Today we’re absolutely delighted to bring you an interview with Marguerite and Alan from iconic wedding label Alan Hannah. We ‘ve featured a lot of their work over the years on Love My Dress and it’s a real treat for us to be able to share this candid interview with you. There’s lots of behind the scenes stories, top tips and fabulous information here so without further ado, let’s hear from Marguerite and Alan as they answer the questions we’ve been wanting to ask them for ages!
Can you give, for readers who don’t know the story of the Alan Hannah brands, a little overview of how you got to your current position?
ALAN: Marguerite and I met in 1988 while I was designing headpieces and accessories and Marguerite was designing evening wear. I was already working with retailers as Alan Hannah and tried to convince Marguerite to design some wedding gowns for the label. She needed some persuading but eventually designed a small collection of bridal and bridesmaid dresses which we launched at Harrogate in 1990. There was a fantastic response and we gradually gained lots more retailers both in the UK and abroad. Marguerite went on to win the designer of the year award on 5 separate occasions. In 2010 we decided to launch MiaMia with the idea of having another collection which would have a more bohemian and less classic feel and to retail at a slightly lower price point.
Photograph above taken by Naomi Kenton for Love My Dress®
The brand was named after 3 letters in Marguerite’s name. This collection has worked really well, and for Marguerite, a designer who doesn’t like to be pigeon-holed, an avenue to pursue a different direction without alienating our classic Alan Hannah bride.
I design a new range of bespoke accessories each season to complement the dress collections, so our brides can have something which incorporates the elements used on their dress. Separately, Alan Hannah Devoted is our jewellery collection which is produced in partnership with Jon Richard and is represented in all Debenhams stores throughout the UK and abroad. This collection offers a really affordable selection of beautiful jewellery and headpieces inspired by Marguerites dresses and something that is a wonderful keepsake to pass on to future generations. The new Alan Hannah and MiaMia collections were showcased at The White Gallery in London in April.
When you start to design a new collection, what is the process? Do you start with an overview of what you want the collection to be or a moodboard with the elements you want to include?
MARGUERITE: First of all, I am constantly sketching ideas, which can be inspired by existing designs and also completely new ideas. I try to edit these down to about 100 before I really start to work on them. I do this thematically, in each collection I like to have 3 broad themes which I split the designs into. I like to have a new collection of fabrics and embellishments to go with my initial sketches. When I have all these things around me I then like to start to drape over my mannequin and create, almost in a sculptural way how the dress is actually going to look.
An incredible hand-painted dress
Photograph above and below taken by Naomi Kenton for Love My Dress®
I also make the first pattern for each dress and I know from experience what is going to work and what isn’t. Gradually the designs start to appear as real dresses and some work and some don’t. As I work, I constantly reappraise the sketches which I have edited and discard some and add some new ones. The collection grows in an organic way and sometimes takes unexpected twists and turns until after months and months a new collection is born and ready to show on the catwalk.
What part of the design process do you enjoy most?
MARGUERITE: I love actually handling the fabric and using it to sculpt the dresses. It’s so exciting to see an idea that was only a sketch coming alive in 3d form and hopefully working as I imagined it. I love the art of drapery and my biggest influences are Madeleine Vionnet and Charles James, hardly household names now but real geniuses of couture who matched an artistic flair with a mathematical exactness which is crucial in creating form on the human figure.
How many drafts of a design might you go through before reaching a finished design?
MARGUERITE: While I am interpreting my own sketch, I usually have to modify the design while creating it and the machinist may find an easier way of constructing the dress that may lead to me altering the design slightly. When a dress is completed it may then occur to me to do it again in a fabric that would look better. Sometimes a design might work seamlessly from sketch to finished garment and sometimes it may go through a long evolutionary process, and dare I say may sometimes be abandoned altogether.
Do you design on your own or is it a more collaborative process?
What are you design influences right now?
MARGUERITE: It’s hard to put a finger on that because so much is absorbed subliminally from all the influences around me. It could be, for instance, the beauty of the natural world. This season I have used hand painted flowers which I always seem to return to at some point. Looking at flowers in nature as well as stylistically as in Morris prints and Mackintosh paintings has definitely been an influence this season. I have also begun learning to sculpt in clay and this has also given me lots of ideas of form and silhouette that spill over into my dress designs.
Where do you look to spot ‘trends’ and keep abreast with what brides are looking for?
MARGUERITE: I subscribe to all the main fashion magazines and I think that this is a good guide to what is happening. Bridal fashion doesn’t move as quickly as main fashion so it’s important to be thinking ahead. Alan and I attend quite a lot of designer days with our retailers where we can get a good idea of what the new brides are looking for. I also have 2 teenage daughters who are confirmed fashionistas and who constantly feed me with photos, celeb stories and catwalk shows to look at.
Photograph above taken by Naomi Kenton for Love My Dress®
Do you design accessories with some of your gown designs in mind?
ALAN: I like to use the elements which are on Marguerite’s dresses but I also like to do a lot of statement pieces which add drama and excitement to the catwalk show. As Marguerite has been using lots of naturalistic ideas, I have developed lots of new embellishments using ceramic leaves and flowers which I have made from porcelain and gold and silver leaf, like our Angel Wing headpiece and Byzantium tiara some of which we have used on dresses like Clementine and Isadora.
