Brooklyn Brides United

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Gowns line the walls at Monica's Bridal in Sheepshead Bay (Photo: Elisabeth Anderson/The Brooklyn Ink)
Gowns line the walls at Monica's Bridal in Sheepshead Bay (Photo: Elisabeth Anderson/The Brooklyn Ink)

By Elisabeth Anderson

This October, Mike and I are getting married.

Our ceremony will take place at a sweet, old church on Long Island, and will be performed by an equally sweet and old Irish priest who comes complete with an out-of-central-casting brogue.  Then, 180 of our nearest and dearest will descend upon a former Guggenheim estate overlooking the Long Island Sound for the requisite feast and merriment.

It will be the wedding of my mother’s dreams.

But lately, I’ve found myself thinking about the sisterhood of brides-in-waiting that exists not in the world where I grew up, but in the place where I work—Brooklyn.

I have begun to imagine a prototypical Brooklyn bride—if only as a counterpoint to the sort of bride I am about to be.  No such bride, of course, exists.  There a lot of married women in Brooklyn—more than 400,000 in 2009, or 36.8% of the adult female population—up from just shy of 388,000 four years before.  Multiply the newlyweds in that group with the myriad options for vendors and services, and you get a sum nearing infinity.  Brooklyn weddings come in many shapes and varieties.

Still, I began to wonder what all those many Brooklyn brides had in common, what experiences they shared that made being a Brooklyn bride different than a bride like me.  In picking a caterer alone, a bride has more than 300 Brooklyn-based choices.  Same goes for florists.  A venue?  The options go on forever, especially if you include “my friend’s loft” and “my favorite restaurant” among the options.

But as I was about to discover, there are things they share—caterers, gown makers, florists. And possibly something more: a mindset. If I couldn’t be a Brooklyn bride, I could at least explore what that means, and imagine the possibilities.

The Brooklyn Bride Blog is a one-stop-shop for vendors and information. (Image: The Brooklyn Bride Blog)
The Brooklyn Bride Blog is a one-stop-shop for vendors and information. (Image: The Brooklyn Bride Blog)

Boerum Hill-based Vane Broussard, an interior designer by day, sees brides of all stripes frequenting some of the same high-quality vendors.  Vane, who edits the Brooklyn Bride Blog, says Prospect Park Boathouse and Brooklyn Bridge Park are classic choices for venue.  Blossom & Branch and Quatre Coeur for flowers.  Kiss the Bride Films for videography.  Cakes from Sweet Melissa.  Invitations from Lion in the Sun.  Catering by Cobblestone and Abigail Kirsch.

Local wedding planner Carmella Dellaporte said her brides love Brooklyn-based Ethan Hernandez’s photography, along with J’Adore Photography.

She also said she’s seeing a common trend in how Brooklyn brides approach their weddings. “You don’t see a lot of the frill,” explained 49-year-old Carmella, who owns Crown Jewel Events, which has an office on the border of Sunset Park and Bay Ridge.  “With the economy, it’s been going to a DIY trend,” she said.  Many of her brides are doing things like making their own favors, or even giving donations to charity in lieu of favors.

Brides-to-be can get lots of DIY ideas over on Vane’s site.  Which leads me to one of the big common threads among Brooklyn brides…

They study the Brooklyn Bride Bible—I mean, Blog.

Vane started her site in April 2007 “as an online scrapbook of ideas for planning my own wedding,” she said.  “I did notice that there was very little in the way of modern inspiration out there, so I figured maybe some people could use what I’d collected over the years for their own weddings.”

It struck a cord with all sorts of Brooklyn brides.  Her blog currently gets as many as 40,000 unique visitors a month.

