As star of ‘Say Yes to the Dress,’ wedding dress specialist Randy Fenoli helps brides navigate the complicated terrain of finding the "perfect dress." In "It's All About the Dress," Fenoli explains how he came to what he does so well. Here's an excerpt.
Believe it or not, my love for fashion began on a farm
When I was a kid, I’d get up at 5 am to take care of our cows. Yes, cows. We lived on a farm in southern Illinois with 163 acres and a hundred head of cattle.
Today I still get up at 5 am. But now I do it because I need enough time to choose the right suit, pocket square, necktie, socks, and coordinating cuff links for my day at work. I can’t really talk to brides all day about style if I’m not dressed my very best, too! I say, “If you’re going to sell luxury, you’d better look luxury!”
My mom grew up during the Great Depression and worked her way up to the rank of second lieutenant army nurse. She ran our household like an army barracks. Dad was a lieutenant colonel in the air force: a career military man with a fierce, fiery temper. There were seven kids in my family: my older sister, my five older
brothers, and me. Although I was the smallest of the six boys, I was still expected
to carry my weight and be just as tough as my brothers were. I lugged sledgehammers that weighed more than I did! In the winter, we’d break up the ice on one of our seven ponds so the cows could drink.
I tried to fit in even though my father would make fun of me. He teased me mercilessly because I was so skinny. I remember his bellow: “Randy has to run around inside the shower just to get wet! One day some gust of wind is going to blow him away!”
Truth was: I would have given anything for a gust of wind to blow me off that farm. In my fantasy, it would have been the tornado from The Wizard of Oz. Only for me, there was no place but away from home! Deep down I knew I didn’t fit into this life.
My older sister, Linda, knew it, too. She watched over me like no one else—and brought joy into my daily life. She would get a kick out of dressing me up in her clothes! There’s a photo of me at the age of two, standing on the diving board of our backyard pond. I’m dressed up in my sister’s one-piece bathing suit, my chest is stuffed with socks, and I have a swim cap on my head!
With seven kids to dress, Mom bought everything in bulk and one size up so it would last longer. Sure, I got new outfits, but a lot of the clothes I wore were hand-me-downs. (To this day, I get a little anxious when I walk into a vintage shop.) No matter where I got my clothes, however, I took great care of them. By the time I was five, I was already a master at doing laundry. Seriously! I was great at ironing, too. Even my dad would ask me to iron his clothes. (To this day, I iron everything I wear.) I grew so meticulous about my clothes that I definitely washed them too much.
When I was in grade school, Mom bought me a bright red wool jacket with a crest on it. It was perfect for my school photo, and I wore it proudly. After the photo had been taken, I came home and took it off. It needed to be washed, of course, so I headed downstairs to our laundry room. I can still recall feeling the chill of the linoleum floor and the cold metal washing machine as I watched the jacket spin through each cycle. When it was washed, I pulled it out—only to discover that it had shrunk by at least three sizes! I tugged and pulled on the wet wool, but to no avail. The jacket was ruined.
I just knew Mom would be angry with me. But she wasn’t. I remember her holding me at arm’s length as she said, “I am very proud of you, Randy. You cared. And you tried your best. That’s all I can ask.”
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I couldn’t believe it. What a major lesson in love and support! Mom may not have understood everything about me, but in that moment she seemed to acknowledge how important that red jacket was to me. She seemed to understand that clothes mattered to me more than the average kid—or even the average grown-up. Of course, the red jacket incident was also a good lesson in something else: fabric science. Like wool shrinks in water, people!
Watching my sister and mother get dressed up had a huge impact on me. I often rifled through my sister’s closet and marveled at her assortment of clothes: 1960s sundresses and 1970s bell--bottoms. But there was one dress in particular—an enormous, strapless, fluffy prom dress with layer upon layer of yellow ruffled tulle—that simply fascinated me. I loved that dress! I wondered: How does someone even make a dress like that?
