There’s a poetry to the craftsmanship rooted in every KAREN WILLIS HOLMES piece… meticulous hand beading sprawling lengths of luxurious, delicate silks, exquisitely tailored silhouettes, ever-precise stitching and considered finishes. You can feel every detail is touched by true artisans and masters of their craft to create gowns that will stand the test of time.
So when founder and designer Karen Willis Holmes of her namesake label invited us to come experience the creation of her new collection first hand, we were so excited for the opportunity. Nestled in the Sydney’s heritage Flourmill Studios, every element from design through to creation, fittings and consultations are all created in-house by Karen Willis Holmes and her team here in their workroom. There are decades of experience spilling from this space, and you can feel it in the air.
Pattern makers are gracefully drawing up new season silhouettes, the soft hum of seamstresses busily stitching away at the machines, dramatic lengths of fabric being masterfully hand beaded and draped across busts, and Karen, herself, intuitively sketching up the next collection. It’s a process that honors age-old skills and Australian talent that is few and far between in today’s bridal industry, so we took the chance to chat one-on-one with the designer to dive deeper into the craftsmanship and journey behind a KAREN WILLIS HOLMES gown.
Karen, we’ve been privileged to see your collections evolve over the years while staying ever relevant and timeless. Can you share with us the beginnings of your brand and what has been your constant source of inspiration and guiding force?
I began my journey by studying fashion in Australia and then moved back to the UK, I was working with ‘regular’ fashion, but always felt drawn to special occasion wear and items that needed a lot of attention to detail. To cut a long story short, when I returned to Australia to start my own brand, the demand for wedding gowns and evening wear was enormous. This side of my business really took off! I love the attention to detail, the quality, and the workmanship allowed in wedding gowns. I love a good corset and the drama of a train. In hindsight, I do not understand why I could not see that bridal was the way forward from the very beginning.
Something we personally love about KAREN WILLIS HOLMES is that every element from the pattern making, to the hand beading and construction, is all completed by your in-house team in Sydney. We’d love to understand more about this creative process and the hands that contribute to each step of a gown.
I agree! I love that we have our own workroom at the Flourmill Studios in Newtown, and this is where most of our gowns are created. Our Luxe collection of beaded gowns are all handcrafted in India with artisans that we have been working with for over 10 years – the industry does not have the ancient skillset in Australia to make these gowns to the exceptional standard that India does, but the other collections are 99% made right here.
To me, it is very old fashioned in the best possible way. The gowns are individually made and cut out from paper patterns, then hand machined and sewn, draped and tacked, and pressed and finished very precisely. There is a heritage and craft involved in each gown, it is quite magical to watch it all come together.
“There is a heritage and craft involved in each gown, it is quite magical to watch it all come together.”
There is such an artistry to this process that is rare to come by in today’s fast, en-masse fashion industry. Why do you feel it’s important for you as a brand to honor this process and execute internally, rather than outsourcing?
I trialed working with a large manufacturer many years ago, the gowns were nice but just did not have the special hand-crafted, individual feel to them. We did not like them and neither did our brides! This was an expensive lesson to learn but always reminds me to stay on track and keep the individual hand-crafted authenticity about my gowns.
Some of our gowns have embroidery made in India, but at a beautiful small-scale workroom which is again how we keep the individual, authentic cohesion to our gowns. I want to create individual masterpieces rather than just mass factory produced wedding dresses. Plus, brides adore that their gown is individual, that they’re not one of the thousands or even hundreds to wear a particular gown. Especially after each bride puts their own touches onto the gown in alterations – every bride has her own unique work of art!
The eye for detail and experience needed for masterful craftsmanship is so significant to achieving this quality, can you share how you uphold this standard of quality we see in your gowns?
We have a very strong team, basically, when we are checking the gowns it comes down to “If this was my wedding dress, would I be happy to wear it?”, and if it does not pass that test, then we meticulously improve it until we would be happy to wear it ourselves. Each gown goes through a very strict ‘Quality Controlling’ process so that we know that every gown that leaves our doors, is absolutely perfect!
“You start to have an understanding of the work that goes into the creation of your piece. I think you feel a connection when you can see the love & artistry that goes into this type of work.”
There is such a unique insight experienced by brides when visiting your Sydney workroom. For brides to have the opportunity to be in and amongst the beating heart of KAREN WILLIS HOLMES, to see the artistry and meet the people behind the brand firsthand. Can you tell us a little more about this experience for brides…
I personally love watching other craftspeople working and creating. There is nothing like looking into a beautiful kitchen, or bakery and seeing a pâtissier at work, or watching a woodworker create a masterpiece – it is where the magic happens. You start to have an understanding of the work that goes into the creation of the piece. I think you feel a connection to the gown when you can see the love that goes into this type of work. With this in mind, it is wonderful for the Sydney brides to be able to come to the workroom for their gown fittings – as they get to see this process and are always overwhelmed and touched to be able to tell everyone they know they saw their gown get made by hand.
And a big congratulations to you for reaching your incredible 20th anniversary! It’s a true testament to the dedication and authenticity of you and your team. What we can expect from KAREN WILLIS HOLMES going forward?
I really cannot believe it is 20 years! And it feels like this is just the beginning! I would love to really establish ourselves overseas with new international wholesale stockists, and it is still a dream of mine to open a store in London. We have a beautiful boutique in New York, and I know we can make this work for us. Naturally, this is all only possible because I have an outstanding team who are all dedicated lovers of incredible wedding dresses and are so invested in my brand. They have a passion for customer service and for their art. Many of the key people have worked with me for a long time and this makes my journey so much more joyful, it is something we can all share together!
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