Vane thinks her readers appreciate the hyperlocal Brooklyn lens she puts on her content.  They know she gets it, and shares their mindset.  “I think you can tell a Brooklyn wedding from miles away because Brooklyn couples really seem to love using Brooklyn vendors, and overall the aesthetic is a bit edgier,” Vane said.  “We are fiercely loyal to our borough.  We love our landmarks and want to feature all the hidden gems our area has to offer, whether it be an amazing florist or little-known favorite restaurant.”

Vane likes Brooklyn weddings that “incorporate bits of the borough in different ways.”  At her wedding, she had Brooklyn Bridge-shaped cookies for her out-of-town guests and packs of Brooklyn gum to hand out.

The biggest trend she sees right now is vintage.  “We’re lucky because we have places like that vintage subway car down in Red Hook or the gorgeous townhouses of Brooklyn Heights and Fort Greene to have photos taken at,” she said.  She sees grooms “looking very Mad Men-ish” and brides wearing stoles and vintage dresses.  “It’s all very romantic,” she said.

Vane’s number one piece of advice for Brooklyn brides is to figure out wedding priorities before doing anything else.  “Are the photos going to be most important to you?  Or serving crazy good food to your guests?  It will help you establish what you’re willing to spend and where you can cut corners,” she said.  “If you want to stay really true to Brooklyn, find great Brooklyn-based vendors and ask for their own recommendations of other vendors and locations they’ve worked with before.  If you can get a great team assembled that you trust, you’ll be golden!”  Vane has an extensive list of Brooklyn vendors on her site.

They go to Monica’s.

I learned that you have not planned your Brooklyn wedding until you’ve taken the Q train to Sheepshead Bay to go dress shopping at Monica’s Bridal, a glittering palace of bridal bliss.  Of course I had to check it out, for research purposes.

As I pushed through the grand, brass-handled double doors, I was greeted in a reception area fancy enough to host a cocktail party in.  Gold and green plush sofas and chairs dotted the marble floor.  A flat screen TV airing bridal runway shows hung over the antique reception desk.  Two bridal gowns on mannequins decorated the back corners of the space, until a consultant removed one—a sparkly, corseted ballgown—for a client to try on.

A mother and daughter, waiting for their appointment, approached the desk.  The daughter wanted to know if she could print out a picture of a dress she liked, to show her consultant.  Co-owner Monica Nikchemny, 24, appeared and said, “of course.”

Monica sells thousands of bridal gowns every year.  Prices start in the $1,200-$1,500 range, and go up to “the sky’s the limit,” Monica said.  Fall and winter are the busiest seasons for sales.  The average dress takes six to eight months to come in after being ordered, and spring and summer are the most popular seasons for weddings.

Syrians, Moroccans, and Lebanese girls from the Ocean Parkway area make up a considerable amount of the clientele.  Of course, Sheepshead Bay Russians are a given.  But Monica also sees Italians from Bay Ridge, and “a lot of Manhattan brides who can’t find what they are looking for in the city,” she said.  She’s even had international brides from Spain, Italy, and Russia who learned about Monica’s on the internet.

One of Monica’s most important roles at the salon is designing a private label of gowns, approximately 20 a year.  The FIT fashion design graduate says using the finest materials is a must-do.  “We use the best fabrics, the best crystals – all Swarovski.”

But Monica’s job extends far beyond the private label.  “I do everything.  I talk to the brides, I do orders,” Monica explained.  “Managing, designing, everything A to Z.”

“But I’m not alone in this, I have help!” she continued.

Monica Nikchemny poses with her grandmother (left) and mother (center). (Photo courtesy Monica Nikchemny)
Monica Nikchemny poses with her grandmother (left) and mother (center). (Photo courtesy Monica Nikchemny)

That she does.  Monica’s is a three-generation family-owned and run business.  Her grandmother Simona runs the alterations department.  Her mother, Liliana, is in charge of the custom department. Her father, David, a builder and developer, built the salon’s new 10,000 square foot boutique space three years ago.  Her older brother, Lawrence, takes care of technology and marketing.

