Veronica Sheaffer knows how to make a bride ooze grace and style. Her vintage-bohemian aesthetic first piqued the interest of Chicago's fashionistas at the now defunct Coco Irene boutique before she exclusively settled into crafting handmade bridal and evening gowns for her own Veronica Sheaffer line. Her elegant work has made it onto the pages of Elle, Martha Stewart Bridal, and The Cut, just to name a few. And it's no surprise. Just to glimpse through her sigh-inducing collection is to be transported to a time when Grace Kelly roamed the vineyards of the French Riviera. We spoke with Sheaffer at her simple yet stately studio, which is situated just where Wicker Park verges into Humboldt Park. She shared details about her creative process, what it takes to be a beautiful bride, and what to expect at her first-ever sample sale, which is coming up on October 4 and 5. —Courtney Ryan
RACKED: You have a reputation for being very meticulous. Can you describe your design process?
Veronica Sheaffer: Right now I'm segueing from doing a wholesale line to exclusively doing custom, but I'm still doing seasonal showpieces to demonstrate what we can do here. And I do the sample gowns myself. I have since the beginning––I do the the draping and the sketching and then I sew the samples and then the dressmakers fill them for orders. Right now I'm working with a woman who has been doing custom bridal in Chicago for 30 years. She's the best. We really collaborate on everything.
R: Who is she?
VS: I won't say because she's my secret weapon. But she shares with me that need to make everything perfect. I don't want any stitch to show, I want everything to be as perfect as possible. I want it to feel super luxurious, like something special, because it is. Whether it's a bridal gown or an evening gown, you're wanting to be transported.
R: How does that process change when you are working with a bride?
VS: It doesn't change all that much except that we know what we are working with from the beginning. When I'm working on a collection I'll have an idea in mind and sketch that out but once I start draping I'll change that around. But when I'm working with one particular woman I get an idea of what it should look like on her just from sitting and chatting. And of course it's a longer process because we have more fittings and everything, but other than that it's pretty much the same.
R: How does collaborating with a bride influence your aesthetic, or does it?
VS: It does, absolutely. Some brides are looking for something more modern, for example. Earlier this year I did a dress that was a total departure from anything I had done before. It was this two-piece taffeta mini-skirt and crop top and then we did this huge, oversized dress out of english netting to wear over it. It was so cool and different and not anything I would have thought of otherwise, but she's more of an avant-garde person and takes a lot of fashion risks. And then sometimes I have women who want something very old-fashioned and feminine.
R: You seem very drawn to the custom approach.
VS: I am able to sit with somebody and immediately know what they should be wearing. I don't know why, but I do. We talk about the whole wedding, how she wants to actually feel on that day. When I was planning my wedding and designing my own gown, I would walk to the bus––this sounds crazy, I know––but I would just walk down the street and imagine how I wanted the skirt to kick at my feet. So I put a lot of ruffles at the bottom to make it do that. And that's what I want to know: are they gonna party a lot? Those kinds of questions.
R: How do you make something as classic as a wedding dress still so unpredictable?
VS: I think we're obviously all influenced by what we're wearing during the day or what we're seeing in magazines, and a wedding is a chance to really go for it because we don't get to dress up very often anymore. But I think the key is to keep it as classic as possible. You can add cool or trendy elements with accessories or different types of laces and fabrics, but the more timeless it is the fresher it's going to look. As strange as that sounds, that's how it is.
Photo by Carolina Mariana for Racked
R: What are your favorite fabrics to work with?
VS: We only use silk except for laces, which are usually a nylon blend or cotton. I just want it to always feel really, really special.
R: What was your career path? How did you go from self-taught designer to being your own boss?
VS: There's a healthy dose of luck and then just a lot of hard work. I used to be an actor. That's what I studied in New York and I moved here because I was interested in theater and Chicago has such a great theater community. I was understudying a show at Steppenwolf when a friend asked if I wanted to start a clothing line (Coco Irene). And I reluctantly said yes because I was nervous since I hadn't had any formal training. I had always sewn for myself and done some sketches, but that's it. Then a friend got married and asked me to do her dress and I loved it. I loved how meticulous it was, how special it was, and all of the shaping that goes into it. It was so exciting for me and felt so artistic to me.
R: So did you immediately start doing bridal then?
VS: Yes. It was like the universe was telling me something. Suddenly people started finding me and it totally took off.
R: How were you able to run your own line?
VS: Honestly I just learned from old sewing books and Youtube tutorials. I'm fortunate in that I have one of those minds that I can see something and immediately know how it was put together. People have other strengths, and this one is mine.
R: How did Coco Irene influence your bridal work?
VS: Well, it certainly allowed me an opportunity to make mistakes. We started it with no money so it wasn't a huge risk. But it allowed me to learn how things are reproduced and I met a lot of people.
Photo by Carolina Mariana for Racked
R: Your first-ever sample sale is coming up October 4 and 5. Can you describe the types of dresses that will be available?
VS: These are sample gowns from my past collections. I have a lot of women come in who want to buy one off the rack so I thought, why not? So everything is available and I'll sell accessories too. I know how popular this line is for brides who have a limited budget so I'm bringing the prices down for them.
R: You have a very vintage aesthetic. Are there any past style icons you imagine wearing your dresses?
VS: I think about my model, Danielle, who I I've used for every collection. I guess she's what I want to look like [laughs]. She's got an ease about her that's really cool but she's still classically beautiful. However, when I'm doing the custom dresses I'm thinking about each woman, which is honestly easier. I get very sentimental so when I sit down to work I'm just thinking about her and when I'm designing the collection I'm thinking about Danielle and I'm thinking about what I want to wear. It always has this romantic, vintage look because when I was growing up I watched a lot of old movies. If I don't feel well I watch an old movie I've seen 500 times, like Funny Face. I think that's where I like to escape so that's where my brain goes.
R: Do you have any advice for brides trying to find the right wedding dress?
VS: OK, well first of all, you must remember that you're likely going to be hugging your dad and your grandfather, and your uncles. So yes, you should feel sexy but just remember who you'll be hugging when you're buying a plunging neckline. But you should feel special. It is going to be the most amazing day of your life, it just is. So what would make you feel special? Because the day-of you're not going to be focused on it. Someone else is doing your hair and makeup and you're going to run around like a crazy person. So you should feel just effortlessly comfortable and beautiful.
R: What do you think makes a bride look beautiful on her wedding day?
VS: She's just so happy. I mean, any wedding you go to the bride looks amazing, regardless of what she's wearing or what her hair looks like. There's just so much love surrounding her. I mean, anyone would look beautiful during that.
· Veronica Sheaffer [Official Site]
· Hey Brides: Two Wedding Gown Sample Sales Coming Up Soon [Racked Chicago]