Ethiopian-American designer Amsale Aberra is featured this week on CNN International’s African Voices. In the feature she discusses her work as a celebrity bridal designer and also reveals her newest project, a reality TV show that airs in April on US television networks. Watch CNN’s feature here. We also checked into our archives and dug out an exclusive interview Amsale granted Ladybrille Magazine in 2007, barely five months after we began our path to exposing African fashion to the Western masses. The interview remains timeless so we’ve republished it below. Congratulations to the designer on her CNN feature and upcoming reality show.
Advice and Tips from Amsale on Choosing Your Wedding Gown
Ethiopia’s Amsale Aberra’s name is forever etched on the global fashion map and in fashion history books. Regarded as one of the most highly influential forces in the bridal industry, she is responsible for the way lots of American brides dress. Her signature is elegant, clean, classic yet modern. Amsale’s work has been featured on Oprah, in top bridal and fashion publications including Instyle, Harper’s Bazaar, Hello!, Vogue, WWD and W. While celebrities such as Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Angela Bassett, Lisa Kudrow, and Salma Hayek have worn her designs, Amsale is keen on accessible clothing to the average person. Her designs are indeed accessible and can be purchased in some of the finest boutiques and specialty retailers in the USA, Canada, U.K. and her Madison Avenue boutique.
In 2006, Amsale’s design company grossed over $25million dollars in sales. That same year, Lincoln [a brand of Ford Motor Company] tapped Amsale as spokesperson to debut its campaign for its luxurious Lincoln MKX. With all her amazing accolades, it only made sense that as part of our November wedding series, Ladybrille ask the bridal couture and evening wear goddess to share tips on how to find your perfect wedding gown, choose bridesmaids and some basic wedding etiquette to observe for your special day. Enjoy the interview. . .
LADYBRILLE.com: Amsale, hi how are you? How is your day so far?
Amsale: Good. It has been a little relaxing today which is nice.
LADYBRILLE.com: [raising voice] Oh, I’m jealous! Can we trade places?
LADYBRILLE.com: Can we trade pleaseeeeee!
Amsale: [Continues laughing]
LADYBRILLE.com: [We do some more chatting and exchanging pleasantries and then we go straight into the interview]
LADYBRILLE.com: First of all, I understand that you really started the wedding business when you were going to be a bride and could not find a [g]own [t]hat was sophisticated, classic and beautiful. It was the 80s, with the big puffy . . .
Amsale: Yeah, old . . .
LADYBRILLE.com: [laughs] Exactly. Tell us a bit about that? How was that experience from the excitement of getting married to being disappointed about the selections out there?
Amsale: In my case, it is probably a little bit different just because I was a designer and I was planning to make my own dress anyway. But for inspiration, when I looked through the magazines, it seemed like I could not find anything simple or clean. So, I made a dress for myself. Even till this day, when I have a special appearance or when I see brides, many times I can relate to their situation.
Amsale: You know this is the most important day of their lives. Even if you are the most secure person, you become so insecure when it comes to this one dress that you have to make a decision.
LADYBRILLE.com: Wow! Why such insecurity especially with a generally secure person over a wedding gown?
Amsale: Because it is really a one time shot. It is not something that you can experiment. In fashion you always experiment. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t and you forget about it. If some design did not work for you, no one would remember that.
Amsale: But a wedding dress? [laughs] [Still laughing] It is something that will be in your pictures and everytime you go to your parents’ house, wherever you go, it is something that will always be around you.
LADYBRILLE.com: [visualizing parents and friends playing wedding fashion police and laughing]
Amsale: [chuckles but getting serious] That is why it is a big decision. Especially when you want to be fashionable and at the same time you are a traditionalist. There are just so many things that you really have to make sure works. A wedding dress is not something that you buy all the time. It is a new thing for most brides, of course.
LADYBRILLE.com: That’s true.
Amsale: [S]o I can understand being insecure about trying to pick the right dress.
LADYBRILLE.com:Before we get into picking the right [w]edding gown whether in a designer bridal studio or going to retail outlets like places where Amsale dresses are sold, Saks Fifth, Nordstrom, you touched on the traditionalist aspect. I’m curious, assuming you are Ethiopian American and have not been to Ethiopia for 15years and your Habesha [Ethiopian] boyfriend just proposed to you. You have no idea how to fuse both cultures but you know you want to do it through your wedding style sense. How do you do it? Did you incorporate tradition in yours?
Amsale: Well except the ceremony part of it which is the Ethiopian part where the priest marries us. . . [A] side from that, growing up in a place like Addis [Ababa] wearing your Western wedding dress is a common theme so that did not really present a conflict for me. But I think for me, the [conflict] was more living in New York and working in the fashion industry, I was thinking [t]his really needs to be high fashion plus [balancing] my personal aesthetics with those of the people coming to my wedding. So, I needed to take that into consideration. Especially in a third world country, whether in Africa or almost ethnic group, when you think about it, a wedding is a big thing.
LADYBRILLE .com: [laughs] Oh yeah! Two three days.
Amsale: Yeah. So, that is definitely something you have to really think about and keep that in mind. In my case, I wanted to have my wedding day in New York around my friends. The dress I ended up with was [c]ompletely different than the dress I [initially] chose because I happened to like traditional dresses so my dress ended up being traditional. I really thought about my family and the people coming to my wedding. It was important to give that kind of fashion statement. It made me feel happy and I was happy with the simple traditional dress and also it was very appropriate to my family.
LADYBRILLE.com: That is awesome, that is really good! Let me get into the retail aspect of this. Any bride can go into any of the retail stores, Saks Fifth, Nordstrom and pick up an Amsale dress. As our Ladybrille brides walk into these retail stores, what are tips they should be looking for?
Amsale: For a wedding dress, whether you pick my dress or any other designer, I think the most important thing is before you even go into the store, as a bride, you should familiarize yourself with your wedding dress. Buy the magazines, flip through them, get a sense of what attracts you [and] take pictures with you. Some of the dresses you think would work for you will not work. When you go to these stores be very very openminded. Don’t try only one dress/make. It may not flatter you, it may not be the right thing. [T]ry different silhouettes. Once you focus on whether you want a full skirt, A line or a very slinky slim dress, then you go indepth from that particular silhouette. Does that make sense to you?
LADYBRILLE.com: Yes. Absolutely. You basically pick the silhouette and then build on it.
Amsale: Yeah. The most important thing is for you is to see what line works for you.
LADYBRILLE.com: With your body shape.
Amsale: Exactly! You know by narrowing it down, then [a] store can sell to you because you can be more specific on what you are looking for. [G]o with your guts. Your personality is very important. You need to feel comfortable. When people feel comfortable, they look beautiful. So, don’t try to get too many people’s advice.
LADYBRILLE.com: [interrupts laughing] I was going to say, “how many people should show up with you when you go to try your wedding gown?”
Amsale: [Didn’t hear question] Eh?
LADYBRILLE.com: [Still laughing] how big should your bridal entourage be when you go to try your wedding gown ? I watch Style Channel’s “Whose Wedding is It, Anyway?” Oh my gosh! Everybody comes. [laughs]
Amsale: [getting passionate] “Everybody comes” and I think that is not a good way to shop because everybody has a different opinion what you should wear. But most people give their opinion on what they like, not what would be the right dress for you. So it is better to go with someone who understands you [best]. It could be your girlfriend, mother or whomever. Narrowing who you go shopping with [reduces] the confusion. The other thing is most people shop with their mothers. I think it is better to really talk about what you want in a wedding dress rather than constantly fighting.
LADYBRILLE.com: [laughs] I was going to say shopping with moms for a wedding dress can cause some fighting. [laughs]
LADYBRILLE.com: [Still laughing] Especially African mothers.
Amsale: Yeah. [Starts laughing]
LADYBRILLE.com: I can already see when I get to that stage I will be arguing with my mother. [laughs]
LADYBRILLE.com: Let me ask you a different question. How do you choose the right bridesmaids dresses?
Amsale: The bridesmaids set the tone for your wedding. If your wedding is formal, the brideswear should be formal. If it is a garden wedding then it should have a garden feel to it. So, I think [the] kind of wedding you have will [determine] the appropriate dresses for your bridesmaids. That is one thing. Another thing is if you are choosing your bridesmaids based on your relationship not based on just size. If their sizes are all over the board, you should keep in mind who has the most problem to fit a dress that way she can be made comfortable. You can [then] have two similar styles that accommodate all. [Y]ou really have to keep in mind what would work for their bodies too.
LADYBRILLE.com: That is a very important point. [In a very inquisitive tone] You know one thing I have found interesting is how people choose bridesmaids. People look at the relationship but they also look at [w]ho can afford to pay that expensive bridesmaid dress. Have you ever heard that before?
Amsale: I have never heard that before and I think that is absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know. . . if I was getting married and if I really want certain bridesmaids dresses, I can understand that it can be really expensive. They are traveling to the location, it could be out of town, they are paying for hotel costs. It is very expensive the gift that they are giving to you and I think it would be nice to really put that in your budget if you can to really pay for your bridesmaids dresses. I think that is the easiest and best way to do it. It may add to the expense but . . . just pay part of it so that [t]he bridemaid [will not] be resentful for being forced to buy an expensive bridesmaid dress that she is not going to wear again and then she has all of these expenses!
Amsale: The bride is spending all this money just for a bit more extra whereas the bridesmaids are the ones that are the first to walk down the aisle. Why spend a lot of money on flowers and then you have a hideous bridesmaid dress? Do you know what I am saying?
LADYBRILLE.com: Yeah. That makes a whole lot of sense.
Amsale: People should really think about it. I completely understand . . . but bridesmaids are generally younger and it is just too expensive to ask them to pay that kind of money. I think the solution is that the bride pays for it or partly pays for it.
LADYBRILLE.com: I asked you about that because some of the African weddings I have attended or participated in, I noticed the brides paid for the bridesmaids’ outfits but here (USA), I find that bridemaids have to generally pay for their own expenses.
Amsale: Yeah! I don’t know who came up with that rule a long time ago. I wish there [was] no rule like that.
Amsale: [Laughs & chuckling] Now, the brides wants to make sure that they get their money because they pay for their bridesmaids outfits, like 10 of them, and then when the wedding comes, the bridesmaids do not want to pay for it. [Sighing with the frustration that happens with such drama] I don’t know . . .
LADYBRILLE.com: Speaking of 10 bridesmaids, how many bridesmaids must you have? Must you have 10, 20, gosh!
Amsale: It is a lot. I don’t know why people choose a lot of bridesmaids. Sometimes they probably do not want to offend [others]. They choose their sisters and then they have to get their best friends. I actually don’t have friends in the past who really chose that outrageous amount of bridesmaids.Four or Five, I think, is appropriate. When you have a large number of bridesmaids, I really have no idea why people do that, like a lot, but it is good for my business. [laughs]
LADYBRILLE.com: [laughs] Of course, very good for your business. Let’s talk a bit more about your business. I saw that commercial you recently did [Lincoln MKX]. That is [r]eally exciting!
Amsale: It is. It was exciting. [Chuckles]
LADYBRILLE.com: [Chukles] You looked happy.
Amsale: [Chuckling] It was my first commercial.
LADYBRILLE.com: And your daughter looked super happy. [Laughs]
Amsale: Oh! That was probably for the Oprah show.
LADYBRILLE.com: [N]o. It was the Lincoln MKX commercial and she was like, “wow! Look at my mom she’s everywhere.”
Amsale: [Recognizing the commercial I speak of] Ah! Oh, oh, oh! That was a clip. That was not part of the commercial. She, of course, was happy and yeah the commercial was wonderful and it definitely gives me more exposure to the community.
LADYBRILLE.com: How did that come about?
Amsale:[laughs] It just came about. It seemed like an exciting thing to do and certainly the filming of it was an amazing group of people who were incredibly nice and they made it fun and comfortable for me and so I actually had fun.
LADYBRILLE.com: hmm hmph. You looked like you were having fun.
Amsale: [laughs] Yes. I had fun making it and I did not even realize that for that little commercial that was like I think 30 seconds or less, we had spent three full days! It was perfect. It was fun.
LADYBRILLE.com: Whoa. You just mentioned Oprah. It is such a significant thing when Oprah validates, even if you are already established, you. It goes worldwide. [laughs]. Her reach is very powerful. How did that feel to finally get to that point where you are on television with one of the world’s most respected talk show host.
Amsale: [In a quite thoughtful tone] Yeah. I don’t know how that came about. I think prior to that, there was a write up on Wall Street on me and that also helped and got people to pay attention to what I was doing. So, we got a call and of course it is one of the most exciting things to be a guest on that show but I was also terrified. I am shy and I do not feel very comfortable on TV. But, somehow, really that is what makes Oprah really incredible is how she makes you feel at ease. We had a rehearsal the day before because we were doing a fashion show . . .
LADYBRILLE.com: I know I saw that.
Amsale:Yeah! The rehearsal part, I was like, “Oh my God there is no way I can do this!” When the day came, talking to her and how real she is, she just makes you feel at ease.
