If you walk along Cuba Street, and up a little flight of stairs, you’ll find a heavenly shop called Sally Eagle Bridal.
With romantic dresses and custom accessories, Sally has become the go-to atelier for women around New Zealand who want to choose something more youthful than the traditional pavlova style gown.
I caught up with Sally a few weeks back over a hot bowl of chips from ‘The Lido’ to find out how she fell for bridal wear, where she gets her inspiration, juggling family and New York bridal fashion week.
How did she get here?
Sally was born in Upper Hutt, Wellington. “My family moved up to Auckland when I was four and then moved back to Wellington when I was eleven,” Sally says. “I’ve lived in Wellington the rest of my life.”
While there may not be high fashion in the family, there is an independent streak. Sally’s mother works as an occupational therapist and her father has his own business as a consultant for small companies. “Even when Dad was full-time working, he’d do bits on the side” Sally explains of her family entrepreneurial streak.
Sally studied at Heretaunga College in Upper Hutt. She fell into sewing at home, seeing her mother sew. “I would make my dolls outfits from paper before I could even go on the sewing machine,” Sally says. “When I was old enough to be taught, mum showed me the basics and then I took it on myself to learn. I kind of always wanted to do it! My mother and I are different - she would always go by patterns but I liked doing my own thing.”
Making her own ball dresses was just the start for Sally. However, it wasn’t all style central. “I made myself a lime green handkerchief dress with a pink underskirt for my leaver's dinner. Probably wouldn’t repeat that.” After finishing school, Sally knew she wanted to go to study the four-year design degree at Massey University, after a gap year to earn money. “At first, I thought I wanted to make menswear. Throughout studying I developed a style all of my own.”
It was through a friendship with a peer that Sally decided to start her own business. “It was really fun and we made our first collection and tried to sell it. We had no money so at the same time I started making dresses for people. My husband Karl was working at a big accounting firm at that time and the ladies he worked with would ask me to make them, say, a jacket. I was like ‘Oh, okay!’. I ended up making bridesmaids dresses and some wedding dresses. So while I was working with my friend I began to accidentally start my own business on the side.”
How did she start making wedding gowns in Wellington?
At the same time, Sally was preparing for her own wedding and found herself uninspired by the offerings in Wellington. “I had gotten engaged not long after university ended. While looking around for gowns, I decided to sew my own because I didn’t really see much I was into at that time.” Her project with her friend designing their own line came to a close. “Around the same time, my friend and I mutually decided to stop our business. We didn’t have a fall out or anything. It just naturally ended. However, after my wedding, friends started wanted dresses and my own side business kept growing. People just kept asking me to make their wedding dresses!”
Sally found herself, unexpectedly, loving making dresses. She saw the gap in the market for her modern bridal gowns. “When I started, the main options were strapless ruched dresses made overseas. Everything was quite stiff and satiny. I wanted romantic, floaty, and lacey” Sally explains. She started a website and went from there.
Starting with a studio on Willis Street, Sally’s business has grown and grown over the seven years she’s had it. It now occupies its current location on Cuba Street. “The business side of my journey has been unexpected. There is so much more involved than just making pretty dresses. There’s so much to learn” Sally says laughing. She has been lucky enough to get help from her husband Karl, with his business brain, who pays attention to the tricky side of the business. He now works 4 days a week and one day a week on Sally Eagle Bridal.
How does she juggle work and family life?
“We have to plan our lives very well. I have two children and so we work around them. We do have amazing opportunities too, however. Last year we went to New York Bridal Fashion Week. From that, I gained some new stockists. Last year I went by myself but this year my husband and I are going together” Sally laughs “Leaving the kids behind!”
Best part of the job?
“Seeing the brides and being part of the experience is fabulous,” Sally says. “You get to actually experience their excitement trying on the gown!”
...and the worst part?
“Having to speak in front of people or confront people. I’ve always been a shy person but I’ve had to be less so with the business. Sometimes I ask Karl to call, but he says ‘No, you have to do it!” Sally laughs.
What does she love about bridal fashion now?
“There are so many more awesome bridal designers now. People are wearing bridalwear that aligns with the trends and current fashion.”
And her latest venture?
Sally has also just opened her own store in Auckland in Grafton after a stockist went out of business. It is called ‘The Haven’. She is stocking a wider variety of designers and is excited to see what comes next. “It also means I can buy clothes from other bridal brands I love and be a designer on our trip to New York!”