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Munich, N.D., farm girl seeks to carve unique design niche in bridal gown market

MUNICH, N.D. -- Page through the glossy, full-sized "look book" of bridal gowns designed by Gretchen Dawley and you almost can hear the enticing Latin rhythms of Cuban music playing in the background. The pure-white, floor-length gowns--sleek and...

Gretchen Dawley (second from left) said her family always has supported her dreams. Gathered outside the farm home near Munich, N.D., are sisters (from left) Courtney Gaines and Gretchen with their parents, Debbie and Kevin Dawley, and Gaines' sons, Truett, 2, and Kingston, 6, (front). (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)
Gretchen Dawley (second from left) said her family always has supported her dreams. Gathered outside the farm home near Munich, N.D., are sisters (from left) Courtney Gaines and Gretchen with their parents, Debbie and Kevin Dawley, and Gaines' sons, Truett, 2, and Kingston, 6, (front). (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

  MUNICH, N.D. - Page through the glossy, full-sized "look book" of bridal gowns designed by Gretchen Dawley and you almost can hear the enticing Latin rhythms of Cuban music playing in the background. The pure-white, floor-length gowns-sleek and fluid in silk charmeuse and lace-are in stark contrast with the gritty alley, ruptured concrete wall and chain-link fencing that serve as a backdrop. Dawley uses the "look book" to introduce prospective buyers, who represent department stores and boutiques, to her first collection of bridal gowns. The six gowns were designed by Dawley, who grew up in rural North Dakota and, for the past eight years, has lived and worked in the garment industry in Los Angeles. Late last year, she quit her full-time job to develop the "1950s Havana Collection" under the brand that bears her name. Last month, Dawley introduced the collection at a market event focused on bridal and evening gowns in Atlanta. "I'm in the 'struggling artist' phase right now," said Dawley who grew up as the third and youngest child of Kevin and Debbie Dawley, on the multi-generational family farm 6 miles north of the tiny town of Munich in north-central North Dakota. She set the date of the Atlanta market as her deadline for completing her first bridal gown collection, "otherwise, you could work on a collection for years," she said. The process of establishing her brand and introducing her line at market has been a "major learning experience," she said. "Market was tough. I had no idea what to expect." The lure of vintage For many years, Dawley has been drawn especially to designing bridal gowns-not for herself, but to create her own collection. For Dawley, a wedding dress represents hope, she said. "It's a symbol of a love that lasts forever." In addition to working full-time for clothing companies, she has created custom bridal gowns for private clients on her own time. Her clients often are "hipsters" who love the "light and breezy" look, blended with vintage style, as much as Dawley does. "If I was getting married, I'd probably just buy a vintage dress," she said. Judging by the sketches she uses to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers, it's clear she's smitten by the design elements of the styles of decades past. It may have to do with the stories they tell-unlike the "fast-fashion" that floods youthful markets with mass-produced garments made cheaply and quickly in countries outside the U.S. The gowns in her 1950s Havana Collection are inspired by extraordinary Cuban women she's discovered while doing research. Each of the gowns reflects an aspect of the island nation, such as "the Beauty in Distress story" or "the Salsa story," or an actual woman who caught Dawley's imagination, such as "Aline," a rich socialite, or "Natalia," a salsa dancer and Fidel Castro's former lover who bore him a child he never acknowledged. "I want to tell stories through the people," she said. From the age of 13, Dawley has been "obsessed" with Cuba, she said. The Cuban Missile Crisis riveted her attention on a country she sees as "so distressed but so beautiful." When she was contemplating starting her own line of bridal gowns, she "had a dream that I was walking through the streets of Havana. There were crazy scenes, but I was walking through the city untouched," she said. "I woke up and thought, that's the hook for my business."
Early experience Dawley, 27, has wanted to be a designer since she was 10, she said. When she was 8, she learned to sew from her mother. "My first thing I made was a pair of elastic-waist capri pants. I thought they were pretty fashionable," she said with a laugh. She continued to develop her skills by entering sewing projects in 4-H and the "Make It Yourself With Wool" competitions. As a senior in high school, Dawley entered the Miss North Dakota contest and, to her surprise, won the title. That meant staying in state for a year to fulfill the duties of the role. Although she was eager to go away to design school, "it felt weird" to move before that obligation was met, she said. During her first semester at North Dakota State University, in November 2008, Dawley went with a friend to Los Angeles, where she was encouraged by another friend, who was attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising there, to talk with a career counselor at the school. "I had no interest in L.A.," she said. "I wanted to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York." But, on a whim, she applied and was quickly accepted to FIDM. Within a couple of weeks, she had passed the Miss North Dakota crown on to another young woman and relocated to Los Angeles in January 2009. "It needed to happen like that," she said. "Otherwise, I might have changed my mind." She credits the support of her family, especially her mother, for giving her the confidence and courage to pursue her dreams. "It must have been hard for her," said Dawley who, as the youngest child, was the last to leave home. "She never made me second-guess my decision. I think that was kind of cool." [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925910","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]] A change of perspective After earning degrees in fashion design and business at FIDM, Dawley worked for women's and junior's clothing companies, where she was attentive to the quality of her work and often would stay late on the job. Her work ethic didn't go unnoticed by employers. "(But) every promotion put me back from what I wanted to do," she said. At home, on her own time, she would stay up late at night making custom wedding gowns for private clients. In September 2015, Dawley's grandfather, who farmed with her dad and with whom she had a close relationship, died at 88. Vincent Dawley's death prompted her to reflect on his life and what his lifelong work meant to him. "Farming was not just what he did; it was who he was," she said. "He was farming up until two years ago. I didn't think of him as that age, until the last six months of his life." His death made her re-think her design career. "When I worked in the fashion industry, I was restless in my job, but I thought I had to work my way up," she said. Her grandfather's death "gave me perspective." After the funeral, she returned to Los Angeles and immediately gave her employer two weeks' notice. That evening, she and a friend from work planned a vacation trip to Cuba. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925911","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]] Setting a higher standard As she establishes her own business, Dawley has no intention of following the well-worn path to mass-production of garments outside the U.S., a practice she had become so familiar with while working in the industry. "I don't want to work in mass production-for example, with China," she said. "(There) the costs are low, turnaround is quick. It's much easier and cheaper (but) you lose control over the duration of (production) ... and there's so much room for copycats." As she developed her first bridal gown collection, she said, "I wanted everything to be made in the U.S. That knocks up the price, but it's really important to me." She plans to produce gowns "on a much smaller scale," by contracting with freelance pattern-makers and sewers. She wants each of her gowns to exude quality, she said. "I want it to feel handmade and custom." Attending to the business aspects of launching her brand also is daunting. "That's the 'pulling teeth' kind of thing," Dawley said. Work on taxes or the details of establishing an LLC, a limited liability company, or marketing strategies-none of it comes naturally for the designer who'd much rather be sketching gowns, working with sewers, or choosing fabrics, trimming and laces. "That's a struggle for me," she said. "A lot of creative (people's) brains are not wired that way." "It's hard for me to swallow my pride and ask for help." But that's something she has to do, she said. "I'm a one-woman show now." Her brother, who works as a certified public accountant, has been a big help. She's also enlisted friends, who are looking to break into the industry, to help by contributing such talents as makeup artistry and photography skills to the staging of the "look book"-which they then could use to build their portfolios. As owner of her own company, "it's stressful sometimes," she said, recalling "in the middle of the night, I pricked my finger and bled on the dress. I had to wash it all out. It was horrible." But she doesn't regret leaving a steady industry job with a secure income. "I'd rather live this stressful life." The crises are outweighed by the deeply satisfying moments when a bride-to-be is overjoyed with her gown. "I remember one woman who, when she tried on her dress, grabbed my arm and started sobbing," Dawley said. "She said, 'You've made all my dreams come true.'" [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925912","attributes":{"alt":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","class":"media-image","height":"480","title":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"340"}}]]  MUNICH, N.D. - Page through the glossy, full-sized "look book" of bridal gowns designed by Gretchen Dawley and you almost can hear the enticing Latin rhythms of Cuban music playing in the background. The pure-white, floor-length gowns-sleek and fluid in silk charmeuse and lace-are in stark contrast with the gritty alley, ruptured concrete wall and chain-link fencing that serve as a backdrop. Dawley uses the "look book" to introduce prospective buyers, who represent department stores and boutiques, to her first collection of bridal gowns. The six gowns were designed by Dawley, who grew up in rural North Dakota and, for the past eight years, has lived and worked in the garment industry in Los Angeles. Late last year, she quit her full-time job to develop the "1950s Havana Collection" under the brand that bears her name. Last month, Dawley introduced the collection at a market event focused on bridal and evening gowns in Atlanta. "I'm in the 'struggling artist' phase right now," said Dawley who grew up as the third and youngest child of Kevin and Debbie Dawley, on the multi-generational family farm 6 miles north of the tiny town of Munich in north-central North Dakota. She set the date of the Atlanta market as her deadline for completing her first bridal gown collection, "otherwise, you could work on a collection for years," she said. The process of establishing her brand and introducing her line at market has been a "major learning experience," she said. "Market was tough. I had no idea what to expect." The lure of vintage For many years, Dawley has been drawn especially to designing bridal gowns-not for herself, but to create her own collection. For Dawley, a wedding dress represents hope, she said. "It's a symbol of a love that lasts forever." In addition to working full-time for clothing companies, she has created custom bridal gowns for private clients on her own time. Her clients often are "hipsters" who love the "light and breezy" look, blended with vintage style, as much as Dawley does. "If I was getting married, I'd probably just buy a vintage dress," she said. Judging by the sketches she uses to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers, it's clear she's smitten by the design elements of the styles of decades past. It may have to do with the stories they tell-unlike the "fast-fashion" that floods youthful markets with mass-produced garments made cheaply and quickly in countries outside the U.S. The gowns in her 1950s Havana Collection are inspired by extraordinary Cuban women she's discovered while doing research. Each of the gowns reflects an aspect of the island nation, such as "the Beauty in Distress story" or "the Salsa story," or an actual woman who caught Dawley's imagination, such as "Aline," a rich socialite, or "Natalia," a salsa dancer and Fidel Castro's former lover who bore him a child he never acknowledged. "I want to tell stories through the people," she said. From the age of 13, Dawley has been "obsessed" with Cuba, she said. The Cuban Missile Crisis riveted her attention on a country she sees as "so distressed but so beautiful." When she was contemplating starting her own line of bridal gowns, she "had a dream that I was walking through the streets of Havana. There were crazy scenes, but I was walking through the city untouched," she said. "I woke up and thought, that's the hook for my business." [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925909","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]] Early experience Dawley, 27, has wanted to be a designer since she was 10, she said. When she was 8, she learned to sew from her mother. "My first thing I made was a pair of elastic-waist capri pants. I thought they were pretty fashionable," she said with a laugh. She continued to develop her skills by entering sewing projects in 4-H and the "Make It Yourself With Wool" competitions. As a senior in high school, Dawley entered the Miss North Dakota contest and, to her surprise, won the title. That meant staying in state for a year to fulfill the duties of the role. Although she was eager to go away to design school, "it felt weird" to move before that obligation was met, she said. During her first semester at North Dakota State University, in November 2008, Dawley went with a friend to Los Angeles, where she was encouraged by another friend, who was attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising there, to talk with a career counselor at the school. "I had no interest in L.A.," she said. "I wanted to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York." But, on a whim, she applied and was quickly accepted to FIDM. Within a couple of weeks, she had passed the Miss North Dakota crown on to another young woman and relocated to Los Angeles in January 2009. "It needed to happen like that," she said. "Otherwise, I might have changed my mind." She credits the support of her family, especially her mother, for giving her the confidence and courage to pursue her dreams. "It must have been hard for her," said Dawley who, as the youngest child, was the last to leave home. "She never made me second-guess my decision. I think that was kind of cool."
A change of perspective After earning degrees in fashion design and business at FIDM, Dawley worked for women's and junior's clothing companies, where she was attentive to the quality of her work and often would stay late on the job. Her work ethic didn't go unnoticed by employers. "(But) every promotion put me back from what I wanted to do," she said. At home, on her own time, she would stay up late at night making custom wedding gowns for private clients. In September 2015, Dawley's grandfather, who farmed with her dad and with whom she had a close relationship, died at 88. Vincent Dawley's death prompted her to reflect on his life and what his lifelong work meant to him. "Farming was not just what he did; it was who he was," she said. "He was farming up until two years ago. I didn't think of him as that age, until the last six months of his life." His death made her re-think her design career. "When I worked in the fashion industry, I was restless in my job, but I thought I had to work my way up," she said. Her grandfather's death "gave me perspective." After the funeral, she returned to Los Angeles and immediately gave her employer two weeks' notice. That evening, she and a friend from work planned a vacation trip to Cuba. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925911","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]] Setting a higher standard As she establishes her own business, Dawley has no intention of following the well-worn path to mass-production of garments outside the U.S., a practice she had become so familiar with while working in the industry. "I don't want to work in mass production-for example, with China," she said. "(There) the costs are low, turnaround is quick. It's much easier and cheaper (but) you lose control over the duration of (production) ... and there's so much room for copycats." As she developed her first bridal gown collection, she said, "I wanted everything to be made in the U.S. That knocks up the price, but it's really important to me." She plans to produce gowns "on a much smaller scale," by contracting with freelance pattern-makers and sewers. She wants each of her gowns to exude quality, she said. "I want it to feel handmade and custom." Attending to the business aspects of launching her brand also is daunting. "That's the 'pulling teeth' kind of thing," Dawley said. Work on taxes or the details of establishing an LLC, a limited liability company, or marketing strategies-none of it comes naturally for the designer who'd much rather be sketching gowns, working with sewers, or choosing fabrics, trimming and laces. "That's a struggle for me," she said. "A lot of creative (people's) brains are not wired that way." "It's hard for me to swallow my pride and ask for help." But that's something she has to do, she said. "I'm a one-woman show now." Her brother, who works as a certified public accountant, has been a big help. She's also enlisted friends, who are looking to break into the industry, to help by contributing such talents as makeup artistry and photography skills to the staging of the "look book"-which they then could use to build their portfolios. As owner of her own company, "it's stressful sometimes," she said, recalling "in the middle of the night, I pricked my finger and bled on the dress. I had to wash it all out. It was horrible." But she doesn't regret leaving a steady industry job with a secure income. "I'd rather live this stressful life." The crises are outweighed by the deeply satisfying moments when a bride-to-be is overjoyed with her gown. "I remember one woman who, when she tried on her dress, grabbed my arm and started sobbing," Dawley said. "She said, 'You've made all my dreams come true.'" [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925912","attributes":{"alt":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","class":"media-image","height":"480","title":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"340"}}]]  MUNICH, N.D. - Page through the glossy, full-sized "look book" of bridal gowns designed by Gretchen Dawley and you almost can hear the enticing Latin rhythms of Cuban music playing in the background. The pure-white, floor-length gowns-sleek and fluid in silk charmeuse and lace-are in stark contrast with the gritty alley, ruptured concrete wall and chain-link fencing that serve as a backdrop. Dawley uses the "look book" to introduce prospective buyers, who represent department stores and boutiques, to her first collection of bridal gowns. The six gowns were designed by Dawley, who grew up in rural North Dakota and, for the past eight years, has lived and worked in the garment industry in Los Angeles. Late last year, she quit her full-time job to develop the "1950s Havana Collection" under the brand that bears her name. Last month, Dawley introduced the collection at a market event focused on bridal and evening gowns in Atlanta. "I'm in the 'struggling artist' phase right now," said Dawley who grew up as the third and youngest child of Kevin and Debbie Dawley, on the multi-generational family farm 6 miles north of the tiny town of Munich in north-central North Dakota. She set the date of the Atlanta market as her deadline for completing her first bridal gown collection, "otherwise, you could work on a collection for years," she said. The process of establishing her brand and introducing her line at market has been a "major learning experience," she said. "Market was tough. I had no idea what to expect." The lure of vintage For many years, Dawley has been drawn especially to designing bridal gowns-not for herself, but to create her own collection. For Dawley, a wedding dress represents hope, she said. "It's a symbol of a love that lasts forever." In addition to working full-time for clothing companies, she has created custom bridal gowns for private clients on her own time. Her clients often are "hipsters" who love the "light and breezy" look, blended with vintage style, as much as Dawley does. "If I was getting married, I'd probably just buy a vintage dress," she said. Judging by the sketches she uses to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers, it's clear she's smitten by the design elements of the styles of decades past. It may have to do with the stories they tell-unlike the "fast-fashion" that floods youthful markets with mass-produced garments made cheaply and quickly in countries outside the U.S. The gowns in her 1950s Havana Collection are inspired by extraordinary Cuban women she's discovered while doing research. Each of the gowns reflects an aspect of the island nation, such as "the Beauty in Distress story" or "the Salsa story," or an actual woman who caught Dawley's imagination, such as "Aline," a rich socialite, or "Natalia," a salsa dancer and Fidel Castro's former lover who bore him a child he never acknowledged. "I want to tell stories through the people," she said. From the age of 13, Dawley has been "obsessed" with Cuba, she said. The Cuban Missile Crisis riveted her attention on a country she sees as "so distressed but so beautiful." When she was contemplating starting her own line of bridal gowns, she "had a dream that I was walking through the streets of Havana. There were crazy scenes, but I was walking through the city untouched," she said. "I woke up and thought, that's the hook for my business." [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925909","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]] Early experience Dawley, 27, has wanted to be a designer since she was 10, she said. When she was 8, she learned to sew from her mother. "My first thing I made was a pair of elastic-waist capri pants. I thought they were pretty fashionable," she said with a laugh. She continued to develop her skills by entering sewing projects in 4-H and the "Make It Yourself With Wool" competitions. As a senior in high school, Dawley entered the Miss North Dakota contest and, to her surprise, won the title. That meant staying in state for a year to fulfill the duties of the role. Although she was eager to go away to design school, "it felt weird" to move before that obligation was met, she said. During her first semester at North Dakota State University, in November 2008, Dawley went with a friend to Los Angeles, where she was encouraged by another friend, who was attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising there, to talk with a career counselor at the school. "I had no interest in L.A.," she said. "I wanted to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York." But, on a whim, she applied and was quickly accepted to FIDM. Within a couple of weeks, she had passed the Miss North Dakota crown on to another young woman and relocated to Los Angeles in January 2009. "It needed to happen like that," she said. "Otherwise, I might have changed my mind." She credits the support of her family, especially her mother, for giving her the confidence and courage to pursue her dreams. "It must have been hard for her," said Dawley who, as the youngest child, was the last to leave home. "She never made me second-guess my decision. I think that was kind of cool." [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925910","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]] A change of perspective After earning degrees in fashion design and business at FIDM, Dawley worked for women's and junior's clothing companies, where she was attentive to the quality of her work and often would stay late on the job. Her work ethic didn't go unnoticed by employers. "(But) every promotion put me back from what I wanted to do," she said. At home, on her own time, she would stay up late at night making custom wedding gowns for private clients. In September 2015, Dawley's grandfather, who farmed with her dad and with whom she had a close relationship, died at 88. Vincent Dawley's death prompted her to reflect on his life and what his lifelong work meant to him. "Farming was not just what he did; it was who he was," she said. "He was farming up until two years ago. I didn't think of him as that age, until the last six months of his life." His death made her re-think her design career. "When I worked in the fashion industry, I was restless in my job, but I thought I had to work my way up," she said. Her grandfather's death "gave me perspective." After the funeral, she returned to Los Angeles and immediately gave her employer two weeks' notice. That evening, she and a friend from work planned a vacation trip to Cuba.