My mother’s closet was an even bigger playground. Mom had rows and rows of exotic, beautifully made garments and a vast collection of belts to cinch her tiny waist. Because my parents had been in the military, they’d spent much of their time traveling. Along the way, Mom collected clothes from all over the world. Oh, how I loved the kimonos, robes, and obis from Japan and the Philippines! But the article of clothing I loved the most was a simple dress Mom had purchased years before, in California: a strapless, daffodil-yellow, cotton organdy dress with little raised white dots and a full circle skirt. It was a 1950s masterpiece. I couldn’t understand why she never wore it. I said, “Mom, you would look so beautiful in this dress. Why don’t you put it on?” But she always chuckled at me. With seven children and a farm to keep, when would she ever have the time or the occasion to wear yellow dotted organdy?
One hot summer, my brothers and I were working out in the fields, baling hay. As the smallest in the group, I was assigned “water boy” duty. This meant many long trips in the scorching sun carrying jugs of ice water from the house to the guys in the fields.
Then, across the field, Mom appeared—in the dress.
The hem of the organdy skirt caught the breeze, and the fabric seemed to float and billow all around her hips. To me, Mom looked like a movie star. She came right over to where I stood, leaned in, and whispered, “Randy, I wore this dress just for you. Thank you for helping me feel beautiful again.”
I wanted to cry. Somehow, this skinny southern Illinois farm boy had managed to show my mom that she could look and feel beautiful even on one of the hottest days in the middle of a field. Somehow, I’d shown how a single dress brought out the true beauty—inside and out—that my mother had been hiding for so many years.
When I was nine years old, Mom purchased a sewing machine. She worked so hard as a nurse and did everything she could to save pennies for our large family. She figured the sewing machine would help her to save even more money. Mom was going to sew curtains and make clothes for us children.
One day, she came home with a bolt of blue-and-white cotton faille fabric and tried to make a dress. She quickly discovered that she was all thumbs. She literally could not sew a hem on a terry-cloth towel! Frustrated, she set everything aside: the good scissors, the thread, and of course her good bolt of fabric. Before she left for work one morning, Mom warned me: “Don’t touch any of my sewing, Randy!”
Of course, as soon as she was gone, I touched everything.
From the numerous dress patterns on Mom’s sewing table, I remember plucking out a McCall’s pattern with Marlo Thomas posing on the front. (I had a huge crush on Marlo, aka That Girl, back then.) By midmorning, I’d laid out all the fabric and pinned down the pattern on our dining room table. Our table was extra-long to accommodate our large family of nine, and it made the perfect pattern table. I cut the fabric and started sewing and in no time I had a dress! Carefully, I ironed the dress and hung it on a hanger. Then I cleaned up the work space so it was spotless.
When Mom came home that night, she saw the dress—the dress I had made—hanging in the door frame.
“Where did this come from?” she asked.
“I made it for you,” I said.
Mom was in total shock! She quickly removed the dress from the hanger and tried it on. It was a perfect fit. In fact, she wore that dress to work the very next day.
The following night, Mom returned home with another pattern and asked me to make her a skirt.
And of course, I did.
Sewing clothes became an escape for me. It took me away from the farm and distanced me from my father’s temper. It brought me even closer to my mother and sister. I was inspired by both of them to appreciate and celebrate a woman’s beauty. After high school, I became a professional hairstylist and makeup artist in addition to sewing dresses and making theatrical costumes. I worked hard and saved up enough money to take my life in a new direction.
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I moved to New York City and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).
FIT was the perfect fit for me. My professors were pleased with my work, even though I stubbornly insisted on designing one type of clothing: evening gowns. Once, I was given an assignment to design five swimsuits. Instead I designed fifteen gowns that transformed into swimsuits! It wasn’t until the school had a competition to design bridal wear that I knew I’d found my true love in clothing design.
We were asked to sketch and design three different elements: a mood board (a collage of photos and items used for inspiration), a bridal gown, and a bridesmaid’s dress.
I decided to create five sets of each. When the judges selected their top ten, five of the ten designs they chose were mine. Then they chose one design for me to actually create. I worked hard, draping fabric, cutting patterns, and hand finishing the details of the dress. Because I was so thin, I was a sample size and used myself as my own fit model. For this reason, I consider myself lucky. I’m able to understand dresses from concept to creation and even know what they feel like on!
Before the winners of the contest were announced, I got a surprising phone call on the pay phone at the dormitory. Vivian Dessy Diamond, who was one of the judges of the contest, and her husband, Paul Diamond—two big names in the bridal industry—asked me to design for them. I was in shock! No FIT student had ever landed his or her own label before graduation. Of course, I said yes.