LADYBRILLE.com: Let me switch to African Fashions for a minute. Ethiopia is know for its amazing leather. Retail fashion stores are one of the things we really lack in Africa where if I was visiting I can go into a retailer and shop for cool fashions. Do you currently have a retail outlet in Ethiopia?
Amsale: No because my focus is really in bridal and that is not distributing overseas.
LADYBRILLE.com: Yeah but wedding is a big business in Africa, as you already know.
Amsale: [In a more subdued tone] It can be ridiculously expensive. Even sending it to Europe, by the time you really go through customs, all of that stuff . . . you know we make made to order clothes. So, it is not a cheaper line. We make one dress at a time. So to really do something like that and have a distribution, it can be very complicated and very costly so that is really why I don’t have a store in Ethiopia or Addis Ababa. It is just so unrealistic. The average wedding dress is about $4,000. There will be just a few people who can afford that so for business it does not make sense but it would have been really nice.
LADYBRILLE.com: Maybe down the line since you have now diversified into evening wear.
Amsale: Yeah, maybe down the line.
LADYBRILLE.com: Have you ever done a fashion show in Ethiopia?
Amsale: For the millennium, I donated a dress to an organization that I support and there are lots of African designers, primarily Ethiopian designers who mostly use Ethiopian fabrics, that are part of the organization. Unfortunately it was only one dress that I gave. But hopefully one day I will do a fashion show. Again, you know even if you do the show, what I want is that it really be accessible. If it is not accessible it is a slap in their face. To say here is my gown and the average dress is $4,000. [laughs]
LADYBRILLE.com: Funny you should say that because when I, for example, visited Nigeria, I noticed some designers had their prices so high and I kept wondering why it was so inaccessible to the average person on the streets.
Amsale: That is part of the problem. It is almost, to me, very embarrassing. Being an Ethiopian, if I am not accessible to most Ethiopians or the average Ethiopian, I think they’d would just hate me! [Chuckles]
Amsale: [Chuckles] Yeah?
LADYBRILLE.com: I understand what you mean but I don’t know that they’d hate you. It’s not like you are outsourcing your manufacturing process to China to keep costs low.
Amsale: Yeah we make everything in New York City and that is the reason why it is expensive. One day when I can maybe outsource it can cut [c]osts. . . and make it affordable.
LADYBRILLE.com: So, what’s next for you?
Amsale: [Sighs and in a thoughtful tone says] I think it is probably along the line of continuing to do bridal or maybe the evening that we are doing right now. [It] is a bigger market and expanding that. [W]e have two divisions, Christos and Kenneth Pool. Both [lines] are wedding dresses but different looks. So, there is plenty to do right now [laughs]. I don’t want to take on more.
LADYBRILLE.com: You must be busy. How do you balance that? I have to ask you that because I know for me that is a question that is important everyday. I also know for a lot of women who are achieving so much they have to do this balancing act, plus you have a family. Some of us don’t!
Amsale: Well my daughter is 20years old.
LADYBRILLE.com: Yeah now but before that?
Amsale: [In one of her thoughtful tones] Balancing, I think you really have to be surrounded by people who really care. It is not like I am the only one who makes these things happen. It is almost like everyone who works here are committed and whatever the joys or burden I have, everybody shares. That is the only way you can handle it. It is not like a one man show. Do you know what I am saying?
LADYBRILLE.com: [In a raised tone] Oh! I know. Trust me. Please believe me I know what you are talking about. [Does a “I so get you” chuckle]
Amsale: [Laughs] I think really having people around you who are as committed as you makes a world of difference to your success.
LADYBRILLE.com: [T]hat is amazing. Well any last tips for our brides to be, do you have something that you think they should know. They [get]married, how do they make it work. You’ve got a family and a twenty year old.
Amsale: [laughs] I don’t know. I don’t think I am an expert.
LADYBRILLE.com: [laughs] We are not looking for experts . . .
Amsale: I think I’d probably would just say it starts with the wedding process. I understand the stress. I understand the pressure but they always have to really sit back and also try to even enjoy the process if they can. The process of looking for a wedding gown, flowers and all that, it can become very stressful and if you are constantly fighting with a member of the family, it defeats the purpose. You have to look at the bigger picture. “I am getting a party and I want it to be nice. Those are my priorities” and then let it go of the minor stuff. If you really micro-manage everything, then you will not have fun in the process. Have fun on your wedding day, focus on your wedding dress and everything will fall in place.
LADYBRILLE.com: I thank you so much.
Amsale: Thank you.
~Interview by Uduak Oduok