Setting a higher standard As she establishes her own business, Dawley has no intention of following the well-worn path to mass-production of garments outside the U.S., a practice she had become so familiar with while working in the industry. "I don't want to work in mass production-for example, with China," she said. "(There) the costs are low, turnaround is quick. It's much easier and cheaper (but) you lose control over the duration of (production) ... and there's so much room for copycats." As she developed her first bridal gown collection, she said, "I wanted everything to be made in the U.S. That knocks up the price, but it's really important to me." She plans to produce gowns "on a much smaller scale," by contracting with freelance pattern-makers and sewers. She wants each of her gowns to exude quality, she said. "I want it to feel handmade and custom." Attending to the business aspects of launching her brand also is daunting. "That's the 'pulling teeth' kind of thing," Dawley said. Work on taxes or the details of establishing an LLC, a limited liability company, or marketing strategies-none of it comes naturally for the designer who'd much rather be sketching gowns, working with sewers, or choosing fabrics, trimming and laces. "That's a struggle for me," she said. "A lot of creative (people's) brains are not wired that way." "It's hard for me to swallow my pride and ask for help." But that's something she has to do, she said. "I'm a one-woman show now." Her brother, who works as a certified public accountant, has been a big help. She's also enlisted friends, who are looking to break into the industry, to help by contributing such talents as makeup artistry and photography skills to the staging of the "look book"-which they then could use to build their portfolios. As owner of her own company, "it's stressful sometimes," she said, recalling "in the middle of the night, I pricked my finger and bled on the dress. I had to wash it all out. It was horrible." But she doesn't regret leaving a steady industry job with a secure income. "I'd rather live this stressful life." The crises are outweighed by the deeply satisfying moments when a bride-to-be is overjoyed with her gown. "I remember one woman who, when she tried on her dress, grabbed my arm and started sobbing," Dawley said. "She said, 'You've made all my dreams come true.'" [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925912","attributes":{"alt":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","class":"media-image","height":"480","title":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"340"}}]]  MUNICH, N.D. - Page through the glossy, full-sized "look book" of bridal gowns designed by Gretchen Dawley and you almost can hear the enticing Latin rhythms of Cuban music playing in the background. The pure-white, floor-length gowns-sleek and fluid in silk charmeuse and lace-are in stark contrast with the gritty alley, ruptured concrete wall and chain-link fencing that serve as a backdrop. Dawley uses the "look book" to introduce prospective buyers, who represent department stores and boutiques, to her first collection of bridal gowns. The six gowns were designed by Dawley, who grew up in rural North Dakota and, for the past eight years, has lived and worked in the garment industry in Los Angeles. Late last year, she quit her full-time job to develop the "1950s Havana Collection" under the brand that bears her name. Last month, Dawley introduced the collection at a market event focused on bridal and evening gowns in Atlanta. "I'm in the 'struggling artist' phase right now," said Dawley who grew up as the third and youngest child of Kevin and Debbie Dawley, on the multi-generational family farm 6 miles north of the tiny town of Munich in north-central North Dakota. She set the date of the Atlanta market as her deadline for completing her first bridal gown collection, "otherwise, you could work on a collection for years," she said. The process of establishing her brand and introducing her line at market has been a "major learning experience," she said. "Market was tough. I had no idea what to expect." The lure of vintage For many years, Dawley has been drawn especially to designing bridal gowns-not for herself, but to create her own collection. For Dawley, a wedding dress represents hope, she said. "It's a symbol of a love that lasts forever." In addition to working full-time for clothing companies, she has created custom bridal gowns for private clients on her own time. Her clients often are "hipsters" who love the "light and breezy" look, blended with vintage style, as much as Dawley does. "If I was getting married, I'd probably just buy a vintage dress," she said. Judging by the sketches she uses to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers, it's clear she's smitten by the design elements of the styles of decades past. It may have to do with the stories they tell-unlike the "fast-fashion" that floods youthful markets with mass-produced garments made cheaply and quickly in countries outside the U.S. The gowns in her 1950s Havana Collection are inspired by extraordinary Cuban women she's discovered while doing research. Each of the gowns reflects an aspect of the island nation, such as "the Beauty in Distress story" or "the Salsa story," or an actual woman who caught Dawley's imagination, such as "Aline," a rich socialite, or "Natalia," a salsa dancer and Fidel Castro's former lover who bore him a child he never acknowledged. "I want to tell stories through the people," she said. From the age of 13, Dawley has been "obsessed" with Cuba, she said. The Cuban Missile Crisis riveted her attention on a country she sees as "so distressed but so beautiful." When she was contemplating starting her own line of bridal gowns, she "had a dream that I was walking through the streets of Havana. There were crazy scenes, but I was walking through the city untouched," she said. "I woke up and thought, that's the hook for my business." [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925909","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]] Early experience Dawley, 27, has wanted to be a designer since she was 10, she said. When she was 8, she learned to sew from her mother. "My first thing I made was a pair of elastic-waist capri pants. I thought they were pretty fashionable," she said with a laugh. She continued to develop her skills by entering sewing projects in 4-H and the "Make It Yourself With Wool" competitions. As a senior in high school, Dawley entered the Miss North Dakota contest and, to her surprise, won the title. That meant staying in state for a year to fulfill the duties of the role. Although she was eager to go away to design school, "it felt weird" to move before that obligation was met, she said. During her first semester at North Dakota State University, in November 2008, Dawley went with a friend to Los Angeles, where she was encouraged by another friend, who was attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising there, to talk with a career counselor at the school. "I had no interest in L.A.," she said. "I wanted to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York." But, on a whim, she applied and was quickly accepted to FIDM. Within a couple of weeks, she had passed the Miss North Dakota crown on to another young woman and relocated to Los Angeles in January 2009. "It needed to happen like that," she said. "Otherwise, I might have changed my mind." She credits the support of her family, especially her mother, for giving her the confidence and courage to pursue her dreams. "It must have been hard for her," said Dawley who, as the youngest child, was the last to leave home. "She never made me second-guess my decision. I think that was kind of cool." [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925910","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]] A change of perspective After earning degrees in fashion design and business at FIDM, Dawley worked for women's and junior's clothing companies, where she was attentive to the quality of her work and often would stay late on the job. Her work ethic didn't go unnoticed by employers. "(But) every promotion put me back from what I wanted to do," she said. At home, on her own time, she would stay up late at night making custom wedding gowns for private clients. In September 2015, Dawley's grandfather, who farmed with her dad and with whom she had a close relationship, died at 88. Vincent Dawley's death prompted her to reflect on his life and what his lifelong work meant to him. "Farming was not just what he did; it was who he was," she said. "He was farming up until two years ago. I didn't think of him as that age, until the last six months of his life." His death made her re-think her design career. "When I worked in the fashion industry, I was restless in my job, but I thought I had to work my way up," she said. Her grandfather's death "gave me perspective." After the funeral, she returned to Los Angeles and immediately gave her employer two weeks' notice. That evening, she and a friend from work planned a vacation trip to Cuba. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925911","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]] Setting a higher standard As she establishes her own business, Dawley has no intention of following the well-worn path to mass-production of garments outside the U.S., a practice she had become so familiar with while working in the industry. "I don't want to work in mass production-for example, with China," she said. "(There) the costs are low, turnaround is quick. It's much easier and cheaper (but) you lose control over the duration of (production) ... and there's so much room for copycats." As she developed her first bridal gown collection, she said, "I wanted everything to be made in the U.S. That knocks up the price, but it's really important to me." She plans to produce gowns "on a much smaller scale," by contracting with freelance pattern-makers and sewers. She wants each of her gowns to exude quality, she said. "I want it to feel handmade and custom." Attending to the business aspects of launching her brand also is daunting. "That's the 'pulling teeth' kind of thing," Dawley said. Work on taxes or the details of establishing an LLC, a limited liability company, or marketing strategies-none of it comes naturally for the designer who'd much rather be sketching gowns, working with sewers, or choosing fabrics, trimming and laces. "That's a struggle for me," she said. "A lot of creative (people's) brains are not wired that way." "It's hard for me to swallow my pride and ask for help." But that's something she has to do, she said. "I'm a one-woman show now." Her brother, who works as a certified public accountant, has been a big help. She's also enlisted friends, who are looking to break into the industry, to help by contributing such talents as makeup artistry and photography skills to the staging of the "look book"-which they then could use to build their portfolios. As owner of her own company, "it's stressful sometimes," she said, recalling "in the middle of the night, I pricked my finger and bled on the dress. I had to wash it all out. It was horrible." But she doesn't regret leaving a steady industry job with a secure income. "I'd rather live this stressful life." The crises are outweighed by the deeply satisfying moments when a bride-to-be is overjoyed with her gown. "I remember one woman who, when she tried on her dress, grabbed my arm and started sobbing," Dawley said. "She said, 'You've made all my dreams come true.'"
