Imagine launching a bridal collection completely on your own from a tiny Brooklyn studio apartment. Designing, sewing, marketing, handling clients’ orders, shipping – you are doing it all. Oh, and you’re also pregnant with your first child. This is where Rebecca Schoneveld found herself in 2010 when she started selling her handmade wedding gowns on Etsy.
Rebecca is a prime example that if you stay true to yourself and create out of genuine love for the craft, people will take notice. Her simple, timeless designs struck a chord with brides-to-be who wanted something different from the ornate dresses filling the racks of bridal shops. Business quickly grew and she opened up Schone Bride, a beautiful boutique and production studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
We had the pleasure to talk with Rebecca about what it took to realize her dream of becoming a bridal designer, the importance of being ethical and inclusive brand, and how she balances being a business woman, artist, and mother of two.
We always like to start from the beginning. Looking back, when did you know that you wanted to be a bridal designer?
Well, I learned to sew when I was just four years old. From a very young age, I was attracted to anything feminine and pretty. My mom has pictures of me playing “bride” in her bathrobe (it was a nice bathrobe!). And I remember putting the living room curtains on my head pretending it was a veil.
I have a distinct memory from my early high school years of driving by a bridal shop on my way to ballet class. I immediately thought, “Wow! Someone is making their living doing that?! What a dream…” So from around the age of 13 or 14, the dream of being a bridal designer was in my head. But it always felt just like that… a dream. I assumed I would have to compromise and have a “real career.” And for many years, I did.
You started out selling your wedding dresses on Etsy in 2010. Were you working alone during this time, handling the design, production, and sales?
I always like to look back on how I started and reflect on where I was coming from at that period in my life. I launched my Etsy store during a time of real personal crisis. After working in the fashion industry, I launched my own line of maternity clothing of tops, dresses, trousers, etc. that were all “eco friendly” back when it was a brand new concept. Starting a business is extremely difficult. Starting a line of ready-to-wear clothing is beyond difficult. I was actually making a pretty decent go of it while learning A LOT of painful and expensive lessons along the way. Then the economy crashed in late 2008 and I hit a wall. It was impossible to continue and I was utterly heartbroken.
With some time, I began to come out of my fog of depression and debt. With clarity, the vision of working with women directly emerged, and seemed the best way to continue to practice the craft I love. While I wasn’t’ sure where this idea was heading, I knew I wanted to get back to basics and make things that made me (and hopefully my clients) happy! Special occasion made the most sense. This is a time when women shop well in advance, and the clothes can be a lot more fun!
When I started on Etsy, I was working completely alone in my living room with no funding whatsoever. I was also newly pregnant with my first son. I made all the patterns, sewed the samples and custom orders, photographed the gowns, and handled all emails – everything! I continued working like this for the first 18 months, until I finally hired my first seamstress.
Why do you think your designs were so popular with brides looking for their dress on Etsy?
The way brides responded to my work was such a lovely surprise!! Even though my early dresses were more like bridesmaid dresses, I received a wave of response from women who were looking for something simpler than what was on the bridal market at that time. A lot of my clients had very good imaginations and trusted me to create custom gowns. That time taught me a lot about what brides were looking for. I could see that women were really hungry for gowns that were more simplified, refined, easy going, minimal, and a little vintage-y too, which is exactly what I love to do! It all felt very serendipitous, as if I was putting my truest self out there and the women who wanted that more authentic vibe found me! Not only that, they really supported me. I would never have had the business I do today if it weren’t for all the positive, deeply encouraging women I met (and dressed!) in those early years. I’m happy to say I’m still friends with many of them!
When did you know that it was the right time to expand Rebecca Schoneveld Bridal and open up a brick and mortar storefront in Gowanus, Brooklyn? Did you encounter any challenges?
Oh yes, the challenges… too many to count. I knew it was time to expand when I just couldn’t handle the amount of production in my apartment anymore. After cutting and sewing all week long, I was meeting with brides on the weekend. At the time, I had an intern and one seamstress, and my desk was literally under our one rack (which was beyond jam-packed with samples!). Expanding was going to be a risk. But without taking the risk, we would never grow to the point where I could truly live off this business. As they say, it costs money to make money!
