. This was, she says, a great shop window although bridal was very different back then. “You had no Internet, no Pinterest, so brides tended to be fairly local. Of course, in the very early days, I was still making everything myself.” Over time, her reputation and business grew and now she has flagship stores in Knightsbridge, London and Wilmslow, Cheshire, as well as an enthusiastic network of UK and international stockists.
Suzanne’s workrooms are still located in Harrow, the leafy suburb where it all started out, although these days they are set over several floors in historic buildings on the Hill, close to Harrow School. Suzanne has views down to the city from her top-floor studio and her team make everything in the workrooms, under her watchful eye. This close-knit way of working is all-important, and she credits it with the label’s success. “It’s about having the right skills, the right people. We have a team of 25-30 really skilled people working together in the studio, where I’m also based most of the time. Many have been trained from scratch here, as we have very specific ways of doing things. A lot of them have been with us for over 20 years now.”
The process of making a dress is painstaking. As Suzanne puts it: “We do things by hand – we are old school”. Each dress is made individually, from start to finish, by one team member and always on a mannequin. Suzanne says that moulding and steaming on a 3D form is the only way to ensure the gown will fit properly on a real person. Fabrics are cut by hand, with scissors, the time-honoured way and embroidery is also by hand. Selecting fabrics is a major and crucial part of forward planning and takes an immense amount of time. They work mainly with Italian and French suppliers these days, and the majority of the laces and many unusual silks chosen for collections are exclusive to Suzanne Neville.
“I personally love designing for curvy women and for them, the experience of having a gown that actually fits and flatters their curves can be a revelation”
Evening and occasion wear is another part of the workroom’s activities and there are many clients from the worlds of entertainment, including stage and opera singers. As far as Suzanne is concerned, this is professional workwear and it has to be built with the same precision and attention to detail as any wedding gown. “Gowns have to earn their keep. I was delighted to spot Katherine Jenkins on a show not so long ago wearing something I’d made for her more than a decade earlier – it looked just as fabulous.”
The team also dress clients for milestone events, including black tie parties and, of course, weddings. This side of the business is kept small-scale and bespoke, with clients visiting either London or Cheshire stores for consultations.
Suzanne Neville remains close to her brides, in order to understand their style and wishes for their wedding dress. Those who buy at her Knightsbridge store invariably meet her at the first toile fitting and she says she loves understanding who they are and what will flatter them. “It’s all part of the personal service here, but I love it; I don’t know what I’d do without my Saturdays in Knightsbridge. Knowing the bride also means I can keep an eye on the dress, relate it back to her and ensure all the details are just right.”
She also relishes designer days with stockists, travelling widely in the UK, Europe and as far afield as the US and Japan in order to meet the women who have chosen, or who are thinking of choosing, a Suzanne Neville gown. “Designer days are so useful because you get an insight into both individual customers and trends in the countries and regions. For instance, my Irish brides just love clean lines and crepe, and in France and Italy lace is so important. Meeting brides helps me understand their take and what they want from a dress.”
Suzanne is also passionate about dressing brides of all shapes and sizes. She says: “We pride ourselves on designing for all shapes and sizes. I personally love designing for curvy women and one of the great things these days is that most brides are far more confident about their figures. But for brides who are, say, a size 18, the experience of having a gown that actually fits and shows off their figures beautifully, rather than just hanging, is often a revelation.”
“For the 2018 collection, I wanted a fusion of the whole world of bridal that I see. I’m convinced there’s a gown here for every bride.”
For this bridal collection, Suzanne has taken inspiration from brides in the many markets she visits. “I wanted to create a fusion of the whole world of bridal that I see – from traditional to modern – I’m convinced there’s a gown here for every bride.” She and her team also broke with tradition and chose to shoot this season in black and white. “We wanted to really show off the gowns without any background distraction. We just want people to focus on the dress.”
With the sculptural and revealing lens of black-and-white, the new collection really does shine out, showing the “whole world” of Suzanne Neville’s keen eye for cut, fashion-forward details and shapes that flatter real brides of every variety.
Already, Suzanne is sitting in her Harrow studio with bird’s eye view over London plotting the course of 2019’s collection. She says: “I never panic about the design process. I trust my own instinct and think of the brides I’ve met. But you do have to take a few risks in this business. A couple of seasons ago, I included what I thought was a fairly wacky dress. I wasn’t certain other people would respond as I did, and then thought ‘I love it, surely someone else will’.” And, as it turned out, Suzanne Neville’s unerring instinct for what real brides of all shapes and personal styles actually want to wear was spot on – that “wacky” dress sold really well.
29 Beauchamp Place, London SW3 & 4-5 Kings Court, 37 Water Lane, Wilmslow SK9. For collections, appointments at the London and Cheshire stores and information on UK and international stockists, visit suzanneneville.com