Olwen Bourke knows how to flatter a woman’s form. Perfectly. Her designs are modern and fresh, and they drape and fold around curves and lines of different body types so easily with not a forced fit in sight. Knowing how to add glamour to freedom of movement was a talent she brought to designing the costumes on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, and I think we’ve all sat and watched that, wanting very much indeed to be wearing such theatrical creations!! These skills are now making an appearance in the world of wedding dresses, and I think you are so, so lucky to have Olwen’s designs at your fingertips!
I asked Olwen to tell me more about her inspirations, her tips, and how she came to design for brides. Here is what she said…
Choosing a wedding dress? I have lots of tips for this, but my top three would be:
- Go to lots of wedding shops and try on everything! Even the ones you don’t think will suit you. People are often surprised by the ones that work and it’s a good way of figuring out what styles, shapes and colours best suit your figure.
- Only bring along the people whose opinion you really trust! It’s lovely to have your friends, mum, bridesmaids, etc., in on the action, but at the end of the day too many opinions can leave you feeling confused!
- Pick the dress that gives you goose bumps.
Sometimes brides come to me because they’ve seen my designs and have fallen in love with a particular style. Other times they like what I do but have their own ideas about what they want their dress to look like and are looking for someone to make their dress ideas a reality. I make a Pinterest board and sketch ideas with them, and together we formulate the dream dress. My customers are mainly fashion led – working women who want to look contemporary and stylish on their big day.
I took quite a roundabout route to get into wedding dress design. I started my career designing the dresses on Strictly Come Dancing, and later for ballet and opera at the Royal Opera House. Working in this field gave me a love of the bespoke, the handmade and the unique – and a passion for designing one-off showstopping dresses. I learned so much during this time, like draping, sewing, pattern construction and all the tricks on how design to flatter different body shapes. After a few years, I went to work for a fashion house in Paris where I designed dresses that were mass-produced in India and China. I found it soulless and uninspiring and realised that what I loved most was the personal aspect of designing and making dresses from scratch, as well as the whole process of working directly with a client from start to finish. I quit the job in Paris and set up my own label in 2012 doing bespoke evening and occasionwear. When clients started asking for white versions of my designs to wear as wedding dresses, I expanded into bridal in 2014. My first wedding collection got a fantastic reaction, and I started getting lots of wedding dress commissions! I feel like I have really found my niche and wish I’d started doing wedding dresses ages ago! I love it!
I grew up in Ireland by the sea and I think the landscape around me really influenced my design aesthetic. I often create design motifs inspired by flowers and birds, shells and leaves. I also love the greys, blues and greens of the Irish sea, and definitely am drawn to these muted shades when I design collections.
In terms of who I admire, Elie Saab is my all time favourite designer. Everything he does is so beautiful. I also love the late Alexander McQueen for his theatrical designs, Alberta Ferretti for her ethereal, feminine dresses, Marchesa for their girliness, and Viktor & Rolf for their sense of fun.
Which inspirational phrases do I live by? “Just do it!” Sometimes I feel like tattooing this on my hand so that when I find myself procrastinating about something – wondering if it’s good enough, financially making sense, too labour intensive, etc. – I can just look down at this phrase and get on with it!
Fantasy wedding days? I’d love to dress Malala Yousafai, Emma Thompson, Shami Chakrabarti, Naomi Woolf, and an endless list of women who are out there actively changing the world and inspiring other women to feel empowered and brave. I’d also love to dress Dita Von Teese because she’s such a hottie! I saw her in Paris once and her waist was the size of my wrist!
I subscribe to the couture and ready-to-wear editions of Collezioni, which show all the catwalk looks each season, and I follow all my favourite designers, artists and illustrators on social media. I try and read a book a month. I just finished the biography of Coco Chanel, and am currently re-reading one of my favourites – The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, another very inspirational woman.
Do I make other things apart from bridal wear? Yes! I’m obsessed with all dresses, and I also design occasion wear, evening wear, red carpet and cocktail dresses. I also regularly work with Vidal Sassoon to design and make bespoke clothing for their shows and campaigns.
I’m not married, but I think I would find it so hard to decide what dress I’d wear that I think I’d have to have a few and keep changing throughout the day! Or perhaps I’d go for a vintage dress, with lots of embroidery, beads and pearls…
I’m just about to start my next wedding dress collection and this one is going to be very different from the last! You can expect lots of texture, lots of embellishment, lots of very delicate embroidery. I’m also doing a new evening wear range in beautiful soft colours. As well as this, I’m doing a fun project for Fashion Revolution Day in April to promote second-hand clothing and sustainable fashion, plus a collaboration with a very cool shoe designer. That’s all I can reveal – watch this space!