 MUNICH, N.D. - Page through the glossy, full-sized "look book" of bridal gowns designed by Gretchen Dawley and you almost can hear the enticing Latin rhythms of Cuban music playing in the background.The pure-white, floor-length gowns-sleek and fluid in silk charmeuse and lace-are in stark contrast with the gritty alley, ruptured concrete wall and chain-link fencing that serve as a backdrop.Dawley uses the "look book" to introduce prospective buyers, who represent department stores and boutiques, to her first collection of bridal gowns.The six gowns were designed by Dawley, who grew up in rural North Dakota and, for the past eight years, has lived and worked in the garment industry in Los Angeles.Late last year, she quit her full-time job to develop the "1950s Havana Collection" under the brand that bears her name.Last month, Dawley introduced the collection at a market event focused on bridal and evening gowns in Atlanta."I'm in the 'struggling artist' phase right now," said Dawley who grew up as the third and youngest child of Kevin and Debbie Dawley, on the multi-generational family farm 6 miles north of the tiny town of Munich in north-central North Dakota.She set the date of the Atlanta market as her deadline for completing her first bridal gown collection, "otherwise, you could work on a collection for years," she said.The process of establishing her brand and introducing her line at market has been a "major learning experience," she said. "Market was tough. I had no idea what to expect."The lure of vintageFor many years, Dawley has been drawn especially to designing bridal gowns-not for herself, but to create her own collection.For Dawley, a wedding dress represents hope, she said. "It's a symbol of a love that lasts forever."In addition to working full-time for clothing companies, she has created custom bridal gowns for private clients on her own time. Her clients often are "hipsters" who love the "light and breezy" look, blended with vintage style, as much as Dawley does."If I was getting married, I'd probably just buy a vintage dress," she said.Judging by the sketches she uses to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers, it's clear she's smitten by the design elements of the styles of decades past.It may have to do with the stories they tell-unlike the "fast-fashion" that floods youthful markets with mass-produced garments made cheaply and quickly in countries outside the U.S.The gowns in her 1950s Havana Collection are inspired by extraordinary Cuban women she's discovered while doing research. Each of the gowns reflects an aspect of the island nation, such as "the Beauty in Distress story" or "the Salsa story," or an actual woman who caught Dawley's imagination, such as "Aline," a rich socialite, or "Natalia," a salsa dancer and Fidel Castro's former lover who bore him a child he never acknowledged."I want to tell stories through the people," she said.From the age of 13, Dawley has been "obsessed" with Cuba, she said. The Cuban Missile Crisis riveted her attention on a country she sees as "so distressed but so beautiful."When she was contemplating starting her own line of bridal gowns, she "had a dream that I was walking through the streets of Havana. There were crazy scenes, but I was walking through the city untouched," she said. "I woke up and thought, that's the hook for my business."
Early experienceDawley, 27, has wanted to be a designer since she was 10, she said.When she was 8, she learned to sew from her mother."My first thing I made was a pair of elastic-waist capri pants. I thought they were pretty fashionable," she said with a laugh.She continued to develop her skills by entering sewing projects in 4-H and the "Make It Yourself With Wool" competitions.As a senior in high school, Dawley entered the Miss North Dakota contest and, to her surprise, won the title. That meant staying in state for a year to fulfill the duties of the role.Although she was eager to go away to design school, "it felt weird" to move before that obligation was met, she said.During her first semester at North Dakota State University, in November 2008, Dawley went with a friend to Los Angeles, where she was encouraged by another friend, who was attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising there, to talk with a career counselor at the school."I had no interest in L.A.," she said. "I wanted to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York."But, on a whim, she applied and was quickly accepted to FIDM. Within a couple of weeks, she had passed the Miss North Dakota crown on to another young woman and relocated to Los Angeles in January 2009."It needed to happen like that," she said. "Otherwise, I might have changed my mind."She credits the support of her family, especially her mother, for giving her the confidence and courage to pursue her dreams."It must have been hard for her," said Dawley who, as the youngest child, was the last to leave home."She never made me second-guess my decision. I think that was kind of cool."[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925910","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]A change of perspectiveAfter earning degrees in fashion design and business at FIDM, Dawley worked for women's and junior's clothing companies, where she was attentive to the quality of her work and often would stay late on the job. Her work ethic didn't go unnoticed by employers."(But) every promotion put me back from what I wanted to do," she said.At home, on her own time, she would stay up late at night making custom wedding gowns for private clients.In September 2015, Dawley's grandfather, who farmed with her dad and with whom she had a close relationship, died at 88. Vincent Dawley's death prompted her to reflect on his life and what his lifelong work meant to him."Farming was not just what he did; it was who he was," she said. "He was farming up until two years ago. I didn't think of him as that age, until the last six months of his life."His death made her re-think her design career."When I worked in the fashion industry, I was restless in my job, but I thought I had to work my way up," she said.Her grandfather's death "gave me perspective."After the funeral, she returned to Los Angeles and immediately gave her employer two weeks' notice. That evening, she and a friend from work planned a vacation trip to Cuba.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925911","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]Setting a higher standardAs she establishes her own business, Dawley has no intention of following the well-worn path to mass-production of garments outside the U.S., a practice she had become so familiar with while working in the industry."I don't want to work in mass production-for example, with China," she said. "(There) the costs are low, turnaround is quick. It's much easier and cheaper (but) you lose control over the duration of (production) ... and there's so much room for copycats."As she developed her first bridal gown collection, she said, "I wanted everything to be made in the U.S. That knocks up the price, but it's really important to me."She plans to produce gowns "on a much smaller scale," by contracting with freelance pattern-makers and sewers.She wants each of her gowns to exude quality, she said. "I want it to feel handmade and custom."Attending to the business aspects of launching her brand also is daunting."That's the 'pulling teeth' kind of thing," Dawley said.Work on taxes or the details of establishing an LLC, a limited liability company, or marketing strategies-none of it comes naturally for the designer who'd much rather be sketching gowns, working with sewers, or choosing fabrics, trimming and laces."That's a struggle for me," she said. "A lot of creative (people's) brains are not wired that way.""It's hard for me to swallow my pride and ask for help."But that's something she has to do, she said. "I'm a one-woman show now."Her brother, who works as a certified public accountant, has been a big help.She's also enlisted friends, who are looking to break into the industry, to help by contributing such talents as makeup artistry and photography skills to the staging of the "look book"-which they then could use to build their portfolios.As owner of her own company, "it's stressful sometimes," she said, recalling "in the middle of the night, I pricked my finger and bled on the dress. I had to wash it all out. It was horrible."But she doesn't regret leaving a steady industry job with a secure income."I'd rather live this stressful life."The crises are outweighed by the deeply satisfying moments when a bride-to-be is overjoyed with her gown."I remember one woman who, when she tried on her dress, grabbed my arm and started sobbing," Dawley said. "She said, 'You've made all my dreams come true.'"