How one Designer is Shaking up the Bridal Industry with Body Positive Wedding Dresses
20 Mar 2023 •11 min read
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All brides deserve to look and feel beautiful on their wedding day. From your hair and makeup to shoes and accessories, every aspect of your final look plays a significant role in enhancing your beauty. However, nothing outweighs the importance of having a well-fitted, comfortable, and jaw-dropping wedding dress to make you feel like the most beautiful woman in the room on your big day. Unfortunately, the bridal industry continues to fall short in providing future brides with size inclusive wedding dresses to sample or purchase, leaving many women feeling insecure from the fitting room to the aisle. While many bridal designers are catering their designs to the current trends, one designer is taking the road less traveled as she dedicates her craftsmanship to creating a line of body inclusive wedding dresses.
With a core desire to help women celebrate their bodies through fashion, Rebecca Schoneveld, shares her story on becoming a bridal designer in a world and industry that was not yet ready to embrace women of all ages, shapes and sizes.
Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized that you wanted to become a designer?
I was definitely obsessed with pretty dresses since I was still in diapers (in fact, my mom loves to tell the story that I decided to potty train early because they didn't go with my outfits). I started learning to sew from my mom at the age of four, and it continued to be my central hobby throughout life. That came from both passion and necessity because my family did not have money to buy new clothes, even the basics. I remember, around the age of 12, noticing a dressmaker studio in the little downtown of a small city where I studied ballet on scholarship, and it hit me, "Wow can that be a job?? I want that job!"
As an enterprising teen, I sold dresses and skirts to girls in my grade, and my little business was actually fairly successful! The encouragement of my peers honestly was an entrepreneurial "aha" moment where I realized that selling clothes is indeed a viable career. I remember when my friend Kyla– who was definitely a cool girl, and I felt much nerdier than her– told me that her mom was blown away by the quality of the skirt I made her, and she joked, "remember me when you're a famous designer someday!" Those kind words of encouragement really meant quite a lot to me. So much so that I’m still talking about it here at the age of (almost) 40!
Q: How did your pursuit of education at FIT encourage you to continue working towards your goal of becoming a designer? What were some of the “ugly truths” you learned about the garment industry and did they dissuade you from pursuing your dream?
At FIT, I received what I feel was an incredible education. I went from being a home-sewer with a lot of self-taught hacks to really learning the proper techniques for draping, pattern making, tailoring, sketching, and so on. Even though I was only able to afford to complete the two-year program, I felt completely empowered by the degree I earned. I started to learn about the less-magical parts of the fashion industry from entering FIT onward into my early career. It was a very painful reality check – so much so that I contemplated quitting fashion constantly for at least a decade into my career.
This entire industry is built on consumption and the pursuit of a "skinny rich” elitist look. Even the way we were trained to draw in school was all based on hyper-skinny, anatomically impossible figure shapes.
I went to school from 2001 to 2003, so it was during 9/11 and the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was so distraught by the political and humanitarian crises of the day, and yet my fashion world seemed more concerned about fashion shows being disrupted than people being bombed. In my jobs, I found there to be such an absolute lack of heart in the business, especially at that time which was long before the idea of "sustainable fashion" had really grown roots. Everything came down to sales and volume, no matter what the cost to the planet or people. For a deep-thinking and feeling person, I worried that this industry was never going to have room for me.
Q: Tell us about your journey of starting and closing your business and how you survived near bankruptcy.
Ah yes! A little-known fact about me is that I started my first real business around my 23rd birthday. It was an eco-friendly contemporary collection of maternity clothes! I felt really moved at the time to participate in the burgeoning sustainable fashion movement, and I opted to do maternity fits because I wanted to celebrate feminine curves! And I thought that this niche sector had room for improvement. The business actually grew quite quickly and went very well. Within 2 years, the collection got picked up by Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, and about 150 retail accounts. In retrospect, I’m not surprised that my dresses were especially well received. But it was completely boot-strapped, and I never even hired an employee--I just worked 16 hours a day, every day--and I was completely stretched to my max on personal credit in order to fulfill the stores' orders.
Then at the end of 2008, the banking crisis hit, and it was an absolute domino effect of disastrous proportions. The factory I worked with closed up and disappeared, along with about $85k worth of my goods, and about half of my stores refused to pay for the orders I had produced for them. I was so exhausted and heartbroken. I wanted to get swallowed into a black hole and disappear. But instead, I eventually picked myself up out of bed, started researching debt negotiation options, got a low-stress job in my Brooklyn neighborhood, began to heal, and started meditating on what my real dreams might be.
Q: What was the pivotal moment that led to your current success?