Referral business is big.  “My mom is now doing weddings for people’s grandkids,” Monica said.  “With my parents emigration, they are the first Russian Ashkenazi bridal business in the area in Brooklyn.  The fact that we’ve stood while so many places have opened and closed, it says something.”

The Monica’s story began in Odessa, Ukraine.  Simona was a designer and seamstress there, and Liliana attended design school.  Simona, Liliana, and David emigrated and settled in Brooklyn.  Simona and Liliana started working for McCalls and Vogue Patterns in the 1980s, and opened an Italian clothing store two storefronts down from the current Monica’s location in 1982.  The business took a hit when the stock market crashed in 1987, and the family decided to reconceptualize it; their expertise in Ukraine had been bridal and eveningwear, so they decided to go back to what they knew and loved.

“At the time my mother was pregnant with me,” Monica explained.  “And they hoped I would join them one day, which I eventually did.”  Liliana and David named the new boutique after their newborn daughter.  Monica says her family would have been supportive no matter what career she chose.  But the petite, pretty brunette knew fairly early that she shared a passion for the family business.  She attended a specialized art middle school and the fashion program at Edward R. Murrow High School before attending FIT.

Monica understands why finding the right dress is so important for her Brooklyn brides.  “Every girl, whether they want to admit it or not, has that fantasy about her wedding,” she said.  “The dress basically sets the tone.”

Right now, Monica is seeing two extremes as far as Brooklyn bridal looks go.  “Either huge and over the top, the biggest dress you can find with the most glitz on it, or a lacy, mermaid or trumpet style,” she explained.  “There’s no A-line,” she said of the style with a modestly-full skirt.  “Basically go big or go home.”

As for accessories, earrings and bracelets are outpacing necklaces. For Brooklyn brides doing headpieces, tiaras are out.  “If they do a headpiece, it’s short and flat.  And everyone loves a cathedral veil,” she said of the long, floor-sweeping design.

Monica has a knack for predicting trends; a Brooklyn girl herself, she knows what her counterparts like.  “I became very sick of drop-waisted gowns,” Monica said.  “I needed natural-waisted,” and she started designing more gowns in that style.  “Now everything is natural waisted!”

Sometimes, Monica says, one dress isn’t enough.  Many brides are buying a dramatic gown for their ceremony, and a short or mermaid party dress for their reception.  Her Syrian customers have a traditional send-off at their weddings, so they often buy a going away outfit—either a skirt suit or little dress; these are usually accompanied by “a hat and gloves, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Monica said.

The reporter poses in a St. Patrick mermaid-style design at Monica's. (Photo by Monica Nikchemny)
The reporter poses in a St. Patrick mermaid-style design at Monica's. (Photo by Monica Nikchemny)

Monica’s prides itself on customer service, and lets brides-to-be take an hour and a half to two hours trying on dresses.  And on the day of my visit, I got to be one of them.

Monica first brought me a bestseller that she said would flatter my petite frame.  The $1,200 mermaid style gown by St. Patrick featured a strapless, sweetheart neckline, a beaded, lacy bodice, and ruffled bottom.  She described the dress as “simple for our store.”

I always get bashful at this point, getting down to my skivvies.  “This is where we become friends,” Monica said with a smile.  She helped me step into a petticoat and then into the dress, clipping the back for a snug fit.  She added a beaded, sparkly hair clip to complete the look.  I felt very va-va-voom, the silhouette hugging the curves I have and adding a few new ones.

Next Monica put me into another petticoat and then one of her private label designs, a full silk ballgown with a strapless, sweetheart bodice made entirely of crystals.  She helped me carry the skirt as we walked out of my fitting room and onto a pedestal surrounded by mirrors.  She clipped a billowy, cathedral-length tulle veil into my hair.

The reporter wears a ballgown from Monica's private label. (Photo by Monica Nikchemny)
The reporter wears a ballgown from Monica's private label. (Photo by Monica Nikchemny)

I had transformed from me, to a mod Marilyn Monroe, to Cinderella, back to me again.  It’s these transformations, happening throughout her salon each day, that keep Monica’s appointment calendar full.

They pay homage to the borough they love – no matter where the wedding is.

The Brooklyn bridal mindset didn’t fully click for me until I spent time with Justina Lopez, a 24-year-old attorney from Prospect Heights who met, fell in love with, and got engaged to her fiancé Sam in Brooklyn.  She’s throwing the ultimate Brooklyn wedding, except for one detail—the wedding itself will take place at Chateau Briand on Long Island (on October 22nd – the same day as me!).

“I joke around with people that until I went to law school I never really left Brooklyn,” Justina said.  “And I wanted my reception in Brooklyn.”  But her dream venue, the Brooklyn Museum, was out of her budget.  She found a similar vibe for less dough on Long Island.

“A big part of my Brooklyn experience has been my community of faith,” said Justina, who is Protestant.  “We’re literally transporting that there. My wedding is Brooklyn in that it’s going to be ‘you’re at a big, fabulous feast with your community.”

I made a mental note. Part of being a Brooklyn bride means not being afraid to break the rules.

To wit, Justina helped Sam, a 24-year-old corporate lawyer she met on the first day of freshmen orientation at Brooklyn’s St. Francis College, to get out with his proposal in October 2010. Sam surprised Justina after work on a Wednesday with a tour of his childhood neighborhood, Williamsburg, where he still lives. “I found out he was stalling me because he had made reservations,” Justina recalled.

They showed up at Bino on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens to find the restaurant completely empty and candlelit. “We ordered appetizers, the main course, and still nothing,” Justina said. “Then I basically blurted out ‘are we getting engaged tonight?  What are you waiting for?’”

Sam proposed.

Justina & Sam: A Brooklyn love story (Photo courtesy Justina Lopez)
Justina & Sam: A Brooklyn love story (Photo courtesy Justina Lopez)

Justina went into turbo-planning mode, putting together her wedding in three months flat.  After booking a venue in October, she bought her dress and booked her band in November.  The bridesmaid dresses were purchased in December.

This type of get-it-done planning is common among busy, career-focused Brooklyn brides.

“I’m super-organized,” said Justina, who graduated with an honors degree from St. Francis College before going on to Fordham Law School.  Now she prosecutes abuse and neglect cases as an attorney for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.  Like her self-aware fellow Brooklyn brides, Justina said  “I know what I want, what I’m looking for.”

She was looking for, among other things, a chuppah, the canopy beneath which Jewish weddings are performed.  “I am not Jewish,” Justina explained,  “But I was obsessed with the idea of having a chuppah.”  And so the bride, whose mom is African American and dad is Dominican, will have her chuppah.  Her dad, an associate pastor at the church she grew up in, will officiate at Chateau Briand.

Justina is also defying tradition by having a morning wedding.  “The vibe for the reception is going to feel like a jazz brunch,” she said.  “Our wedding is focused on our family,” she explained, and the earlier timeframe will make it more enjoyable for those among her relatives who are elderly.

Before the wedding, of course, comes the bridal shower.  Justina’s three Brooklyn-based bridesmaids are planning a September women’s-only tea party at the Brooklyn Marriott.  “It may or may not include hats,” Justina mused.  “I haven’t decided yet.”  Because her wedding cake comes included with her venue, Justina wanted to pick a Brooklyn bakery to do her shower cake.  Angela’s in Bushwick will make a Dominican cake with tres leche filling.

Like other brides-to-be in the borough, Justina is amazed at how localized her planning process feels.  Her wedding photographer lives around the corner from Angela’s Bakery, and Angela’s owner’s daughter went to school with the photographer.  The photographer introduced Justina to her videographers, a husband-and-wife team who also live in Brooklyn.  “It feels,” Justina said, “like I am planning my wedding in the neighborhood.”

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