Not Another White Dress: Irish bridal fashion with a sustainable flair

Not Another White Dress: Irish bridal fashion with a sustainable flair

Victoria GL Brunton teams up with Irish designer Carolyn O’Sullivan, the woman behind Not Another White Dress.

With 15 years of experience in what she defines as “the technical side” of design, Carolyn O’Sullivan’s skill and craftsmanship is hard to beat.

However, it is not this unparalleled expertise that sets their label apart, but the unconventional, exciting and creative approach that Not Another White Dress takes – and successfully applies – to the obviously traditional realm of bridal wear.

Crafted in Ireland from luxurious fabrics such as French gold tweed, floral jacquard, metallic lace, iridescent sequins and silk satin organza, O’Sullivan’s reusable bridal collection is a masterclass in slow fashion, where fabrics are kept to minimal stock and sometimes custom-made are made for single brides in very small quantities.

Speaking to the designer via Zoom, I was curious as to where the idea for this brand came from.

After graduating from Limerick School of Art and Design, O’Sullivan worked as a pattern maker in Ireland for just a year before moving to Australia for another 14 years. Luckily, the Emerald Isle retrieved them just before their brand came to life.

“A few months before I moved, I was buying wedding dresses with a friend,” she tells me, explaining that they were looking for something different, but the alternatives “just weren’t there.”

This lack of choice in the bridal industry stuck with O’Sullivan. This, combined with her desire to explore other areas of the industry outside of pattern making, ignited the spark that would lead to the creation of her own label.

Starting off, the designer knew two things: first, she wanted to create a niche in the bridal industry that doesn’t currently exist in the market, and second, because of her professional background, that her skills could handle the production side of a business with ease.

“I always knew I wanted to be in the niche,” she explains, “I don’t go for everyone. I don’t want to work with model mechanics every day for over 15 years, learn from them and pick up tips, but also instruct them.”

With these factors in mind, she began to research extensively what her brand identity should be and represent – starting with Queen Victoria. Yes, you read that correctly.

O’Sullivan believes he can pinpoint the moment that traditional bridal wear infiltrated our society as a royal wedding: “People never used to wear white dresses to weddings; they wore what they had and white was too difficult to clean…Queen Victoria wanted to promote the lace trade as it was steadily declining, so she had a white lace dress made for her wedding.”

That wasn’t the end of this royal investigation, however, as the designer noted that the monarch was a “sustainable queen” in every sense of the word. Turns out, Queen Victoria wore her veil again for countless post-wedding events like christenings and even her jubilee many years later.

These insights were the roots that O’Sullivan’s label needed and quickly became the founding principles behind the Not Another White Dress philosophy.

Despite this, the designer insists that she’s not the one to judge, and revealed a reluctance to over-advertise this particular aspect of her work OK, I’m not trying to tell anyone they have to do this… I’m just trying to show, that there are sustainable options.”

Carolyn O’Sullivan. Credit: Patrick McHugh

Of course, the environmental impact of the culture of once-only wear doesn’t apply to the bridal industry as much as it does to ready-to-wear, but the designer’s point remains – why not wear a great piece of clothing as many times and in as many ways as possible?

Addressing this, O’Sullivan admits there’s another frustration in one-time wear traditions: “For me, it’s also the number of hours I’ve put into something, it makes me a little bit sad that it’s only worn for less than that.”

She continues that sentiment, adding, “This is probably the most expensive piece of clothing most people will own in their entire lifetime and it will just go in a box forever — it just seems like a waste to me.”

Defeat any bottlenecks you’ve associated with bridal wear as you browse this contemporary design collection. O’Sullivan has masterfully broken down the “bridal” formula to its simplest equation and completely reinvented it, creating pieces that aren’t white, wear-once, floor-length dresses, but are just as worthy of being the center of attention at any momentous one Reason.

“I always knew that if I ever tried bridal wear, I wouldn’t do it like everyone else,” says the designer, “I’ve never been traditional and I couldn’t relate to people who grew up with that traditional wedding in mind… The way I see it, with a big bouquet or a veil or whatever, you can really look like a bride in anything.”

This innate desire to think outside the box leads to O’Sullivan’s approach to design. While she has no desire to walk down the aisle herself, she is passionate about offering Not Another White Dress as an alternative for the bride who doesn’t want to conform to traditionalism, the bride who wants to wear her wedding dress over and over again, and the bride who simply needs someone to interpret, translate and deliver the dream dress that’s in her head.

“The brides that come to me don’t want to be like everyone else and they don’t care if people don’t get it, but they want to look like a bride and it’s still very important to them that they look really good good,” explains the designer. “I’m happy when people come to me with their own designs because I think sometimes people have trouble imagining and they need to rely on me to interpret their dream dress, but also that I’ll do it to a standard that they’re happy with.” Ultimately, the designer defines the process as “a collaboration”.

O’Sullivan discusses the future of her brand, revealing her hopes to grow her business and lighten the burden of her one-woman show.

“Hopefully in the long term it won’t just be me, but for now it has to be. I don’t think people understand what it is – how many jobs it involves etc. They only see the end product.”

“I don’t want to focus on bridal fashion forever,” she adds. “I get requests from unconventional mothers of the bride; they’re looking for younger, more modern versions of what it is now – I’m working on my first one and I’m also just really interested in ready-to-wear.”

Wedding dress pink
Credit: Patrick McHugh

O’Sullivan’s most recent project is one with The Council of Irish Fashion Designers in association with The Design and Craft Council Ireland. The designer collaborated with Brenda Mohan of the Irish Patchwork Society to create a dress inspired by a piece of stained glass on display at the Hugh Lane Gallery.

Commissioned by the Irish Government in 1930, the play by Harry Clarke caused a stir at the time for its ‘sensual’ portrayal of a dancer in a diaphanous pink veil. “We both wanted to do something visually impactful,” she says of the project. “We kept it clear to mimic the original glass inspiration.”

In keeping with her brand philosophy, the designer told me that “a lot was made from leftover fabrics and offcuts” as well as some pink fabrics she’s been hoarding for years.

Looking at this example of the designer’s work, it’s no surprise that brides fly in from all corners of the world – Sweden and more recently New York – to collaborate with her on their dream ensembles.

We certainly expect O’Sullivan’s anything-but-white garments to be gracing red carpets, magazine pages, and more weddings very soon.

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