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A SPECIAL WEDDING SECTION

Something Perfect

September 10, 1996|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Be it white silk satin or red damask, unadorned or frilled up, the dress is the talk of a wedding. That's why many women want a custom-made gown that fits their fashion personality--and figure. Here, three brides tell the stories behind the creation of their ideal designs.

Lara Sachs-Fishman had always imagined herself being married in a couture gown, gliding down the aisle in a one-of-a-kind dress.

But while planning her wedding last year, she realized her hectic work schedule would mean no time for the demands of a custom gown. Instead, she opted for an off-the-rack Vera Wang.

A Polaroid of her in the dress left her underwhelmed.

"It wasn't how I envisioned myself," Sachs-Fishman recalls. "My father said, 'Do you feel like a bride?' And I didn't. It was more or less like an evening gown."

On a friend's advice, she went to see Sandra Johnson in January at her 3-year-old eponymous Robertson Boulevard shop in Los Angeles. Working amid Victorian settees and cherub-painted walls, the designer creates everything from simple but elegant sheaths to elaborate Victorian and Edwardian gowns. Embellishments include lace, hand-beading, smocking and handmade rosettes; prices range from $2,000 to $20,000. Johnson, who moved here from England and has outfitted royal family wedding parties, uses only imported silk, antique beads, cotton or silk lace and silk tulle.

"When I walked in there, everything clicked," says Sachs-Fishman, 29, a graduate student in interior and environmental design at UCLA. "I wanted a corset-type bodice with a full skirt, and she was in the process of making a gown that was similar. I thought, 'This is the person.' "

With the wedding 10 months away, Johnson set to work, sketching designs and suggesting fabrics: candlelight silk chiffon over silk taffeta for the skirt to add texture and volume. Myriad details were discussed and compromised on. Sachs-Fishman wanted silvery beading, but Johnson convinced her that antique pearl and crystal beads would look better. Johnson also had to engineer the dress so the bride could put it on easily and detach the layered train for the reception.

Johnson made a muslin version to fine-tune the fit before cutting the silk. No bras or bustiers were needed, since she builds the foundation into the bodice.

When Sachs-Fishman finally tried on the finished gown (price: $6,000) after about three or four fittings, "Something about it made me feel a certain way. I thought, 'Why can't I wear it again?' I felt like a part of my wedding was already over, so I was kind of melancholy about it."

But on her wedding day in October, all the work and time paid off: The bride drew gasps from the guests.

That's the ultimate compliment for Johnson, who says she welcomes brides' pictures of other dresses so she can get a feel for their style. So far this year she's created some 50 wedding dresses.

"A dress shouldn't compete with the bride--it should complement the person she is," she says.

With a complicated dress like Sachs-Fishman's, part of the challenge is technical, Johnson says. "I try to imagine what it's going to look like if she's been sitting down for two hours and then stands up. It shouldn't have that Shar-Pei look, as I call it, with all those wrinkles and buckles."

As a dress nears completion, Johnson gets excited "that they look so gorgeous," but at the same time tries to distance herself.

"I do that so I can be critical of it," she explains. "I nit-pick. I'm looking at the fit, the cut, the balance, the proportion, looking to make sure the hem is hitting at the right place."

And through the months of fittings and consultations, something besides a dress is often created: a friendship.

"Not only did we have a good creative relationship," Sachs-Fishman says, "but we'd laugh a lot. She could tell that I was getting really nervous before my wedding, and going to her was very comforting."

* Styling by Joanna Dendel; hair and makeup by David Mendoza.

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