Boston-based dressmaker Sondra Celli, who will be featured on the new TLC series “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” premiering Sunday, has been designing over-the-top wedding and first communion gowns for the U.S. traveller community for 33 years. Celli and her staff work together to whip up outrageous dress creations –- sometimes in just a handful of hours -- each of which needs to be bigger and better than the last to meet the demands of their customers.
HuffPost Weddings spoke to Celli about how she got her start in the bridal business and what it’s like to work with gypsies on creating the focal point of their Big Days. Here is her story.
I was always creative as a child. Because my mom was in the bridal business, I fell into that market, but I really wanted to be a designer more than a retailer. As a little girl, I always re-did everything she ever bought me -- I’d take dresses apart and rebuild them. I loved to trim things up, put feathers on them and change them.
When I was 17, I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology and before that I went to Scholastic International, which is a program that takes young designers as interns to six different countries. So, at 15, I went to Europe -- Italy, England France, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark -- and I worked as an intern in different design houses. I just fell in love with this business. I think the exposure to Europe and to New York at a young age just opened my eyes.
The gypsies actually found me through a couple department stores that I’d been working with at the time, when I started my own business years ago. Someone gave them my phone number. They called me and they said they wanted clothes. I asked, “Who are you”? They said, “I’m from Bridgette’s Baby Boutique” and “I’m from Anne’s Baby Boutique” and, before the end of the week, I had seven or eight baby boutiques call me, but they were all on the same street. And I wondered how they could all be on the same street? I called around to a few mentors of mine and one of them said, “Honey, you’re selling to gypsies! They lied to you and pretended they were stores.”
I was 22 and green in this business. So basically, I said, “Listen, I can’t be selling to you, I have to run a regular business.” They really wanted what I made, which was pretty flamboyant in those days compared to what was in the market. They decided they would buy from me -- I would do custom clothing for them and sell it to them retail. They’ve been my customers for years.
I get a lot of requests for odd things and I really love the challenge. On the English show, the brides wear a lot of white. Here, gypsy brides tend to like color. Color separates you from the last girl, it makes you different. That’s a big deal for them. They don’t want to be like anybody else. Gypsies like to be unique.
They will send me photos from France, from Saudi Arabia. They’re computer savvy. They’ll come up with dresses that are 30 or 40 thousand dollars and they’ll ask me “Can you make this for a 10-year-old child?” They want to create their version of it. They’ll steal the color from it, or the straps or one little detail from it and I’ll design a whole new version pulled from different ideas.
I made a dress out of wigs once, which was pretty cool. The bride wanted these really wild colors and she wanted something she said “like the tail of a pony.” So I bought all different colored wigs and I chopped them up and I built a skirt out of all of them and it became like a fringe. It was absolutely fabulous.
We have a decent staff here of 11 people. But we have to work a lot -- 20 hours, sometimes 24 hours, a day. A dress like that would take us 2-3 days.
We’re making very unique items and we’re technically challenged every single day. Some of these dresses are 70-80 pounds. I’ve got communion dresses that are 40 pounds and the kids are 68 pounds. It’s technical. You have to figure out how to make the dress stand out, how you’re going to make the weight shift equally on someone’s body. One of the women here actually has an engineering degree, which does help a lot. We work as a great team. Everyone here has a different skill and together we can make anything that anybody can dream up. The joy is in the design. I get up every day and I come to work and I love what I do. I do something completely different every day.
Gypsies don’t plan anything. Sometimes they call me at 12 o’clock and they want a dress by 5. It happens every day. I mean, I can’t make a $7,500 dress in five hours. But I can make a cute dress with some fringe and crystal in 5 hours, no problem.
You have to remember that travellers live dollar-to-dollar, day-to-day. If someone has a big contract this week, let’s say they paint of pave or whatever they do, and they have cash in hand, they decide that that’s the week they’re going to spend it all because this is the week they have the money. That’s how they live. And then they start again the next week. They’re not saving for college, because there isn’t any college. We’re thinking ‘Put the money in the bank and we’ll be prepared for retirement.’ They don’t think like that. They only think about today.
Sometimes I find them very stressed because they’re so competitive that they live, eat, sleep thinking about what’s the next thing they’re going to buy and it’s beyond their means sometimes. And they’ll call me and we’ll discuss a dress and they won't buy it. And then two weeks later, and they’ll call up and need it in three days because they finally come up with the money to do it.
I think people portray the gypsies as bad people or people who only care about materialism. But everybody cares about materialism. We just show it differently. They show it through cars and diamonds. You ask my mother or your mother and anybody else “How are your children?” and they’ll say, “My child goes to Harvard” or “My child goes to Princeton.” We want to show that our kids are, you know, better than everyone else’s.
It’s the same thing with gypsies -- it’s just in a different form. They walk around with the biggest Rolex and the biggest dress and they have to have the biggest wedding. The power they get, in their community, is from materialism. Whoever has the most bling wins.
As told to Natasha Burton
Click through the slideshow below to see some of the outrageous wedding dresses featured on "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding"
Nettie in her corset and crown.
Nettie and Laurel, her maid of honor, in the bridal carriage.
Nettie and Bridesmaids: Laurel, Nicole, Jackie and little Mary Lisa.
Nettie and JR at the altar.
Nettie and JR's first kiss.
Nettie and JR cut the cake.
Pricilla shows off outside Sondra Celli's.
Pricilla as The Queen of Hearts.
Pricilla struts into the party after changing into her dancing dress.
Annie's Bridesmaids in the fairytale coach.
Bridesmaids carry Annie's train.
Annie takes center stage.