[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925912","attributes":{"alt":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","class":"media-image","height":"480","title":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"340"}}]] MUNICH, N.D. - Page through the glossy, full-sized "look book" of bridal gowns designed by Gretchen Dawley and you almost can hear the enticing Latin rhythms of Cuban music playing in the background.The pure-white, floor-length gowns-sleek and fluid in silk charmeuse and lace-are in stark contrast with the gritty alley, ruptured concrete wall and chain-link fencing that serve as a backdrop.Dawley uses the "look book" to introduce prospective buyers, who represent department stores and boutiques, to her first collection of bridal gowns.The six gowns were designed by Dawley, who grew up in rural North Dakota and, for the past eight years, has lived and worked in the garment industry in Los Angeles.Late last year, she quit her full-time job to develop the "1950s Havana Collection" under the brand that bears her name.Last month, Dawley introduced the collection at a market event focused on bridal and evening gowns in Atlanta."I'm in the 'struggling artist' phase right now," said Dawley who grew up as the third and youngest child of Kevin and Debbie Dawley, on the multi-generational family farm 6 miles north of the tiny town of Munich in north-central North Dakota.She set the date of the Atlanta market as her deadline for completing her first bridal gown collection, "otherwise, you could work on a collection for years," she said.The process of establishing her brand and introducing her line at market has been a "major learning experience," she said. "Market was tough. I had no idea what to expect."The lure of vintageFor many years, Dawley has been drawn especially to designing bridal gowns-not for herself, but to create her own collection.For Dawley, a wedding dress represents hope, she said. "It's a symbol of a love that lasts forever."In addition to working full-time for clothing companies, she has created custom bridal gowns for private clients on her own time. Her clients often are "hipsters" who love the "light and breezy" look, blended with vintage style, as much as Dawley does."If I was getting married, I'd probably just buy a vintage dress," she said.Judging by the sketches she uses to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers, it's clear she's smitten by the design elements of the styles of decades past.It may have to do with the stories they tell-unlike the "fast-fashion" that floods youthful markets with mass-produced garments made cheaply and quickly in countries outside the U.S.The gowns in her 1950s Havana Collection are inspired by extraordinary Cuban women she's discovered while doing research. Each of the gowns reflects an aspect of the island nation, such as "the Beauty in Distress story" or "the Salsa story," or an actual woman who caught Dawley's imagination, such as "Aline," a rich socialite, or "Natalia," a salsa dancer and Fidel Castro's former lover who bore him a child he never acknowledged."I want to tell stories through the people," she said.From the age of 13, Dawley has been "obsessed" with Cuba, she said. The Cuban Missile Crisis riveted her attention on a country she sees as "so distressed but so beautiful."When she was contemplating starting her own line of bridal gowns, she "had a dream that I was walking through the streets of Havana. There were crazy scenes, but I was walking through the city untouched," she said. "I woke up and thought, that's the hook for my business."[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925909","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]Early experienceDawley, 27, has wanted to be a designer since she was 10, she said.When she was 8, she learned to sew from her mother."My first thing I made was a pair of elastic-waist capri pants. I thought they were pretty fashionable," she said with a laugh.She continued to develop her skills by entering sewing projects in 4-H and the "Make It Yourself With Wool" competitions.As a senior in high school, Dawley entered the Miss North Dakota contest and, to her surprise, won the title. That meant staying in state for a year to fulfill the duties of the role.Although she was eager to go away to design school, "it felt weird" to move before that obligation was met, she said.During her first semester at North Dakota State University, in November 2008, Dawley went with a friend to Los Angeles, where she was encouraged by another friend, who was attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising there, to talk with a career counselor at the school."I had no interest in L.A.," she said. "I wanted to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York."But, on a whim, she applied and was quickly accepted to FIDM. Within a couple of weeks, she had passed the Miss North Dakota crown on to another young woman and relocated to Los Angeles in January 2009."It needed to happen like that," she said. "Otherwise, I might have changed my mind."She credits the support of her family, especially her mother, for giving her the confidence and courage to pursue her dreams."It must have been hard for her," said Dawley who, as the youngest child, was the last to leave home."She never made me second-guess my decision. I think that was kind of cool."
A change of perspectiveAfter earning degrees in fashion design and business at FIDM, Dawley worked for women's and junior's clothing companies, where she was attentive to the quality of her work and often would stay late on the job. Her work ethic didn't go unnoticed by employers."(But) every promotion put me back from what I wanted to do," she said.At home, on her own time, she would stay up late at night making custom wedding gowns for private clients.In September 2015, Dawley's grandfather, who farmed with her dad and with whom she had a close relationship, died at 88. Vincent Dawley's death prompted her to reflect on his life and what his lifelong work meant to him."Farming was not just what he did; it was who he was," she said. "He was farming up until two years ago. I didn't think of him as that age, until the last six months of his life."His death made her re-think her design career."When I worked in the fashion industry, I was restless in my job, but I thought I had to work my way up," she said.Her grandfather's death "gave me perspective."After the funeral, she returned to Los Angeles and immediately gave her employer two weeks' notice. That evening, she and a friend from work planned a vacation trip to Cuba.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925911","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]Setting a higher standardAs she establishes her own business, Dawley has no intention of following the well-worn path to mass-production of garments outside the U.S., a practice she had become so familiar with while working in the industry."I don't want to work in mass production-for example, with China," she said. "(There) the costs are low, turnaround is quick. It's much easier and cheaper (but) you lose control over the duration of (production) ... and there's so much room for copycats."As she developed her first bridal gown collection, she said, "I wanted everything to be made in the U.S. That knocks up the price, but it's really important to me."She plans to produce gowns "on a much smaller scale," by contracting with freelance pattern-makers and sewers.She wants each of her gowns to exude quality, she said. "I want it to feel handmade and custom."Attending to the business aspects of launching her brand also is daunting."That's the 'pulling teeth' kind of thing," Dawley said.Work on taxes or the details of establishing an LLC, a limited liability company, or marketing strategies-none of it comes naturally for the designer who'd much rather be sketching gowns, working with sewers, or choosing fabrics, trimming and laces."That's a struggle for me," she said. "A lot of creative (people's) brains are not wired that way.""It's hard for me to swallow my pride and ask for help."But that's something she has to do, she said. "I'm a one-woman show now."Her brother, who works as a certified public accountant, has been a big help.She's also enlisted friends, who are looking to break into the industry, to help by contributing such talents as makeup artistry and photography skills to the staging of the "look book"-which they then could use to build their portfolios.As owner of her own company, "it's stressful sometimes," she said, recalling "in the middle of the night, I pricked my finger and bled on the dress. I had to wash it all out. It was horrible."But she doesn't regret leaving a steady industry job with a secure income."I'd rather live this stressful life."The crises are outweighed by the deeply satisfying moments when a bride-to-be is overjoyed with her gown."I remember one woman who, when she tried on her dress, grabbed my arm and started sobbing," Dawley said. "She said, 'You've made all my dreams come true.'"