I found a very affordable hole-in-the-wall storefront in Gowanus, Brooklyn and signed the lease a few days after my 30th birthday. And about two weeks after that, I found out I was pregnant with my second son!! Nothing like doing a gut renovation with no money while pregnant! But miraculously, I got a few extra orders that month, which helped get me through the cash crunch. My then-husband was quite helpful with installing floors, sanding walls, and other renovations.
The day he hung up the (very inexpensive) sign over the newly installed storefront window is forever etched in my memory. Seeing my name in big tall letters on a real street in New York City, I barely knew what to do with my nerves. It was all very exciting and scary! Two years later, we outgrew that first space and opened Schone Bride in it’s current location, a block down 3rd Avenue.
Your collection stresses inclusivity and ethical craftsmanship and production. We love this! Can you talk to us about your philosophical approach to bridal fashion?
Oh goodness, we could write many articles about this topic alone! Essentially, after many years of considering the ethical fashion movement and exactly how I could make a difference, I decided I needed to just simplify my approach. My goal was (and still is) to make a space where talented, skilled, good people can enjoy a fair and positive work environment. A space where their skills can grow and flourish, and where we can share a dying craft with the wider world.
The realization that we need to emphasize inclusivity came to me a couple years ago. We always have been naturally inclusive, but being more intentional about it became a priority. I love beautiful things, and I love fashion. But I hate how fashion can make women feel worse about themselves. Some brands and most marketing out there make us feel like we will never be thin, rich, and beautiful enough. They tell us “buy more and you’ll get closer!” All lies! But the fact is this: YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL ENOUGH. More than enough. You, yes you, are beautiful beyond imagination, no matter your size, skin color or texture, facial proportions, bank account size, etc. So I want to openly celebrate that beauty! I feel utterly blessed to be in a place where celebrating the beauty of real women is my actual job.
How would you describe your style? Where do you draw inspiration from for your designs?
I am very classical. I love design that doesn’t go out of style – think Christian Dior, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Yves Saint Laurent, the original Chanel, and Ralph Lauren. I love to comb through vintage fashion (the Met has an amazing online archive!) and I always draw inspiration from my textile research. I’m obsessed with fabric. But as “white collar” as classical fashion can feel sometimes, I’m also a socialist – it makes me ill to recognize the inequality this world suffers from. I grew up very poor and know first hand how deeply that struggle runs. So I don’t appreciate clothes that are unnecessarily expensive. It’s worth it to pay more for something that is beautifully and fairly made, but it’s an entirely different thing to pay more just for a fancy label!
I also don’t appreciate clothes that a person can’t really LIVE in – like sleeves that I can’t wear while washing dishes. I love sundresses, a great floral print, the perfect jeans and white tee, and thoughtful accessories made by friends. Part of the reason I love classical designs is because I hate waste. Sometimes I can feel like something is no longer worth keeping just because the design feels tired. I recently moved up to New York’s Hudson Valley and am in love with the aesthetic of the local artisan scene! Natural dyes and fibers, but modern silhouettes, locally crafted clothes, home goods and accessories – it’s great to be so close to this current movement in fashion!
Your boutique also offers collections from other designers. What qualities do you look for when selecting the designers you want to showcase at Schone Bride?
I generally look for a line that is doing their own thing, and in an ethical way. Our own collection now is pretty diverse- fitted, full, lace, clean, and beaded. We have a lot of styles covered especially when it comes to staple pieces. When choosing which designers to bring in, I put high importance on making sure they have a unique perspective to offer our brides.
Women put a lot of pressure on themselves to find “the perfect dress.” So much so that the whole process can become unpleasant. How do you make your clients feel less stressed as they search for their wedding day look?
We really encourage women to listen to their hearts. There are thousands of “perfect dresses” out there. Just like there are lots of attractive people – any number of whom are marriage-worthy! But just like finding the right partner, the right dress will make you feel like a better version of yourself. It’s still very much you, but the brightest side of you. Respectfully ignore your family and friends’ many opinions. Focus on noticing that moment when you feel really happy inside a gown.
