Founded by master tailors with roots in the Alsace-Lorraine region of eastern France, bridal house Anna Maier is a testament to the enduring allure of luxury couture. Today, the company is owned and all gowns designed by Anna’s great-grandson, Charles W. Bunstine II. A master in his own right, Bunstine has expanded the house’s prestige and legacy with fabrics of the highest quality and designs painstakingly crafted to suit each individual client. With selected Anna Maier bridal gowns arriving at Nordstrom soon, we took a moment to catch up with Bunstine over email to understand his world of couture.
All your gowns are made to a couture standard. What is that standard exactly and how does it set Anna Maier apart from other bridal designers?
“Couture” is a word that is recklessly used in fashion. In the late 1800s Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman practicing his craft in Paris, defined modern couture. That standard remains to this day. Prior to Worth, one would go to a dressmaker and select fabrics and trim for the dressmaker to make to a style effectively defined by or with the client. Worth was the first to really design a collection and then present that collection to clients. As clients would select his designs, he would then make the design to their measurements and effectively redraft his design to their body.
For a garment to be a couture garment, it must be made to an individual client’s body. I want the design lines and placement of draping and lace to accent the body line. The pattern we make for each client starts with my original design and is redefined to their individual body. This allows me great design freedom. If I want to create drama at a particular point on every client, no matter her measurements, I can. Because we cut everything one at a time for each individual, I can use fabrics that are more challenging. I make all of my designs for individual clients.
When did you decide to follow in your great-grandmother’s footsteps?
I fell in love with the fashion business while working at The Limited. Having grown up relatively poor, I had visions of finding a job where I would make a lot of money. In those days, that meant being a doctor or lawyer. I knew how to sew since I was 10. I worked at The Limited as a second job while at Ohio State. Without really trying to, I grew quickly through the company and fell in love. Leslie Wexner, who started and still runs Limited Brands, gave me unlimited opportunities, and by the time I was 26 I was controlling about 75 percent of Limited Stores, supporting Victoria’s Secret in aspects of their business and controlling all of our European production.
How has Anna Maier Couture evolved since she first started designing? What’s remained the same?
The design of the collection has evolved a great deal. Before I acquired the company about 15 years ago, the design approach was best characterized by the typical bridal house of its time. There were particular bodices and skirts that were modified or interchanged to create designs.
I came from a nonbridal background. Now, design is specific to each individual gown and the specific fabric chosen for that design. The materials now come from the finest mills in the world. Just this year, we began to source all of our materials that we use to create the insides of our gowns through Paris. Dior and Chanel are their primary clients and keep this level of material alive. We are fortunate to have access to them. The design lines are much more complex than when I first started. Having crafted hundreds of patterns and worked with so many fabrics, I have learned more. Our techniques are better. Recrafting lace, as we do in every gown, really didn’t occur before to the level we do it. We paint our clients with the motifs we find in the lace. While our gowns look seamless, there are hundreds of seams where we cut up the lace and remake it.
Your current collections are broken up into three moods—Cathedral, Chapel and Court. What does each mood communicate?
Cathedral is the drama and reverence one feels on a grand and significant scale. The stage is large and all the attributes of the design have to be telescopic. Cathedral gowns are fantastic from afar, but as one comes closer, more elements are seen and the success of the design is realized both in the grand drama and the subtle craftsmanship and detail.
Chapel is the closeness and filtered light one experiences in the more private confines of a small chapel. The impression is warm and complete and is best realized more closely. Chapel is more inviting than distant.
Court is the informality and free form one might find in a courtyard or garden—a close gathering of a few friends. Fine and precious, Court gowns are best seen and experienced up close.
How would you describe your design point of view?
A modern view of classic design. We are not trendy. We really don’t even consider what is going on in bridal design. I live in the broader fashion world and my view is my view of how I see design. In our lace gowns, you have laces that are in the top .01 percent of lace in the world. The mill that made Kate Middleton’s dress makes lace for us. Some of our laces are over 100 years old, but most would comment on how modern they appear. None of our gowns would easily be thrown into the “classic” bucket. Classic American design would include A-line skirts and a waist seam. I don’t like to surrender the shape of the hip for the undetermined line of an A-line. “Modern” would be a term that would capture all of our designs (I hope!). I want our designs to be timeless but forever fresh. You would see this vividly in Mirielle, Felicite, Lyon, Grace and Gabrielle.
The fabrications of your gowns are gorgeous! How do you decide which to use for each bride and/or dress?
You cannot separate the fabric from the design. As I sketch the gowns, I know what the fabric will do when I drape it. When we develop fabrics like the Envers Satin that we did this season, the fabric opens doors to design that wouldn’t exist without the fabric. Think of fabric and design as instruments and music. In music, one hears the sound and knows the instruments to choose. In design, one sees the design and knows the fabric to bring it to life. More often for us in our industry new fabrics are created that expand our instruments and allow us to imagine even greater sounds. It is a constant and wonderful adventure.
What advice do you have for brides beginning their dress hunt?
Decide how you want to feel, how you want the event and day to feel. You are the star in a movie. Consider the whole movie. Don’t set hard rules like “no strapless,” “no lace,” “no full skirts.” How do you know what looks good until you see it on? Consider silhouette, not material, first. Silhouette is not interchangeable; material can be. Look at yourself in total. Don’t focus on particular parts of your look. Your look is the total dress. Don’t go with a lot of people. Go with someone who loves you and knows the you that is getting married.
You’re in your first couple seasons of designing eveningwear. Tell us about that journey. How does that process differ from bridal? What do you love most about it? What are the challenges?
Designing evening is interesting. I work directly with the clients, so designing for them is very personal. The $5,000 to $8,000 eveningwear client is a woman. She knows herself. She is easy for me to get to know and create a vision for her that is visible to others, but maybe nothing she imagined. Brides have an image as a bride, and they have to marry that image to themselves in their everyday life. In evening, drawing the woman out from her everyday life to this luxurious moment is another effort altogether.
Our vision of evening is that of a strong, elegant, self-confident woman. Our design shouldn’t miss any element of her as that. The look should enable her confidence. She should be comfortable in this wonderful dimension of herself. I love the opportunity to give this experience to women. I love to make easy what they imagined hard. I love to have them feel all the attention and service such a purchase deserves. I work for one person at a time. I love giving someone that couture experience at the price of designer ready-to-wear.
If you could design a gown for anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and what do you imagine it would look like?
I get asked this question a lot. I have a vast collection of fantastic women that I know and have known and have seen or learned about. I am too close to it. Since I design each dress for each woman, I work closely with her. What line works best for the curve of her hip? What neckline best shows the lines of the collarbone and her neck and jaw lines? What color and fabric best suit her skin? How do I blend how I see her with how she sees herself?
Each of these women are magnificent in my eyes. Every woman I work with gets my utmost effort and care and all of my imagination. My success is in their feeling and expression. I want them to look at themselves and feel as magnificent as they are to me.
—Katie Joy Blanksma