It was a somber end Friday to the last bridal collection created by the late Amsale Aberra, closing silently with the first gown she ever designed for her namesake line — a sleek satin column look with an illusion neckline from 1990, when so many brides favored huge ball skirts and pouffy sleeves.
The music was shut off and only the clicks of photographers’ cameras were heard as the model in Aberra’s “A101” dress walked on a terrace of the Gramercy Park Hotel, on the city’s first warm and sunny day of spring. The model was of Ethiopian descent, Aberra’s native country, showing off the gown after a short video played of Aberra talking about her work.
“Every time someone came to say ‘I’m wearing your dress,’ it’s such a privilege to me,” Aberra said on the video. “It’s just a nice feeling.”
The bridal designer died April 1 at age 64 after battling uterine cancer. She worked until the final fitting on the Spring 2019 line two weeks before her passing. Her death was relatively sudden, said her husband and the Amsale company’s president and CEO, Neil Brown.
“The incredible outpouring of love and admiration for her has been such a driving force at this time,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s really been such a powerful energizer for us.”
Brown and the couple’s 30-year-old daughter, Rachel Amsale Brown, were in the audience, greeting friends and admirers before and after the show.
Aberra rose to prominence on the strength of “A101” and similar silhouettes, embracing a singular aesthetic of understated elegance that carried her through more than 30 years in fashion. Aberra herself said it best in the video that came near the end of the show:
“The Amsale bride is someone who is classic but modern. Her approach in design is very simple and clean, yet sophisticated. She’s confident. She doesn’t like flashy thing(s) but something which is really good quality, and quality is important to her.”
Quality was of extreme importance to Aberra as well, whether she was serving clients of her couture Amsale line or the lower-priced Nouvelle. She was a self-professed perfectionist who before she launched her company put an advertisement in Brides magazine offering her services as a dress designer.
Sarah Swann, Amsale studio director, said in a pre-show interview that the collection honors Aberra’s famed simplicity, but Aberra also had cathedral elegance on her mind. That played out in a pocket collection, Amsale Blue Label, offering upscale ballgowns, pearl and crystal beading and draped bows.
“She wanted this bride to feel regal,” Swann said.
The two worked together for five years. Swann was among those who helped Aberra choose her successor as Amsale design director, Margo Lafontaine, a former senior studio director at Vera Wang.
Aberra arrived in the United States from Ethiopia at age 19, but not to study fashion. There was no market for that back home. At first she took on commercial art, then political science, a degree she earned but “which she quickly decided she didn’t know what to do with,” her husband said.
Her studies were disrupted by revolution and the overthrow of Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie, Brown said. She was forced to take menial jobs to support herself after her father became a political prisoner. Brown said he and Aberra met in Boston, where they lived in the mid-1970s. It was at a party, after Brown conjured up the confidence to chat up the “stunningly beautiful” girl he knew from the Harvard-area coffee shop where she worked.
Brown moved to New York first after graduation. Aberra followed and soon enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She later joined the school’s board of trustees and remained a member until her death. She went into the bridal industry after searching to no avail for a wedding gown she liked for her own nuptials in 1985. She made one herself instead.
Although her achievements were great, Brown said, she had goals of a more personal nature she had hoped to fulfill.
“Unfortunately, many of her goals that she left undone were those that were the simplest and closest to heart,” he said. “To spend more time with her family in a pure, relaxing, enjoyable manner. To be able to spend more time reconnecting with her family back home in Ethiopia. But she did what she enjoyed until the end.”