The famed designer of wedding dresses and lingerie on design, life, and love.
Inside Weddings Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Walt Shepard sat down with famed bridal designer Claire Pettibone to discuss her design philosophy, success, and how she decided to become a designer. The designer of lingerie and unique wedding dresses uses fine embroideries and laces to create vintage-inspired designs that are adored by ethereal and bohemian brides across the world. For more information about the dreamy bridal designer, read the full interview below.
IW: When did you decide what you wanted to do when you grew up?
CP: From a very young age, I started to draw. In the beginning when I was three or four years old, I used to draw princesses with these elaborate gowns. I think I was about four or five years old when we went to a very elaborate wedding. My mom said we came home from that wedding and I was just completely blown away. From then on, I started drawing bridal gowns. I didn’t really think about being a designer until much later. I was really interested in art and took a lot of graphic design classes. I thought I might go into illustration and then I got into fashion. I always loved clothes. Actually, I started sewing from a young age as well. I kind of put the two together and thought, oh, great, I can actually make a career of this, and I went to design school, and the rest is history.
IW: Your parents are both artists.
IW: Tell me about that. What was it like growing up?
CP: It was great. They would be doing their work in their studio, and they’d need me to leave them alone so they could get their work done, so they set me up with my own little art projects. I would do my paintings and drawings. They really encouraged me to express my creativity and find something that I loved to do. In the beginning, I didn’t want to be an artist because my parents were both artists, so I kind of rebelled against that. [Laughs.] But it kept drawing me back – it’s what I’m good at and I really do love it. Eventually I worked out a way to... you know, fashion is a related field but it’s not the same – kind of gave me my own way to express myself.
IW: When you were drawing the princesses, which prince did you dream of marrying?
CP: Actually, the prince didn’t come into play until much later. I was not interested in the man at all. He was like a prop. [Laughs.] It was all about the girl, it was all about the dress. That’s where my priorities were at that time. Later on, we started looking for the prince.
IW: So who did you dream about?
CP: In terms of the designing and all of that? Or in terms of the prince?
IW: In terms of the prince.
CP: Umm, well, you know, every girl has this vision of the perfect man, and I definitely lucked out and found mine. I wasn’t expecting it when it happened, but he came along and... you know, what’s right for each woman is different and I found what’s perfect for me. Guy’s just the best.
IW: Now, you fell in love with a man named Guy.
CP: I did.
IW: How did you meet Guy?
CP: We met at a Hollywood nightclub, and we were in our early twenties. The funny thing is after our first date, I called a girlfriend of mine and she told me she’d been meaning to set me up with this same person, and we’d ended up meeting on our own. It turned out we had all these mutual friends in common – kind of strange that we hadn’t met before, but I guess the timing was right. It just worked out.
IW: What made you fall in love with Guy?
CP: He is one of the most sincere, honest, giving, wonderful, loving people you will ever meet. When I first met him, I thought, oh, he’s just too handsome and cute to be this wonderful. I thought it was an act... at some point, you know, the illusion’s going to break. [Chuckles.] But, no, he truly is that. He’s a wonderful person.
IW: What kind of wedding did you dream about when you were a child?
CP: Definitely outdoors and in a garden with lots of flowers. I think the setting is so important and really sets the mood for a wedding.
IW: How would you describe your wedding?
CP: Well, it was just that. We did get married in a beautiful garden overlooking the Arroyo in Pasadena, in a beautiful home... you know, we had candles and flowers. It was very intimate, about 50 people.
IW: Was there a theme to your wedding?
CP: The house kind of had a certain Spanish garden kind of feeling, so I let that set the tone for everything.
IW: Who designed your wedding gown?
CP: No one. It was just... at the time, Guy and I were starting the business and planning our wedding. I had intended to design my dress, but with everything that was going on, I thought, you know, I just don’t think I can handle it. That’s going to be a little bit too much stress on top of it all. So I just bought a dress. It was really nothing. Now, in retrospect, of course, I wish I had done it, but at the time it was just...
IW: Just a dress off the rack.
CP: Yeah... just a little too much for me to deal with. So now I live vicariously through all my brides because I’m creating these dresses that I would have loved to have worn. So it’s fun.
IW: Any surprises at your wedding?
CP: Well, the cake. We definitely had the ugliest wedding cake in history. [Laughs.] I don’t know what exactly happened. The cake was supposed to be a very blush pink with off-white roses all over it. The cake arrived, and it was hot pink with a big white heart. [Laughs.] So either it was not my cake that was delivered, or we had a complete meltdown... You know, there’s so much planning and stress and worry that go into a wedding... you go through all that and on your day you just have to let it all go and enjoy the day. So I did not throw a fit when I saw this ugly cake. I just looked at it and said, “Oh my god, let’s put some flowers in front it, try to hide it, and slice it up before anybody could see it.” [Laughs.] We had a great day. I always tell brides, don’t let anything ruin your day. It’s not about the cake. It’s not about any of that. You’re marrying the man of your dreams and it should be a beautiful day for you and your guests.
IW: Anything you would have done differently?
CP: Probably the dress. I would have loved to have created it myself. Now I could have handled it, but then I was not quite as experienced and not quite as used to all this. So it seemed a little overwhelming at that time.
IW: Now, how did you get started as a designer?
CP: I went to Otis Parsons School of Design, here in L.A., and in my senior year, we had to start thinking about our specialty or what direction we wanted to go in. For me, I always had such a feminine style. At the time, kind of that whole minimalist, nineties thing was going on – I’m so not that. So with evening wear, bridal, and lingerie, you can always be feminine in those areas, whereas in sportswear, contemporary, that wasn’t happening then. So I was drawn toward those areas. I had a professor at the time who was designing lingerie and she hired me to be her assistant. That’s what got me into lingerie.
IW: When did you start your own company and how?
CP: I had been working for a lingerie company for five years. I was really ready to move on, and Guy had been producing music videos, and he was ready to move on. We decided we wanted to start our own company and we just did it. We put a line together and took it to a Los Angeles showroom and they wanted to take it on right away. That’s how it all began. So we started really with the lingerie. Our idea was to design a beautiful, high-end line using beautiful laces and embroideries, and very feminine styling. There wasn’t really anything like that at the time. The only beautiful things were coming out of Europe, but there really were no American companies that were doing really special things.
IW: How long did you do the lingerie before you did the bridal?
CP: Quite a few years. The bridal started happening early on, but it was more of an alternative bridal customer where they were buying the gowns that I designed as peignoirs, having them lined, and getting married in them. That started happening within the first three years of us being in business, but it wasn’t a focus for us – that was just a side business that started happening, just organically. And then a friend came to me and wanted me to design her bridal gown. That’s how that really started. We said, “Okay, we’re going to do a real gown.” That gown is actually still on the line now, and one of my best-selling gowns. It just grew from there.
IW: What was it like to start something together with your husband?
CP: It was really exciting. We were young and, in many ways, naive, which in retrospect was probably a good thing. If we had known what we were getting into, we probably would have been much more afraid, but we went into it with open hearts and a lot of good things happened very early on that really helped us grow the business. It kind of gave us this focus. We were kind of having a baby – not, but it is. [Laughs.] You’re creating this thing together and it grows. So I think it really brought us together even more.
IW: What were those critical turning points?
CP: Let’s see... in our first year of business, we made the Nordstrom’s Christmas catalog and that was a big deal. I think maybe the second or third year, we made the cover of Saks Intimate catalog. We had some Japanese customers early on that came in with huge orders. They photographed our line on Naomi Campbell for a catalog in Japan. So we’re actually pretty well known there and have quite a following.
IW: When you and Guy work together, how do you resolve conflicts?
CP: [Laughs.] We have our little spats. We talk about things. I think in the first couple of years of having our business, we worked out a separation of duties, so to speak, so that we wouldn’t be constantly trying to do the same thing. He has his strengths and I have mine, so we independently work on things. But, of course, we’re constantly running things by each other. We help each other a lot. I think he appreciates my opinion and I appreciate his. He’ll bounce financial ideas off me and I’ll bounce creative ideas off him. How do we resolve it? We just talk through it.
IW: Easy enough! What do you think makes your marriage work?
CP: I think we both really want the same things and have very similar goals, so there’s not that conflict of one person wanting one thing, and the other person wanting something different. I mean, of course, there’s the underlying love that’s necessary for any relationship to work. But beyond that, I think our personalities are very compatible. One of us will be strong when the other one is not. We kind of switch off on that. Yeah, it just works.
IW: What motivates you?
CP: I just love creating beautiful things, and I think that’s behind everything. [Chuckles.] Everything that I do is all about wanting to add beauty to the world, and I think that clothing is the way that I’ve found to do that. I think that, as women, we express ourselves a lot through clothing and it can help us feel better about ourselves. So it’s just a way of hopefully adding beauty to the world.
IW: I understand you have a problem with shoes. Can you talk about it?
CP: [Laughs.] Well, it’s not really a problem, but it is a little bit of an addiction. I don’t see it as a problem. [Laughs.] But other people might say it is. It’s an indulgence and I’ve always loved shoes. I think most women... I don’t know... I started wearing mom’s... playing dress up. I think now that I’m a designer, I wear so many of my own designs in terms of clothing, so with shoes it’s a way to go and see what somebody else is doing.
IW: Who are your favorite shoe designers?
CP: My favorite shoe designers? Let’s see. I love Kristen Liberton. I love Rene Caovilla. Dolce & Gabbana. Every now and then, Prada... who else? The classic, Manolo Blahnik. I just love really girly, beautiful, sexy shoes.
IW: Do you have any favorite clothing designers?
CP: Um-hm, I love... let’s see. Well, Karl Lagerfeld is amazing. What’s his name? I’m drawing a blank. John Galliano is amazing. I love designers that really go for it and create something over the top... I mean, where it takes weeks to make a dress. It’s the pure fantasy of it that’s really inspiring to me.
IW: Do fashion trends influence your designs?
CP: Yeah, they do to some extent. What’s interesting is right now my look is definitely really in style. When we started the business, it wasn’t. But we found a following for what I do and I think throughout the years, my look has a certain consistency that runs through it. So it’s not trend-driven, but I do like to be aware of what’s going on and I like to try to keep it fresh and current, but still hold on to what makes it me.
IW: What’s the direction for fall and next spring?
CP: You know, there’s so much color. In terms of my lingerie collection, there’s a lot of beautiful, flowery prints, and embellishment, a lot of richness. With the bridal gowns... I would say the same applies. I mean, I use color in a much more subtle way. It’s still a bridal gown and it’s got to look that way. It can’t be red. I’m sorry but [chuckles]... that’s a rare woman that’s going to want a red bridal gown. I do use color but it’s in subtle ways. I love gowns that look vintage. I’m not trying to make a gown that looks like an old gown. I’m trying to make a gown as if it were new back then. So I draw these references from vintage things, but then I incorporate it in a way that’s modern, and feminine, and sexy and beautiful.
IW: What advice do you have for brides buying gowns for their wedding?
CP: Well, the number one thing is definitely try on a lot of dresses. Go see everything that’s out there. This is your one day and you should really have fun with that part of it. The next thing is that... I think it’s good if you have one really trusted friend, or your mother, or your sister. If you want to pick one person to go shopping with you, I think that’s great. But you’ve got to remain true to who you are. Sometimes I see brides who bring in too many other people to help them make that decision, and ultimately they end up not being happy because they’ve let too many other people influence their decision.
So, I would say, just pick that one special person who really cares about you and who really knows you and go shopping with that person. You’ve got to be true to who you are so that the dress really compliments you, not only physically, but emotionally. It’s got to be right for you. That’s why at our boutique, we do not push at all. If it’s meant to be, then it’s really meant to be and the bride just falls in love with it and she goes, “Oh, this is it.” I had a bride that just came in the other day and said, “You know, I could go look at other dresses, but there’s really no point to it because I know in my heart this is it. There’s not going to be any other dress for me out there.” You know when it’s right.
IW: And your dresses are so unique.
CP: Exactly, so they’re not going to find that particular look somewhere else. Either it’s right for you or it’s not, and when it is, it’s great.
IW: Describe your perfect day.
CP: Perfect day... sleeping in. [Laughs] Definitely, that’s a luxury. Having brunch and going to the Getty, or I love the Huntington. Definitely being outdoors and walking around a beautiful garden with my honey. It’s so funny because I just love seeing nature. It’s so inspiring to me. So when people describe a perfect day, it’s always a day off. It’s funny how that is, right? I love working, too. For me, the best time to work is at night after everybody’s gone home for the day and I kind of get into the zone in my studio. I’ll collect little items of inspiration along the way. I store them away. And then when I have that moment of peace, pull everything out, get all my fabrics out and start playing with colors and different fabrics and laces. And that’s a magical time, too. You know, the line starts taking shape and making sense. That’s pretty good.
Photos by Debra Young; Hair by Crystal Haynes; Makeup by Lori Pinski