I did end up winning that contest. However, the real prize for me was having my name on two labels: Randy Fenoli for Dessy Creations and Randy Fenoli for the Diamond Collection. My designs went down the runway four months after I got my diploma. What a graduation gift!
Everything came fast and furious after that. Randy Fenoli wedding gowns were featured on the pages and covers of all the major bridal magazines. In both 1999 and 2000, I was honored with the Design Excellence in the Bridal Industry -(DEBI) award. For nearly ten years, I designed and created two collections annually and traveled to almost twenty-five trunk shows per year. This meant meeting with thousands of brides across the country to promote my latest collections. One of those trunk shows was at Kleinfeld in Brooklyn, New York. A record-breaking ninety-three dresses were sold in a single week.
After the tragedy of September 11, I decided to move to New Orleans to open my own dress shop. I would design custom, made-to-order -bridal, debutante, and Mardi Gras gowns. Two weeks before I was supposed to open my shop, however, my plans were disrupted by one angry lady: Hurricane Katrina.
I consider myself blessed that I didn’t lose my home. However, all of my supplies to open my store were in a storage unit that was washed away in the storm. I ultimately decided to leave New Orleans and head back to a place I knew well, my old “home,” New York City. I was armed with nothing more than a strong desire to get back to what I loved best: bridal.
Several salons offered me jobs in New York, but I landed back at the place I’d been so successful before: Kleinfeld. They created a unique position for me with the title of “fashion director.” And so I became stylist and adviser to more than fifteen thousand brides each year. I was also asked to appear in a TV show they were filming at the salon for TLC called Say Yes to the Dress. Maybe you’ve seen it?
During these years, I’ve met literally thousands of brides on all sides of the business. Along the way, I have designed and produced bridal gowns, and stood there with many brides as they tried to figure out which dress fit them best and made them feel beautiful.
I believe all women are beautiful! They just need reassurance and guidance in choosing the right dress that will enhance their natural beauty. For me, a piece of clothing is much more than just a piece of fabric. It can make you feel.
I remember watching a show once in which Oprah Winfrey brought Christmas to children in Africa. As presents, she gave all the boys soccer balls, and all the girls received baby dolls. And all the children got new uniforms for school.
To everyone’s surprise, the gift the children liked most was the clothes! They said that when they put their uniform on, they no longer felt poor.
The truth is, wearing clothes you love can make anyone stand taller, smile wider, and feel richer. Clothes can tell the world where you’ve been, where you’re going, who you are, and who you want to be. Clothes can tell people your story.
Every bride and groom has a unique story of how their relationship began and who they are as a couple. Your wedding and your wedding gown can help tell that story to your guests. From the moment your guests see you and watch you walk down that aisle, your wedding dress affirms your strength, beauty, confidence, and story in every way.
What may be most informative and inspirational are the many bride-and-groom stories I’ve included and will share with you. Each one of my brides had a reason she connected with and purchased her wedding gown. I hope you will see a little piece of yourself while reading their stories.
There is so much information about weddings and how to choose the perfect dress; it’s easy for a bride to get overwhelmed. I don’t want you to get overwhelmed by too much information. This is why I’ve written my book with chapters that are simple and help answer a bride’s main questions and concerns. In this book, I will give you only my best suggestions and advice.
To begin, I’ve come up with what I call the five essentials you will need to help you find your perfect wedding gown. Each one is outlined in its own chapter:
Once you understand these five essentials, you’ll be ready for your appointment—and ready to say yes to your dress. Along the way, I will also give you my “Randy Rules.” For every rule throughout this process, remember: There will always be an exception. In fact, that is my first Randy Rule.
As much as I like bending rules, however, I do realize that having some straightforward guidelines can be very helpful when selecting your dress and making important decisions about your wedding. I will also guide you through your alterations and give you my advice for dressing your bridesmaids, mothers, and the men for your wedding.
In the end, when you finally do say “I do” to the man of your dreams, you’ll be wearing the dress of your dreams.
Excerpted from IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DRESS by Randy Fenoli. Copyright © 2011 by Randy Fenoli. Used by arrangement with Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive