Studio tour: The English Dept

Name: Elizabeth Dye
Location: Portland, Oregon
Company: The English Dept.

What do you do? I am a dress designer specializing in non-traditional wedding gowns. I’ve been working as a clothing designer for about 10 years, and bridal has become more and more my specialty. It really chose me—my first wedding gowns were for friends who despaired that there was nothing out there for them in traditional gown-land. Since then I’ve discovered that it’s a niche that really suits my sensibilities. I love to get a bit fancy, and that dash of drama seems just right for a special garment like a wedding dress.

What is your aesthetic? Modern simplicity inset with antique details. I like classic dress silhouettes that are universally flattering, re-invented using unusual fabrics and mixed-media details. Whenever possible, I incorporate fabrics and trims that have that soft-focus charm I associate with heirloom garments from the late 19th and early 20th century. The most incredible dresses were being made in those decades—it’s really the last era of handmade, before the Industrial Revolution and mechanized garment manufacture changed everything. Although I’m past the point where I’m able to make everything myself, by hand, I want all my dresses to have that feeling. I want my dresses to feel personal, intentional, and loved.

How does your studio style convey your professional aesthetic? Since this is my work space, it really needs to be spare and uncluttered. That said, the limited palette of whites and pale neutrals is very much my style! I keep cuts of antique lace, buttons and trims in bins within easy reach, since these pieces always inspire me. I am a visual person and am known to tape a piece of lace or ribbon to the wall to keep myself thinking about how to use it.

Favorite part of your studio? I fell in love with the light immediately—the north-facing windows deliver soft, steady sunlight all day long. In our often rainy Northwest, good light is crucial to helping me stay productive and in a sunny mood!

Where do you go for inspiration? Historical garments, period films and set pieces. I love the Regency Period, as well as the silver screen glamour of the 1930s. I believe that many of the most beautiful dresses in the world have already been made, and I enjoy rediscovering and reimagining those ideas from my own point of view.

What tool do you use in your business that you can’t live without? She’s not really a tool, but Sarah (my studio assistant) helps make it all possible! Not only does she contribute to the very real work of cutting and assembling the dresses, she is a wonderful sounding board for new ideas and design challenges. I am by nature a collaborative creator, and I love having her in the mix—it makes me a better designer.

Is there anything you’d upgrade to? I wish I could clone her and have a roomful of helpers. Baby steps.

Anything else we should know? There’s a lot of emphasis on “the dress” when it comes to planning a wedding, and it’s my mission to make that dress an enjoyable and meaningful part of the journey. Marriage is a momentous time in people’s lives, and I think it’s wonderful that more and more brides are choosing alternatives to the soulless ritual of buying a big poofy princess gown off the rack. I have been fortunate to meet many incredible women who have honored me with their trust by wearing one of my dresses. I think I have a pretty great job.

[images from Lisa Warninger]

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