[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925912","attributes":{"alt":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","class":"media-image","height":"480","title":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"340"}}]] MUNICH, N.D. - Page through the glossy, full-sized "look book" of bridal gowns designed by Gretchen Dawley and you almost can hear the enticing Latin rhythms of Cuban music playing in the background.The pure-white, floor-length gowns-sleek and fluid in silk charmeuse and lace-are in stark contrast with the gritty alley, ruptured concrete wall and chain-link fencing that serve as a backdrop.Dawley uses the "look book" to introduce prospective buyers, who represent department stores and boutiques, to her first collection of bridal gowns.The six gowns were designed by Dawley, who grew up in rural North Dakota and, for the past eight years, has lived and worked in the garment industry in Los Angeles.Late last year, she quit her full-time job to develop the "1950s Havana Collection" under the brand that bears her name.Last month, Dawley introduced the collection at a market event focused on bridal and evening gowns in Atlanta."I'm in the 'struggling artist' phase right now," said Dawley who grew up as the third and youngest child of Kevin and Debbie Dawley, on the multi-generational family farm 6 miles north of the tiny town of Munich in north-central North Dakota.She set the date of the Atlanta market as her deadline for completing her first bridal gown collection, "otherwise, you could work on a collection for years," she said.The process of establishing her brand and introducing her line at market has been a "major learning experience," she said. "Market was tough. I had no idea what to expect."The lure of vintageFor many years, Dawley has been drawn especially to designing bridal gowns-not for herself, but to create her own collection.For Dawley, a wedding dress represents hope, she said. "It's a symbol of a love that lasts forever."In addition to working full-time for clothing companies, she has created custom bridal gowns for private clients on her own time. Her clients often are "hipsters" who love the "light and breezy" look, blended with vintage style, as much as Dawley does."If I was getting married, I'd probably just buy a vintage dress," she said.Judging by the sketches she uses to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers, it's clear she's smitten by the design elements of the styles of decades past.It may have to do with the stories they tell-unlike the "fast-fashion" that floods youthful markets with mass-produced garments made cheaply and quickly in countries outside the U.S.The gowns in her 1950s Havana Collection are inspired by extraordinary Cuban women she's discovered while doing research. Each of the gowns reflects an aspect of the island nation, such as "the Beauty in Distress story" or "the Salsa story," or an actual woman who caught Dawley's imagination, such as "Aline," a rich socialite, or "Natalia," a salsa dancer and Fidel Castro's former lover who bore him a child he never acknowledged."I want to tell stories through the people," she said.From the age of 13, Dawley has been "obsessed" with Cuba, she said. The Cuban Missile Crisis riveted her attention on a country she sees as "so distressed but so beautiful."When she was contemplating starting her own line of bridal gowns, she "had a dream that I was walking through the streets of Havana. There were crazy scenes, but I was walking through the city untouched," she said. "I woke up and thought, that's the hook for my business."[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925909","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]Early experienceDawley, 27, has wanted to be a designer since she was 10, she said.When she was 8, she learned to sew from her mother."My first thing I made was a pair of elastic-waist capri pants. I thought they were pretty fashionable," she said with a laugh.She continued to develop her skills by entering sewing projects in 4-H and the "Make It Yourself With Wool" competitions.As a senior in high school, Dawley entered the Miss North Dakota contest and, to her surprise, won the title. That meant staying in state for a year to fulfill the duties of the role.Although she was eager to go away to design school, "it felt weird" to move before that obligation was met, she said.During her first semester at North Dakota State University, in November 2008, Dawley went with a friend to Los Angeles, where she was encouraged by another friend, who was attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising there, to talk with a career counselor at the school."I had no interest in L.A.," she said. "I wanted to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York."But, on a whim, she applied and was quickly accepted to FIDM. Within a couple of weeks, she had passed the Miss North Dakota crown on to another young woman and relocated to Los Angeles in January 2009."It needed to happen like that," she said. "Otherwise, I might have changed my mind."She credits the support of her family, especially her mother, for giving her the confidence and courage to pursue her dreams."It must have been hard for her," said Dawley who, as the youngest child, was the last to leave home."She never made me second-guess my decision. I think that was kind of cool."[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925910","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]A change of perspectiveAfter earning degrees in fashion design and business at FIDM, Dawley worked for women's and junior's clothing companies, where she was attentive to the quality of her work and often would stay late on the job. Her work ethic didn't go unnoticed by employers."(But) every promotion put me back from what I wanted to do," she said.At home, on her own time, she would stay up late at night making custom wedding gowns for private clients.In September 2015, Dawley's grandfather, who farmed with her dad and with whom she had a close relationship, died at 88. Vincent Dawley's death prompted her to reflect on his life and what his lifelong work meant to him."Farming was not just what he did; it was who he was," she said. "He was farming up until two years ago. I didn't think of him as that age, until the last six months of his life."His death made her re-think her design career."When I worked in the fashion industry, I was restless in my job, but I thought I had to work my way up," she said.Her grandfather's death "gave me perspective."After the funeral, she returned to Los Angeles and immediately gave her employer two weeks' notice. That evening, she and a friend from work planned a vacation trip to Cuba.
Setting a higher standardAs she establishes her own business, Dawley has no intention of following the well-worn path to mass-production of garments outside the U.S., a practice she had become so familiar with while working in the industry."I don't want to work in mass production-for example, with China," she said. "(There) the costs are low, turnaround is quick. It's much easier and cheaper (but) you lose control over the duration of (production) ... and there's so much room for copycats."As she developed her first bridal gown collection, she said, "I wanted everything to be made in the U.S. That knocks up the price, but it's really important to me."She plans to produce gowns "on a much smaller scale," by contracting with freelance pattern-makers and sewers.She wants each of her gowns to exude quality, she said. "I want it to feel handmade and custom."Attending to the business aspects of launching her brand also is daunting."That's the 'pulling teeth' kind of thing," Dawley said.Work on taxes or the details of establishing an LLC, a limited liability company, or marketing strategies-none of it comes naturally for the designer who'd much rather be sketching gowns, working with sewers, or choosing fabrics, trimming and laces."That's a struggle for me," she said. "A lot of creative (people's) brains are not wired that way.""It's hard for me to swallow my pride and ask for help."But that's something she has to do, she said. "I'm a one-woman show now."Her brother, who works as a certified public accountant, has been a big help.She's also enlisted friends, who are looking to break into the industry, to help by contributing such talents as makeup artistry and photography skills to the staging of the "look book"-which they then could use to build their portfolios.As owner of her own company, "it's stressful sometimes," she said, recalling "in the middle of the night, I pricked my finger and bled on the dress. I had to wash it all out. It was horrible."But she doesn't regret leaving a steady industry job with a secure income."I'd rather live this stressful life."The crises are outweighed by the deeply satisfying moments when a bride-to-be is overjoyed with her gown."I remember one woman who, when she tried on her dress, grabbed my arm and started sobbing," Dawley said. "She said, 'You've made all my dreams come true.'"