No wedding dress is too old for vintage dress restoration expert Julianna Aberle-McClellan.
When a bride-to-be came to her with a gown from 1909, McClellan restored the dress by creating a new interior to hold the fabric together — and found the bride shoes to match. When another bride came in with unused 1950s fabric that her grandmother had stored away, McClellan turned that into a wedding dress, too. Dresses that have been torn, discolored or stained all have their place on the designer’s long list of accomplishments. Even in cases in which an entire dress isn’t salvageable, McClellan finds a way to rework threads and buttons to keep the dress’s legacy alive.
“I really believe our energy is in the fibers in the clothing that we wear,” says McClellan, who since the early ’90s has owned Julianna’s Wardrobe, a vintage clothing restoration and redesign business that in the past five years has focused heavily on wedding gowns. “It stays there and it lives there, so I’ve always felt so sad for the wedding dresses that end up in closets and they’re saved, and nobody wants to wear them. It’s really great to take that gown and make it into something new.”
Most of McClellan’s clients are future brides hoping to walk down the aisle in their mother or grandmother’s dress from the twentieth century while tying in trends from the 21st. The job comes with inherent challenges. Even the best-preserved gown suffers damage over time, says McClellan, but that’s what makes things interesting.
“It’s like a treasure hunt; like, there’s this huge stain of wine, how can we make this work?” she says. “So I don’t have the same job every day. It’s always exciting to me.”
Having previously spent decades making costumes for theater productions — a career she scaled back after her husband passed away about five years ago — McClellan has since devoted her time to vintage clothing through Julianna’s Wardrobe.
Between putting on fashion shows and serving dozens of clients a year, McClellan doesn’t have too much downtime. And what she does have gets booked with other projects: She spent the year of COVID-19 crafting more than 1,200 face masks, and she donated about 800 of those to the Navajo Nation, Lakota Nation, Children’s Hospital Colorado and others. She also still regularly takes on costume work and designs for international belly dancer Suhaila Salimpour, leaving her no shortage of creative outlets.
And for a woman who loves sporting ’40s- and ’50s-style looks herself, her business comes with a few other obvious perks.
“When I do fashion shows, I always make myself something,” she says. “It’s the aesthetic I love to wear.”
With an unusual number of inquiries coming in early this year — McClellan points to those who had to postpone their weddings during the height of the pandemic and are now ready to reschedule — the designer looks forward to spending 2021 in her studio, restyling even more history.
“This is for somebody that values our past and wants to bring it forward,” McClellan says. “Anyone who has an imagination for something a little different, that’s something that I do.”
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