Wedding gown designer Christina Devine opened up her bridal wear shop in Hong Kong in 2019, with the aim of celebrating each bride’s uniqueness and individuality and making the process of saying yes to the dress a special one again.
I remember my own wedding day as though it was yesterday. I had picked a rental gown following countless returns to the same shop to browse at their designs, hoping that one of them would resonate with me. I had already paid my deposit and didn’t want to back out, and while all the gowns on the rack were beautiful, they all had minor details I wanted to change about them. I loved the neckline on one, but not the lace details. Another would look perfect but didn’t fit right.
I ended up settling for a beautiful lace number with a long train detail but it was only about three weeks before the day when I took it for alterations that I realised the back had a criss-cross detail that I absolutely hated. My lovely seamstress – a godsend really – was able to alter it in a way that fit what I had in mind, but the whole process was a rather harrowing one.
Upon speaking to Christina Devine, I realise I wasn’t alone in this. Countless brides are stuck in the same rigid system of rental restrictions and bogged down by hidden fees. Picking your wedding gown should be exciting, but for many brides, it wasn’t always the case. Devine, who had her own stressful experience with altering a gown (14 days before her wedding!) decided soon after the event that she wanted to launch her own namesake brand to break the rules of bridal wear.
Keep reading to learn more about Christina Devine and how she built her bridal business in Hong Kong.
Can you tell us about how you started in fashion?
I went to design school in New York, at FIT and I studied evening wear and lingerie. My career actually started in lingerie. When I graduated from school, I did a couple of internships in both lingerie and evening wear, and I worked at a small couture house on Upper East Side. Eventually, I found my way to Asia with Victoria’s Secret. I was on their R&D and innovation team, so we would create and source new fabrics and forms and test them then we would design a collection around it.
When did you start designing wedding gowns and open your company?
When I left Victoria’s Secret I started working for another Hong Kong brand doing lingerie as well. But on the side, I was starting to help girlfriends either have their wedding dresses made or fix wedding dresses, or design something and try to find a sewer. By about the fifth one – and my own very stressful dress experience – I said, ‘OK, I’m ready to start my own brand and I’m ready to figure out all of these issues that nobody else has figured out with wedding dresses.’
I really wanted to create a space where brides can come in and feel really amazing. So I did about six months of prep, going to China, looking for factories and suppliers there, and my husband, who’s also my business partner, we built the brand together. But on a factory line, you’re restricted to the patterns that are accessible and there were just a lot of issues and red flags so I came back and said no, we need to open something here, we need to have our own space and control the process. Eventually, we found a studio space and found a team and grew this together.
What’s special about your bridal wear compared to going to a rental shop?
What’s so special about what we do and what’s really been helpful through Covid is that brides who’ve needed to cancel or shift their wedding – we’ve been able to stop the design process at whatever stage and shift the timeline without penalising them having to hold onto a dress for two years. I keep saying that the rules of bridal wear really is kind of breaking down. There are so many things that nobody else has figured out. When you go into a shop with your girlfriends or shopping yourself, you go into these appointments with a list of restrictions – you cannot make any changes, or you have to fit a certain size, and there are tons of extra costs that come with alterations. That in itself is stressful and there are so many negative underlying tones in a wedding dress appointment. So we wanted to take all that away. We don’t talk about sizes in here.
Are your dresses available for rent?
It’s interesting because that’s a question we get a lot. Rentals are so important here in Hong Kong and I understand the value especially for a Chinese customer who’s looking for the option of multiple dresses on that day. I truly believe in having a garment made for you that hasn’t been worn by anybody else. That’s really special and has so much meaning that goes behind the design. We can’t offer that with a rental gown, and there’s also the stress of fitting into that rental gown. Whereas we really want to make something for you, made to fit you perfectly and something that you can keep.
Can you alter a dress post-wedding and make it wearable later on?
That’s something we’re really excited about and we’ve done now with a few brides what we call ‘design for life’ where you can bring the dress back in and we modify it so you can wear it again. One of our brides had this amazing, long column dress with a huge train. We removed the train and simplified the shape so now it’s the perfect black tie dress so she can wear it again and again. We understand it’s a big purchase but we believe there’s definitely life to the dress after the wedding. We look at the gown with fresh eyes after the wedding so you can wear it again, or keep it in your closet.
What are some of the key factors that has helped your company grow?
The number one thing is my team and finding the talent that we have today. As a designer and a creative, I’m always pushing everything. I could look at a wall and be like we need to start over. It’s horrible, I know, but I’m always pushing to improve, to make things better, and taking apart samples and remaking them and pushing and pushing. I think after three years, I finally feel really confident with the team that I have, that can create that vision that I want. Now I know that for any bride that walks through the door, we can create the dress for her, which is a great feeling.
The other thing I’m really proud of is that we’ve launched our website with all our photography there that I’ve shot. We haven’t turned to e-commerce yet, but everything is in place, all the product details, the photos. So it feels very usable, very shippable.
What is the starting point of your wedding dresses?
Some of our big rental competitors have their prices start at HK$35,000 for rental for three days, which is crazy. Our price point actually starts at HK$30K, to about $57K. Our minis start at HK$8,000 while the feathers are HK$15,000. The lacy ones amount to a bit more but we’re sitting in that range of bespoke, depending on what it is.
What styles are people looking for these days? Is the trend towards smaller, more minimal because of Covid?
Yes, and it’s heartbreaking because I’ll get a bride who really wants something big or full. But she’s nervous to go down that route for a much more intimate ceremony. What we’ve done has been really fun. We’ve made it more understated and more modest but actually add in an element of fun and surprise, whether it’s a high low skirt so you still get a bit of a train, or movable pieces, like a jacket with lace detailing and something really sleek and chic under it. The trend these days is definitely a slinkier shape with skinny strap details, very clean. I would say even before Covid, a lot of brides were looking for something minimal. Off-shoulder is also popular, it looks good on everybody. Everybody has beautiful shoulders and you can show off your décolletage. Brides are not looking for very traditional gowns, but more modern, still feminine and soft but in fresh shapes.
What is the whole process like from consultation to the dress?
When brides first come in we have a nice chat and we go through the racks to try on things and play around. Sometimes I’ll bring out an unfinished sample. Any ideas she has, I’ll take all the ideas and put a few sketches together and send her what I call a bridal packet with the illustrations, details and the pricing. Then from there, if she likes one idea or part of another idea, we’ll rework it. Once we reach a design she’s happy with then, and only then, do we ask for a deposit, and then start on the dress. Usually, we don’t need that many fittings, maybe one or two.
You mentioned your own wedding dress experience was very stressful. Can you tell us about it?
We were getting married in Bali after living in Hong Kong. I’m from New York so I went back to New York to do the gown shopping. I fell in love with this dress from a designer in New York and we had the dress made but I wanted to make changes to it. I loved my shoulders and wanted to have an open neckline but they didn’t want to make the changes once the dress was done. So I brought the dress back to Hong Kong and I kept on trying other dresses but the details weren’t right. I actually went back to my old sewer from Victoria’s Secret. They cut open my dress 14 days before my wedding and remade the whole neckline. The fit was perfect but it was so stressful. From that experience I was like, OK I need to figure out how to make this accessible for other brides.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I see us owning not only the manufacturing. From my previous corporate design career, I’ve met so many amazing factory owners in China, family-run businesses who are incredibly successful and built these huge ecosystems of manufacturing. I’ve always come out of these meetings thinking I want to own that kind of manufacturing experience instead of handing it off to a third party and not knowing the process.
So how do we do that? We can keep the process transparent by sharing how things are made and who’s making what. The other thing is to build our own stores and showrooms and train our team and own that process. I really believe what we’re doing is a great opportunity within Asia. There’s no big brand in Asia. The US is very different, there are tons of brands and huge giants like David’s Bridal and the market is really saturated. Eventually, we can go there for sure, but I think there’s a real opportunity to start here in Asia. So in five years, I’d love to have a true flagship in Hong Kong, whether that’s an operation in mainland China as well, or just another space within the Greater Bay Area would be great. I’d love to get into the Japanese and Korean market, the bridal industry there is huge.
This post first appeared on Prestige HK