What do you do when customers tell you that bridal dress options aren’t ticking their boxes? If your name is Cris Roberts, you create your own boxes, and then start ticking them with your first bridal collection.
New Zealanders might recognise Cris’ name from her Auckland fashion label, Pearl, which the designer has been running since 2003. From a ground floor Grey Lynn studio, tucked between an advertising agency and the storefront of fellow fashion designer, Liz Mitchell, Cris has carved out a solid niche for herself with sleek, stylishly minimal evening wear, along with the odd winter coat and bridal piece.
But a few years ago, Cris started hearing one particular complaint on repeat: customers couldn’t find the sort of wedding dresses they were after. “A lot of my customers are in their late 30s to 60s, and many are onto their second weddings,” says Cris. “They’re after wedding dresses that cover their arms and tummies, which a lot of dresses don’t. They’d come in saying, I can’t find anything, can you help me?”
It turned out that Cris could. Thanks to her two guiding design principles — the right fit and an outfit that makes a woman feel sensual and beautiful — she was soon run off her feet with bespoke orders, not just for bridal dresses but often for bridesmaids, mothers of the bride, and younger brides, too.
At around the same time, Covid started its slow dance across the planet, causing many of us to rethink how we do things. “People started reevaluating what was important to them and what they spent their money on.” In the bridal market, that often translated to ‘I want an unconventional bridal outfit, but one that’s still fashion-forward, so I can wear it again’.
“That attitude makes so much sense, because if you have a simple dress or a skirt and jacket or trousers and top, they can be worn as separates again and again, particularly if you introduce colour.”
As luck would have it, the emerging trend coincided with Cris’ lightbulb moment about what to do with the 300 or so patterns she’d accumulated over the years. “I had the idea of tweaking those patterns to form my first bridal collection. I’ve always wanted to do a standalone bridal collection but had never really had the confidence before.”
Fortunately, veteran pattern-maker John Kite, who’d worked with iconic bridal designer Kevin Berkahn, shared Cris’ vision. The pair dusted off Cris’ collection of paper patterns and, along with bridal machinist Robyn Daniel, spent a year or so beavering away at Pearl Bridal’s first collection. The result is 60 pieces that lean heavily on classic silhouettes crafted to fit each bride’s body.
“For me, the essence is to start with a woman’s body, not the dress. And then to get a good fit for your body type. I don’t do really tight dresses or big splits up the skirt. That’s not my style at all. My aesthetic is more minimal and classic, but still sensual and beautiful. They’re garments that don’t accentuate parts of the body the bride may not wish to have on show.”
Although flattering on mature figures, brides of any age and shape will appreciate the languid drape, minimalist style and versatility of Pearl Bridal’s inaugural collection.
There are beautifully draped halter necks and bias-cut dresses with back seams that not only create a better fit, but also lessen the likelihood of the fabric wrinkling.
Full circle skirts are designed so that the waistband can be adjusted to help conceal the midriff, while lace-lined draped jackets can be worn either to the front or the back.
“They’re definitely pieces that brides can wear outside a wedding setting. They also work well for brides who might want a couture gown for the ceremony, but then a more relaxed, non-traditional outfit for the reception.”
Cris’ inspiration is drawn mainly from the 1930s and she and John adapted her existing patterns to reflect that. “I like the fluid nature of 30s design, of dresses that hark back to a certain era but are also timeless.”
Cris sources her fabric from Auckland suppliers who, in turn, comb the globe for the silks, laces and fine polyester she prefers to use, including the delicate French lace used to trim jackets and veils. All of the garments are constructed in New Zealand, something Cris is passionate about.
It’s a long way from Scotland where Cris was born and lived until she was 18. She followed her father to Aotearoa and then ping-ponged between here and there, including a two-year stint in the US. Accounting and HR jobs found Cris before fashion did. But a job doing the accounts for Zambesi in the 80s was her entree to clothing design. “I was with Zambesi for 18 years, where I learned all about the fashion industry, from watching the pattern makers to becoming the wholesale sales person, attending London and New York fashion weeks.”
Cris realised a dream of opening her own label 20 years ago with her husband Peter Roberts, a respected film editor. The next step in that dream – Pearl Bridal – launches in September and Cris is anticipating a busy wedding season.
But she’s enjoyed her toe-dip into the bridal market so much, she’s already committed to expanding. “The collection has grown organically but it’s been such a joy to re-imagine my former patterns into bridalwear. There will definitely be more to come!
WORDS Sharon Stephenson PHOTOGRAPHY Marissa Findlay