Interview: Oh Sew Lovely!
Clare Szabo’s love affair with all things vintage is apparent from the minute you step into her elegant studio-cum-boudoir. From the bold Art Deco curtains and striking Tiffany lamp to the geometric side table and plush velvet sofa, the coffee table tomes on Hollywood icons (Audrey, Elvis, Marilyn) to the fashion bibles piled high (Vogue, Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior), the room exudes a feeling of a glorious bygone era. The focal point, cheek-by-jowl with an ornate full-length antique mirror, is Clare’s very first commission, the ‘Esme’ dress, now part of her River Elliot Bridal Made-to-Measure collection. A boho princess-style gown in blush pink, it possesses an ethereal quality, with its whimsical soft tulle skirt, rose gold waist trim and Alençon corded lace bodice.
Elsewhere in the studio is the enchanting ‘Grace’ bridal gown, inspired by the feminine silhouette of the 1930s, featuring ornate ivory ‘eyelash’ fringed tulle, and a crystal waist trim. You can imagine a bride twirling round in this, the fringe shimmering as it is spun.
In a picture frame perched high on a shelf is the statement black wedding dress ‘Polly’, named after Peaky Blinders matriarch Polly Gray. Clare is a huge fan of the BBC2 gangster epic set in 1919. “It’s everything I love; it’s England, the 1920s, the glamour, the hair, the makeup! It’s such a great show,” she enthuses.
Dramatic and alluring in equal measure, Polly features boudoir-style black lace, set over an organic silk taffeta bodice, with plunging neckline, intricate beading and sumptuous full pleated skirt. Designed for the bride who wants an alternative to a traditional white gown, it simply oozes Hollywood glamour.
Clare’s designs are so captivatingly different, it’s no surprise she was awarded One to Watch in the Dressmaker & Designer category at The Four Counties Wedding Awards last year. But what is surprising is that the gifted mum, whose four-year-old daughter River is the business namesake, only launched her bridal couture business two years ago. Prior to that she was working in the publishing industry. “I actually didn’t start sewing until the mid-2000s,” she explains, whilst handing me a piping hot coffee and a chocolate biscuit (hospitality, and making clients feel at ease, comes very easily to Clare). “I was always creative - making, sticking and gluing as a child -but I ended up studying film and then I fell into publishing. But I always felt there was something missing, and I knew it was because I’m a naturally creative person and I wasn’t embracing that side,” she muses.
Heavily into vintage fashion, Clare took an evening course at West Suffolk College in Bury St Edmunds and began teaching herself dressmaking, eventually launching her own sewing blog Sew Dixie Lou. Around that time sewing was experiencing a huge revival, and Clare’s blog attracted a large following. Consequently she ended up meeting an amazing group of friends from around the world - New York to Nashville - all united by their passion for sewing and designing.
Deciding to take the plunge, and now living in London, Clare persuaded her boss at a publishing company in Clerkenwell to let her go part-time so she could complete a diploma in advanced pattern making and fashion design. “There I learnt to cut patterns and sew on a couture level,” Clare says. “I finally felt like I was following my dreams – and I was so lucky that my boyfriend Mike (now her husband) supported me through my studies. He was incredible, saw my potential and pushed me to do what I loved.”
Fast forward to 2012 and as Clare’s wedding day approached, she decided (somewhat bravely) that she would make her own dream gown. “I gave myself six to eight months to design it, and it was the most stressful dress I’ve ever made because my standards are just ridiculously high,” she laughs. “At the time the London Olympics were on and it almost felt like I was competing in my own sport!”
The blood, sweat and tears were worth it; Clare’s dress was just divine, a vintage-style lace gown with cap sleeves, a full inner corset and satin underlay. “It was such a labour of love, but that was when my husband said, ‘you really should do this for a living!’ I’m massively in love with the 1920s and 1930s aesthetic and the glamour of dresses of that period so I knew that I would lean more towards formal, occasion dresses. But it took a few years for me to finally say, ‘Okay, let’s do it!’”
Five years to be precise, as in 2017, River Elliot Bridal was born, the first client won via a Facebook post asking for a bespoke prom dress – and the exquisite ‘Esme’ the result.