Do you tend to design with a certain type of bride in mind? Who is an ‘Alan Hannah’ bride?
MARGUERITE: Each bride is different and it is unfair to generalise but if I do have a good idea of whom we are dressing with each collection, Alan Hannah and MiaMia are quite different from each other. The Alan Hannah bride is very confident and often a career woman who has her own means and is very educated in fashion and is able to really understand what makes a couture quality dress. Her expectations are high and she wants to look stylish and sophisticated rather than very ostentatious or showy.
Our MiaMia bride on the other hand is probably slightly younger, perhaps with a more whimsical taste and with more of a budget constraint. The MiaMia bride is looking for a dress which is very individual and quirky, out of the mainstream, but she still wants a gown which is feminine, soft and beautifully cut.
What are your favourite materials/embellishments to work with?
MARGUERITE: I love silk satin cut on the bias, as well as the more structured look which I can achieve with silk duchesse. Some gowns like my MiaMia Summer are just so ethereal in chiffon. This season I have returned to hand painting which I think makes each dress a unique creation which can never be exactly replicated. Each bride has a completely individual dress made just for her and each one is signed and numbered by the artist who I collaborate with. For embellishments, this season I have loved to use vintage style beads and our handmade ceramic leaves and roses.
You’ve got an amazing reputation in the industry – what, in your opinion, sets your brand apart? What are your core values?
ALAN: Marguerite is one of the remaining fashion designers who not only designs each dress but personally constructs the pattern using classic draping techniques to ensure that the dresses have a beautiful and flattering cut as well as a design vision. Each Alan Hannah dress is lovingly created in our own workrooms here in London under the constant guidance of Marguerite and only after she is happy can each gown be considered a finished article.
This holistic approach is the opposite of most modern production methods but she believes that this is the only way to produce a true couture dress. I think that our retailers really appreciate this and it sums up our core value in that we want to remain close to the actual craft of dressmaking and design and not to be distracted too much by spectacle and projecting the designer as a ‘personality’.
What are your proudest moments workwise?
MARGUERITE: Winning the designer of the year award 5 times when it was voted by the retailers of the RBA and having our new workrooms officially opened by the HRH The Princess Royal in 2010.
How has bridal design changed during your time in the industry?
ALAN: I think that when we started everyone in the industry had to be able to design and make their own collection. The advent of Far East manufacturing has certainly given the bride a lot more choice but I think much of it tends to be generic and uninspiring and safe. Lots of imported dresses are just chosen from existing stock and not designed by anyone who is actually presenting the collection to their buyers. This doesn’t have to be the case, there are some very good designers who make overseas. Marguerite is able to design MiaMia and have the gowns made abroad which allows us to concentrate our own production for Alan Hannah.
Photograph above taken by Naomi Kenton for Love My Dress®
What are the most important things brides should keep in mind whilst choosing their gown?
MARGUERITE: Brides should try different shapes and really home in on the shapes which suit them best and what makes them feel special. Structured dresses like Chryso can enhance the figure and give a lovely shape and silhouette. If you are lucky enough to have a perfect figure then a more unstructured dress like Tara could also be beautiful. It can tend to be a bit overwhelming but really you are choosing a beautiful dress to wear on your big day, which should be a wonderful opportunity to have some guilt free indulgence.
Try to go shopping with one trusted friend or your mum as it is not good when lots of different people feel the need to offer their opinions and this can be very distracting both for the bride and your consultant.
If you weren’t designing wedding dresses & accessories, what do you think you would be doing?
MARGUERITE: I was studying sciences at A level before I turned to fashion but art was always my first love and I think that I would always have returned to it in some form.
What do brides absolutely need to know when choosing their gown and accessories?
Be open-minded and try lots of different looks. Often you will be surprised about what makes you look fabulous.
I’m sure designing gowns & accessories is like having children – it’s impossible to pick a favourite – but, if I pressed you, what element of any of your current designs do you really love?
MARGUERITE: To be honest there is no better feeling than to create something that our retailers and brides love and want to wear. This gives me such satisfaction and joy and I think it’s the most rewarding thing. The design that I think is my favourite this time is Olympia. I love the way that the silk organza created such a lovely silhouette and kept the bold shape of the billowing sleeves and the beading on the waistline is beautiful and perfect for the dress.
ALAN: I think the Angel Wing headpiece, which was a challenge to make. I really enjoyed modelling the ceramic leaves and applying the silver leaf. It was the first time I had tried this technique and luckily it seemed to work really well without too much pain! One of my favourite dresses this time was Marguerite’s Suki for MiaMia. Not revolutionary but the pink underlay made it look really fresh and fun on the catwalk.
What should we expect next from Alan Hannah?
MARGUERITE: I’m already experimenting with new shapes and embellishments and I want to progress the hand painting to explore new avenues in technique and design.
And finally, sum up Alan Hannah in five words…
MARGUERITE: Never happy to stay still!
A huge thank you to Alan and Marguerite for taking so much time out to answer our questions. We hope you’ve really liked this in-depth look at this talented design team and if you’d like to stay in touch with them, you can find them on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest and of course, the Alan Hannah and MiaMia websites are great to visit (and spend far too long gazing at gowns – don’t say we didn’t warn you!)
Love Tamryn xx
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