Once we get down to the little details of a dress such as exact lace and weight of skirt, I encourage women to let go of control a bit (this also applies to parenting, btw!). Trust your instincts. You are going to be beautiful no matter what, and won’t even remember all the other options down the road! And always slow breaths in, slow breaths out.
The wedding dress carries great personal and symbolic meaning. How does it feel knowing that your dresses are going to be worn on one of the most important days in a woman’s life?
It’s just amazing! Honestly, the feeling never gets old. Knowing how meticulously women shop for their gown, I am completely blown away every time they pick one of my designs! Such an honor!
What advice do you have for aspiring designers who are thinking about focusing on wedding attire?
I would say a lot!
1. Know your craft (or hire people who do). Fit and construction are so important with wedding gowns.
2. Consider how “real” women look and how they want to feel in clothing! I often see lines that only work on size 8 and under and that’s so frustrating.
3. Approach your design work with your own personality. What would you want to wear? Don’t be afraid to be unique! One of the most common complaints from brides, and one of my biggest frustrations with shopping for lines for the store is that a lot of what is out there feels the same. It’s a constant challenge for designers, but we all should be striving to sing our own song. Otherwise why do it?
4. Don’t expect to get rich! Fashion in general is not an industry to get into if you’re looking to make a lot of money. We do it because we love it.
5. Be committed to excellent, above and beyond customer service. A huge part of the job is working with the bride to make sure she is as calm and happy as possible. That means delivering perfect goods, on time, and being quick to respond (helpfully!) to concerns. It’s a constant challenge!!
6. Work for someone else first, and learn from their victories and mistakes! I was given that advice early on. “Learn on some one else’s money.” It’s sound wisdom.
What advice would you give to Rebecca Schoneveld of 10 years ago when you were just starting out?
I’m the kind of person who just has to learn by doing (and failing). So whatever advice I would have given myself, I probably wouldn’t have listened! But seriously, I would have told myself to just take better care of my own health so that my source of joy wouldn’t dry up. When I’m happy, healthy, and spiritually connected, the creativity feels endless. Sadly, I did spend many years putting others’ needs way ahead of mine and I have learned the hard way what damage that mindset can do!
In addition to designing and owning a bridal shop, you’re also a mother. How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?
Oh it’s such a daily struggle, but balance is my main goal in life. I actually started the business in part to give myself a job with flexible hours, so I could be as good a mom as possible. And I have to say, it was a smart move! I was able to keep my sons with me for the first year of each of their lives. I am always able to skip out of work when I need to go to parent teacher conferences, doctor appointments, etc. Parenting is seriously a full time job. I’m also a single mom now too, which makes it extra strenuous.
My recent move to the Hudson Valley was very much about having a better chance for balance. I know my kids and I truly need outdoor space. They need me to be more present with them. I also work better alone, uninterrupted at home. So my staff back in Brooklyn is actually getting a better version of me when I’m not sitting right next to them!
Long story short: Prayer, exercise, and deep breaths are my lifeline to sanity!
Do you have a favorite celebrity bride of all time?
Ahh… Kate Moss in Galliano was to die for. I mean, so so good. I can’t even think of any others after I just imagined hers!
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Oh, I love HGTV! I don’t have a television in my house because I know I would watch WAY too much of it. But whenever I’m at a friend’s or a hotel, I can get very into reality TV. It’s so bad that it’s good! My #1 show that I really just can’t miss is Project Runway. Thank goodness they stream it online.
You finally have a day off to yourself. How do you spend it?
Reading a novel for fun, taking a yoga class, shopping at a consignment store, taking a walk through the city or park or woods… Definitely a nap. All the naps!!!
A big thank you to Rebecca for participating in our Women Paving the Aisle interview series! For more information on Schone Bride and to see more of Rebecca’s gorgeous designs, visit RebeccaSchoneveld.com + SchoneBride.com