Elizabeth Dye, a Portland native designs wedding dresses––beautiful, elegant, and timeless pieces that inspire brides, and those who hope to be one. We met in her Northwest studio where I became a little girl again, and ogled at the beautiful dresses hanging in the sunlight.
DYE: The very first wedding dresses I designed were for friends, because even though today’s brides have a lot of choices, when I started out that was not true. Unless you had a lot of money to spend, you pretty much had to go to a terrible bridal salon with scary old ladies that would try to talk you into some polyester cupcake monstrosity. The vast majority of my friends could not identify with that experience at all, and were borderline traumatized by the idea. My friends knew I made clothes, and they began approaching me with their visions. Then, like with anything, if you start doing something and you get good at it, you just get more of it. Over time, I started to see patterns, certain things that brides wanted, and I recognized that certain dresses needed to simply exist and did not need to be designed from scratch every time. I also got more confident in my design abilities and developed my own style. I launched my first line in 2010, and it was a culmination of my experiences as a custom designer.
SOLIS: Tell me about your former bridal boutique, The English Department?
DYE: I opened the shop in 2005. It didn’t start out as bridal, it was originally street clothing. After being open a year, I brought in some simple, alternative wedding dresses, and they just took off. It was the part of the business that was clearly growing, and after moving locations from Northwest 23rd to our current location on Southwest Alder, I decided that the shop really needed to be either street wear or bridal. At that time, it became really obvious which way the shop should go, because the bridal portion of the shop was booming. As the shop grew, I couldn’t do it all––design custom dresses, run the boutique, and design my own line. So I stopped doing custom dresses, and I ran the shop side-by-side with my line for about three or four years before my head exploded because it was all too much. *Laughs
In 2013, I sold the shop. I still have a great relationship with the new owners, and I sell my dresses there, but the sale allowed me to step away and focus on wholesale. I occasionally do a custom dress now for fun, but most of the time, I don’t have the time. I design two collections a year, and the minute we are done with one, it is time to start on the next one; however, with selling to about 25 stores around the world, I have been able to do a lot of traveling now.
SOLIS: Do you remember a time when you were terrified to design a dress?
DYE: I do! I would say that the scariest dresses I had to design were projects that I took on without knowing exactly how to craft the dress in the first place. Ultimately, I think that is how we all learn, though, by being a little uncomfortable. There was one dress in particular that gave me a hard time, and it was in silk chiffon. It had these really elaborate pleats across the front. I had stitched all the pleats down so that they wouldn’t shift around, and were stabilized. When the bride came in for the final fitting, and we were going to pull out all of the stabilizing threads, I realized that I had no idea if it was going to work at all. Her mom was there, and the pressure was on. I pulled out the threads, and the whole dress sprung out. It actually turned out great, but there were beads of sweat dripping down my face for sure.
SOLIS: How did you learn your craft?
DYE: Well, I actually am an English major. I am a totally self-taught designer. I did not have a mentor, and I totally should have. I think I was super stubborn and just wanted to do it on my own, which is absolutely the most stupid and longest way to do anything. But I have a lot of friends and colleagues who along the way have helped me out with tips and advice. I always tell interns, “Don’t do anything I did. By being an intern, you are already way ahead of me.”
SOLIS: You just designed a new ready-to-wear resort collection. What prompted this?
DYE: I did. Doing bridal wear, you don’t deal with a lot of color, and I love really punchy prints. I am obsessed with Palm Springs, and I think that I have a fantasy lifestyle, wherein I would make all the clothing for such a place. Right now, it is just an experimental line so that I can branch out creatively. It won’t necessarily be available for purchase. I want everything I design to be perfected before being sold to the public. There is a lot of clothing in the world, and I like knowing that the pieces I am designing have a purpose and are special. I like knowing that someone is not going to just turn around and eBay it right away. With bridal, I know that I am creating a keepsake that will last forever, and it is so fulfilling. I am definitely not above fast fashion, but I don’t want to make that.
SOLIS: Have you always been drawn to the idea of escapism through fashion?
DYE: I think fashion with a capital “F,” like pure fashion design, is fantasy. It is about using clothes as a way to manifest an alternate reality. For me, especially on a rainy Portland day, that alternate reality is resort wear. Resort in so many ways is the opposite of my day to day. It is a getaway, and that is what makes fashion so much fun. In life there are so many things that we don’t have control over, so when people are like, “ I don’t care about clothes,” I think that is such a missed opportunity to just be somebody different for the day.
SOLIS: Do you have anything in your personal wardrobe that is particularly special to you?
DYE: The most special thing I own is a little sequin jacket I found at an antique store for nine dollars. It is too fragile to wear, but I love the handiwork, and its one-of-a-kind quality. I think it is from the 20s or 30s, and it is comprised of actual gelatin sequins. The way you can tell is by looking at the piece and where somebody perspired, the sequins have kind of melted. If I dumped the jacket in water, all of the sequins would dissolve. A while ago, a friend gave me a vintage sequin dress, but it was a little dirty so I thought I would just soak it. I totally ruined it. It turned into this gluey, disgusting mess––I was mortified.