[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925912","attributes":{"alt":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","class":"media-image","height":"480","title":"Los Angeles-based fashion designer Gretchen Dawley appreciates the features of a vintage nightgown she plans to re-style as a br","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"340"}}]] MUNICH, N.D. - Page through the glossy, full-sized "look book" of bridal gowns designed by Gretchen Dawley and you almost can hear the enticing Latin rhythms of Cuban music playing in the background.The pure-white, floor-length gowns-sleek and fluid in silk charmeuse and lace-are in stark contrast with the gritty alley, ruptured concrete wall and chain-link fencing that serve as a backdrop.Dawley uses the "look book" to introduce prospective buyers, who represent department stores and boutiques, to her first collection of bridal gowns.The six gowns were designed by Dawley, who grew up in rural North Dakota and, for the past eight years, has lived and worked in the garment industry in Los Angeles.Late last year, she quit her full-time job to develop the "1950s Havana Collection" under the brand that bears her name.Last month, Dawley introduced the collection at a market event focused on bridal and evening gowns in Atlanta."I'm in the 'struggling artist' phase right now," said Dawley who grew up as the third and youngest child of Kevin and Debbie Dawley, on the multi-generational family farm 6 miles north of the tiny town of Munich in north-central North Dakota.She set the date of the Atlanta market as her deadline for completing her first bridal gown collection, "otherwise, you could work on a collection for years," she said.The process of establishing her brand and introducing her line at market has been a "major learning experience," she said. "Market was tough. I had no idea what to expect."The lure of vintageFor many years, Dawley has been drawn especially to designing bridal gowns-not for herself, but to create her own collection.For Dawley, a wedding dress represents hope, she said. "It's a symbol of a love that lasts forever."In addition to working full-time for clothing companies, she has created custom bridal gowns for private clients on her own time. Her clients often are "hipsters" who love the "light and breezy" look, blended with vintage style, as much as Dawley does."If I was getting married, I'd probably just buy a vintage dress," she said.Judging by the sketches she uses to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers, it's clear she's smitten by the design elements of the styles of decades past.It may have to do with the stories they tell-unlike the "fast-fashion" that floods youthful markets with mass-produced garments made cheaply and quickly in countries outside the U.S.The gowns in her 1950s Havana Collection are inspired by extraordinary Cuban women she's discovered while doing research. Each of the gowns reflects an aspect of the island nation, such as "the Beauty in Distress story" or "the Salsa story," or an actual woman who caught Dawley's imagination, such as "Aline," a rich socialite, or "Natalia," a salsa dancer and Fidel Castro's former lover who bore him a child he never acknowledged."I want to tell stories through the people," she said.From the age of 13, Dawley has been "obsessed" with Cuba, she said. The Cuban Missile Crisis riveted her attention on a country she sees as "so distressed but so beautiful."When she was contemplating starting her own line of bridal gowns, she "had a dream that I was walking through the streets of Havana. There were crazy scenes, but I was walking through the city untouched," she said. "I woke up and thought, that's the hook for my business."[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925909","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley looks around the room where she learned sewing skills, beginning at age 8, from her mother.","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]Early experienceDawley, 27, has wanted to be a designer since she was 10, she said.When she was 8, she learned to sew from her mother."My first thing I made was a pair of elastic-waist capri pants. I thought they were pretty fashionable," she said with a laugh.She continued to develop her skills by entering sewing projects in 4-H and the "Make It Yourself With Wool" competitions.As a senior in high school, Dawley entered the Miss North Dakota contest and, to her surprise, won the title. That meant staying in state for a year to fulfill the duties of the role.Although she was eager to go away to design school, "it felt weird" to move before that obligation was met, she said.During her first semester at North Dakota State University, in November 2008, Dawley went with a friend to Los Angeles, where she was encouraged by another friend, who was attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising there, to talk with a career counselor at the school."I had no interest in L.A.," she said. "I wanted to go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York."But, on a whim, she applied and was quickly accepted to FIDM. Within a couple of weeks, she had passed the Miss North Dakota crown on to another young woman and relocated to Los Angeles in January 2009."It needed to happen like that," she said. "Otherwise, I might have changed my mind."She credits the support of her family, especially her mother, for giving her the confidence and courage to pursue her dreams."It must have been hard for her," said Dawley who, as the youngest child, was the last to leave home."She never made me second-guess my decision. I think that was kind of cool."[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925910","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley uses sketches to communicate her design ideas to pattern-makers and a \"look book\" to introduce prospective buyer","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]A change of perspectiveAfter earning degrees in fashion design and business at FIDM, Dawley worked for women's and junior's clothing companies, where she was attentive to the quality of her work and often would stay late on the job. Her work ethic didn't go unnoticed by employers."(But) every promotion put me back from what I wanted to do," she said.At home, on her own time, she would stay up late at night making custom wedding gowns for private clients.In September 2015, Dawley's grandfather, who farmed with her dad and with whom she had a close relationship, died at 88. Vincent Dawley's death prompted her to reflect on his life and what his lifelong work meant to him."Farming was not just what he did; it was who he was," she said. "He was farming up until two years ago. I didn't think of him as that age, until the last six months of his life."His death made her re-think her design career."When I worked in the fashion industry, I was restless in my job, but I thought I had to work my way up," she said.Her grandfather's death "gave me perspective."After the funeral, she returned to Los Angeles and immediately gave her employer two weeks' notice. That evening, she and a friend from work planned a vacation trip to Cuba.[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2925911","attributes":{"alt":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","class":"media-image","height":"320","title":"Gretchen Dawley and her mother, Debbie Dawley, talk about Gretchen's design career and early inspiration in fashion","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"480"}}]]Setting a higher standardAs she establishes her own business, Dawley has no intention of following the well-worn path to mass-production of garments outside the U.S., a practice she had become so familiar with while working in the industry."I don't want to work in mass production-for example, with China," she said. "(There) the costs are low, turnaround is quick. It's much easier and cheaper (but) you lose control over the duration of (production) ... and there's so much room for copycats."As she developed her first bridal gown collection, she said, "I wanted everything to be made in the U.S. That knocks up the price, but it's really important to me."She plans to produce gowns "on a much smaller scale," by contracting with freelance pattern-makers and sewers.She wants each of her gowns to exude quality, she said. "I want it to feel handmade and custom."Attending to the business aspects of launching her brand also is daunting."That's the 'pulling teeth' kind of thing," Dawley said.Work on taxes or the details of establishing an LLC, a limited liability company, or marketing strategies-none of it comes naturally for the designer who'd much rather be sketching gowns, working with sewers, or choosing fabrics, trimming and laces."That's a struggle for me," she said. "A lot of creative (people's) brains are not wired that way.""It's hard for me to swallow my pride and ask for help."But that's something she has to do, she said. "I'm a one-woman show now."Her brother, who works as a certified public accountant, has been a big help.She's also enlisted friends, who are looking to break into the industry, to help by contributing such talents as makeup artistry and photography skills to the staging of the "look book"-which they then could use to build their portfolios.As owner of her own company, "it's stressful sometimes," she said, recalling "in the middle of the night, I pricked my finger and bled on the dress. I had to wash it all out. It was horrible."But she doesn't regret leaving a steady industry job with a secure income."I'd rather live this stressful life."The crises are outweighed by the deeply satisfying moments when a bride-to-be is overjoyed with her gown."I remember one woman who, when she tried on her dress, grabbed my arm and started sobbing," Dawley said. "She said, 'You've made all my dreams come true.'"

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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