“My client Izzy was so happy with the dress – and I felt massively proud of it,” Clare beams. “I’m a terrible perfectionist, but I love that dress so much and it’s such a sentimental piece for me. I see it on the mannequin and it has a life to it.”
Business has grown organically ever since, with commissions ranging from flamboyant May Ball dresses to Parisian-style bridal gowns.
Clare is a real people person, outgoing, easy to chat to and warm, so especially loves working with brides because of the close bond they establish.
“Brides are trusting you to fit their bodies, so you do form quite an intimate relationship as the boundaries come down. I know some people can find the process overwhelming, which is why I created this studio, which is a lovely tranquil space, very private and inclusive; there is no body shaming or judgement here,” she explains.
For bespoke commissions, brides are offered a free first consultation, usually an hour long, where ideas can be discussed, fabrics viewed and handled, and pictures shared.
“Most people turn up a little worried and unsure of what they want, but within those 60 minutes something takes shape, and you can see the client’s body language change as they relax and the excitement comes back. I love that!” enthuses Clare.
Swatches are then sought, a toile is custom-made to fit their body shape and the design journey begins. Clare does all the work herself, from pattern-cutting to hand-stitching embellishments.
“There’s lots of things I do with my dresses that you won’t find in a wedding shop. So everything is tailor made and all the finishings inside are very advanced with beautiful French seams or hand-sewn bindings,” she explains.
One of Clare’s favourite recent commissions was for a bride called Lianne, who wed in a couture gown that had taken more than a year to make. “Lianne found me on Instagram, and wanted a Gatsby-style gown, as she was having a wedding with a 1920s vibe.”
Clare created a timeless piece from double crepe silk with a sand-wash finish (apparently very similar to the material Givenchy custom-made Meghan Markle’s dress in), with blouson sleeves and dazzling embroidered appliques positioned to accentuate Leanne’s waist and silhouette.
Clare invited Lianne to bring her mum and bridesmaids to enjoy a glass of prosecco during the final fitting and ‘big reveal’ (something she offers to all brides).
“Their reaction was just incredible; they said the design was ‘so Lianne’, which, for me was the biggest compliment that I had nailed her personality in a dress.”
Incredibly passionate about the environment and sustainability, Clare also offers eco-friendly bridal attire, made using cruelty-free fabrics and processes. “I find that the bridal industry is super wasteful but no-one wants to talk about it because weddings are supposed to be this one day that you splurge, no holds barred. But there’s so much single-use plastic and waste and if it’s a pyramid structure wedding dresses are right at the top of that waste in terms of their whole supply chain,” explains Clare, who has written various blogs on the subject.
Her ‘Elliott’ slip dress is made from 100 per cent organic silk crepe de chine and is cruelty-free, and ideal for brides looking for a chic, minimal look. The designer explains that when the silk is made, the moth is allowed to emerge from the cocoon before it is boiled and the fibres spun. “People might say ‘Oh it’s just a moth’, but boiling a cocoon with a moth inside is pretty grim when you think about it,” she grimaces.
Clare also sources her ethical fabrics from co-operatives where workers are paid fairly for their work.
“The social and environmental impact of the fabrics I use is important to me and I want to tell people that ethical and sustainable bridal dresses are just as, if not more, luxurious than what you would get in a bridal shop,” she asserts.
Alongside the couture work, Clare is an expert at carrying out alterations of vintage dresses. “I really understand how these dresses were made and how women’s bodies back in the 30s, 40s and 50s were significantly different to today. I am able to alter them to make them wearable for today’s woman, whilst maintaining the integrity of the original dress.”
Next up for Clare is designing an exciting new couture bridal collection – and she’s being understandably secretive about what it will entail. “I don’t want to reveal too much, but I can say I’ll be returning to the aesthetic I’m most passionate about; vintage inspired with a contemporary, ethical vibe.”
Looking around her studio one last time, it’s clear that whatever sensuous silk, fabulous fabric or luscious lace she puts needle and thread to is sure to be transformed into something quite sensational.
Find out more about River Elliot Bridal at riverelliot.com
More by this authorLouise Cummings