V&A museum's wedding dresses exhibition: A look at what the bride wore with Caroline Burstein

Since opening a decade ago, Browns Bride has become the ultimate prenuptial destination for the fashion-conscious. Rebecca Gonsalves meets its founder, Caroline Burstein, to talk 10 years of dream gowns

For years, on these shores at least, there was "fashion" and there was "bridal" and never the twain would meet. But with a UK wedding market worth billions and an increasing desire to make a statement of personality and individuality with the big day, the market has changed drastically.

Caroline Burstein, who founded Browns Bride in 2004 to address a gap in the market, has seen a huge change in the attitude towards weddings. Formerly the creative director of Browns boutiques, the independent chain founded by her parents Joan and Sidney Burstein in 1970, she was perfectly placed to hear the bridal desires of their fashionable female customers. "I always noticed that girls would come in looking for wedding dresses, or alternative wedding dresses, and so many of them said, 'I wish you did wedding dresses,'" says Burstein. "They were just desperate; they said there was nothing that corresponded to who they were and what they wanted."

The sense of identity that is key to choosing the right wedding dress is something that has stayed with Burstein through 10 years in the bridal business. "It's about living your fantasy, having the dress of your dreams and feeling and looking at your most beautiful. It's a very special day, getting married – it's the end of one era and the beginning of a new one for ever, even if the marriage doesn't last that long."

That fine balance between romance and pragmatism is something that has served Burstein well: "There are a lot of high emotions going on in the bridal shop. We've always got the tissues at the ready and even we can get emotional. It's just such a special, extraordinary moment, and it's joyful, but there's a stress, too. On the whole, we don't have too many dramas."

Caroline Burstein has spent the last 10 years making brides' dreams come true

While any kinks in the process have long been smoothed out, there were a few teething issues when Browns Bride first opened its doors in 2004. Despite her vast experience in luxury fashion and retail, Burstein quickly discovered that bridal is a very different beast. "My vision was quite narrow," she admits, "and I had to learn to broaden it. I had a very 'fashion' sense of what I wanted, but I had to listen when the customers were telling me what they wanted.

"Vera Wang was the only really established [fashion] bridal brand at that time, but she already had a retail partner. So, instead, I wanted the designers we carried in Browns – Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Marc Jacobs – to do wedding dresses for me, but their businesses weren't geared up for it. So I was actually buying ready-to-wear pieces from them. I had to learn the business from the inside out. I took a huge dive and then found my way up to the surface. I can't believe I'm even in the bridal business, you know. I am so not that person – I'm a tomboy at heart. I'm not flowery, I can't wear lace. I am just the antithesis!"

Burstein may have been new to the bridal side of the business, but her experience at Browns was invaluable. "My aim was to have a bridal version of Browns, which meant finding the best designers – the best of the best – internationally, and to give them a platform. My mother built the business on that thinking, and I've inherited it." Monique Lhullier, Reem Acra and Johanna Johnson are just some of the names that Burstein has introduced to the UK through her extensive research, much of it focused on America.

sketch of gown from Marchesa

"Every culture sees a wedding in a different light," says Burstein. "But I think the way that a wedding has become very much a statement of the happy couple's identity is an American influence. There's nothing wrong with that – they want it to be the most memorable day, one that they want everyone to enjoy. I can understand that."

Bridal trends come and go, and Burstein observes them but doesn't follow them slavishly: "From the bridal magazines, you'd think everybody was getting married in pink this year and, while we do sell a lot of pink, it's a tiny percentage compared to ivory, white and off-white." Trends, it seems, still need to be couched in traditions: the Vera Wang gown pictured here has been created exclusively in fuchsia to celebrate the 10th anniversary. Probably the best-known bridal designer in the world, Wang was one of the designers on Burstein's original wish list, and in 2011 Burstein got that wish more than fulfilled when Wang teamed up with Browns to open her first UK store.

This weekend, the eagerly anticipated Wedding Dresses exhibition will open at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in which the history of the most special of garments is traced back to 1775. Charting the evolution of traditions and superstitions from the 18th century to the present day will be an interesting course, considering that the UK wedding market is estimated to be worth up to £10bn a year, with average wedding costs topping £20,000. Even with such figures becoming the norm, there is no denying that the Browns Bride experience is firmly for the privileged.

A wedding dress and hat designed by Geoffrey Beene

"Luckily for us, and for them, our customers are able to make their dreams a reality – and that includes those who have saved up, or their family has, in order to buy the dress a bride wants," says Burstein. "I think it's important the customer understands she's got something that's not just superficially special, it's really special. But our dresses are expensive, even the simple ones. We start at £3,000 and I know for many girls that is more than they could ever dream of spending, and I understand. It's easy to get blasé, but we're not."

Regular sample sales help make dreams a reality. "I love the sales, they're wonderful," says Burstein of the events, which see customers queuing down the road in all weathers in search of the ultimate bargain. "It allows a girl who doesn't have an £8,000 budget to get a dress for £2,000. It's a fun day."

Burstein's own experiences have made her understand the power of "the dress". She says: "I got married for the first time when I was 20, and there was this gorgeous Sonia Rykiel dress: very light, very beautiful, it was my dream dress. I fell in love with that dress and I think that's why I got married too young." When she married for the second time, six years ago, Burstein chose to have a dress made by London-based designer Ashish. "I just loved what he did and thought he was such a great person. I got him to make me a lovely golden sequinned dress – by then I was a granny so it was just long and simple. It was lovely, perfect." A dream come true, indeed.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultan...

    Recruitment Genius: Plumber

    £22000 - £25900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is expanding and th...

    Recruitment Genius: Corporate Account Manager

    £27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Corporate Account Manager is ...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef de Partie

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This award winning conference venues provider...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders