As she celebrates 25 years in business, wedding gown designer Anita Massarella tells Stephanie Smith why marriage is recession-proof.
Anyone who drives regularly between Leeds and Harrogate will know Anita Massarella’s shop window. Anyone who drives along the Harrogate Road just the once will probably spot it. It’s impossible to ignore, filled as it is with the most heavenly, beautiful dresses you will ever see.
In fact, it’s fair to say the shop is globally famous. “People from abroad know all about us and often it’s because they’ve passed the shop, or a friend has,” says Anita. And it’s amazing, she adds, how many people live and work in London and also have properties in North Yorkshire, which means they drive past her door.
In the window at the moment is the Rose Alba dress. “We’ve called it after the White Rose of Yorkshire and we’ve just had it on show in Paris at the British Embassy,” Anita says. “A delegation of Yorkshire designers, woollen manufacturers and suppliers exhibited and we decided if we were taking Yorkshire to Paris, we would take this beautiful silk organza with embroidered beautiful white roses on it.”
The roses were made in Yorkshire wool, as was the matching bolero in pure cashmere made by Joshua Ellis in Batley. All the beading, sewing and embroidery took place in Yorkshire. While at the exhibition, Anita was able to introduce her French lace supplier to Tom Hainsworth of the celebrated Hainsworths fabric manufacturers in Leeds. “So I introduced the the man who made the lace for the Royal wedding for Catherine to the man who made the wool for Prince William’s jacket – that was really the highlight of my time there.”
This year Anita celebrates 25 years as a wedding and special occasion wear designer. “I still have some of the same staff who started with me 25 years ago,” she says.
Leeds born and bred, she studied fashion design at Thomas Danby College in Leeds, after which she stayed on to teach. When her two children reached school age, she decided to take the bold step of setting up by herself. “I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to do exactly what I like to do and get paid for it, so I took a risk of putting an advert in Brides Magazine and waiting for customers, and here I am 25 years later.
“When I started, people wanted great big dresses with great big sleeves, covered in silk roses and lots of embellishment. I’ve got pictures of the first dress I made with great big bows of the back.
“That was followed a few years later by ‘less is more’, which for me was really boring.
“The last few years have been strange because lots of people have their own identity, so there are all sorts of different styles that appeal to people which is very interesting, but there has been a big swing to glamour. Lots are influenced by celebrities, but people have very sophisticated tastes as well, so they like good fabrics and a good fit.
“Everyone wants to look like Kate Moss or someone else, so everyone’s got this sophisticated way of wanting to look laid back, wearing the best of everything.”
The boutique/showroom is on the ground floor of the store, which is an end terrace. Up the stairs is where the fittings take place, in a room filled with fabric swatches, tailors dummies and mood boards, and then up again to the top floor, where the dresses and garments are made by machinists, each one working individually on a dress.
It’s all appointment only, and prices start at £2,500. There is no top limit, although the most expensive dresses Anita makes are around £10,000 – “But if you compare that with London, it’s very reasonable,” she says.
Most clients do come from London, not just for wedding gowns but also for daywear, and special occasion and evening wear.
For a gown, first a toile in calico is fitted onto a customer. “The process of fitting the toile only takes an hour but it means that, once I have made that pattern, it’s a perfect fit, so if it’s an actress or a client who lives abroad, we have actually been able to make a finished dress and they have come back to a perfect fit.”
All the fabrics used are natural, nothing synthetic, the beading is done mainly in India, and for haute couture, there’s a lead time of at least six months, nine months preferably.
Anita makes many special gowns for Emmerdale, including the red gown worn by Moira for her wedding to Cain earlier this month. “We never get to know the story but we get to know the character and where the wedding is probably going to be and the idea that the costume designer has in mind, and we work on it together.”
Anita has weathered the recession well, thanks to the one-off nature of the business. “People will always put money aside for special events,” she says. “It’s a rare opportunity you’ve got in your life to have something really nice and it marks the event.”
And then, of course, there are second and third marriages. Anita laughs: “That’s good for business because they always go on to a richer man.”
• Anita Massarella is at 490 Harrogate Rd, Leeds, on 0113 268 7783 and www.anitamassarella.co.uk.