I first had the vision for my current business while meditatively walking through my neighborhood during that post-bank-collapse healing period. I could see it in my mind's eye: this dress design studio where clients could touch and feel the way pieces are made, where they could enjoy a bit of the creative process, and come together to celebrate and be celebrated. I decided to actually give my business an honest try in the summer of 2010 when a series of crazy life events happened one after the other: I had one major freelance design project fall apart suddenly, then I lost my job, then my apartment building caught on fire I had to escape through the roof with my cat in a duffel bag, and then two weeks after that, I found out I was pregnant. Surprise! Life is full of the unexpected. It really felt like the universe was shouting at me to stop wrestling so much, let go, and do what I love the most. The one thing that’s been most consistent in my life is my love of making dresses, so I decided to put aside all the other possibilities and hope that I could at least just make a simple living out of it, while being a present parent to my baby boy.
I spent the next few months sewing some samples out of leftover materials from my maternity line. I figured out how to make the best possible photos for no money (which turns out was on a dress form in my bedroom, lit by a window). I hobbled together an Etsy store, and within 12 hours of making my store live, I had made my first sale. In those first few months of selling on Etsy, I gained a lot of confidence that this could be a viable business. But still, I don’t think there was one pivotal moment that led to my current success.
Truly and honestly, my entire career has been built on day-by-day, client-by-client, hard and honest work. I never had a magical moment where I was suddenly “discovered.”
In the spring of 2013, I made the leap to open a small storefront studio in Brooklyn, and at that same time a few really cool bridal boutiques started taking notice of my work and telling each other about me. So that time was very exciting.
Q: Why was it important for you to bring body positivity and inclusivity into a market that has been underserved? What sacrifices and/or risks were involved with following this path in your industry?
My entire motivation as a designer is to share joy with others. I want to help people feel seen, loved, and beautiful! Beautiful clothes can be a tool for healing and lifting people up. Unfortunately, the fact stands that some people have had access to this space for a long time, while a whole population has been left out. One of my best friends growing up has always carried a larger body and watching her pain and suffering in this world has struck close to my heart always. For her to have to shop in a different section of the store, or to have very limited options was such a painful reminder that the world didn’t accept her and didn’t think she deserved to have fun as a young, feminine, beautiful person.
Over the years, I have worked with women of all sizes and have seen how at least 90% of us feel critical of our bodies in some way.
I too have felt quite personally how our culture projects a nearly limitless demand on women to always be thinner, smoother, and richer. I decided that as soon as I could afford it, I’d invest in showcasing my pieces in a size inclusive way. And it has really been full of challenges! We were always able and willing to make dresses in any size. However, it’s super important to actually make samples in larger sizes that women can try and to represent larger people through visual imagery. Has it been more expensive to do this? Yes, absolutely. It's double the sampling costs, patterning costs, photoshoot costs, space to store gowns and so on. That's tough on a small business. But it means standing up for something I believe in and doing my part to take care of a population who has been systemically overlooked by the fashion industry.
Q: How did you develop and hone your own unique sense of style as a designer? Who or what inspired your style?
I have had to learn over the years to trust my instincts when it comes to my own style. I have always liked things that have a good balance of details. I really don’t like things that overwhelm the frame or leave the viewer unsure of what exactly they’re looking at. However, I also don’t personally love hard minimalism. I was a devoted ballet dancer growing up all the way into my 20s and the elegance, discipline, and movement of ballet has deeply influenced my aesthetic. Growing up without money, I spent a lot of time at the thrift stores, way before that was cool. Luckily, I love vintage fashion! I love reading into the cultural narrative that fashion can tell. And I love observing how certain design elements just look good always, no matter how many years go by.
Lastly, I have to credit my mother’s mother (Oma), who was born near San Francisco in 1926. She is one of the chicest women I’ve ever known in real life (still stylish at 96!). She is someone who has always had a collection of belts, shoes, collared shirts, cashmere sweaters, tailored trousers, and incredible jewelry that would rival the closet of a royal. She definitely instilled me with certain principles about what works and what doesn’t work in fashion, and her classic style is something that resonates so personally to me.
Q: Looking back, what would you have done differently as a budding designer? What would you have done differently as a business owner?
Oh gosh, so much. I don't blame my younger self, but if I could start over with the knowledge I have now, I would have spent a LOT more time editing down my design ideas, believed in myself more, and spent a lot more effort on marketing. Maybe finding the right employee or partner who could handle the marketing would have been the best move.
I tend to be a designer who falls in love with my ideas, cannot wait to see them come to life, and then as soon as they do, I want to be on to the next.
I do not love touting myself to the world, but I should have found a trusted partner who could have done that for me. I also had to learn the hard way over the years to have clearly defined job descriptions for my employees, and to be stricter about expectations. Maybe I should have hired a business manager? Not fun stuff!
Q: What was your vision behind your 2023 collection? (What emotions did you want this collection to evoke/what elements of history were incorporated/etc.)
I had to make a decision during Covid whether to close my beloved business, or to take on a load of debt and take one more big shot at my design career. I chose the latter, and I did not want to waste the opportunity by playing it too safe. For maybe the first time, I let my artist side take the lead, and I let myself create pieces that are, for me, more whimsical and dreamier than ever. The result turned out to be something of a storybook vibe, with all sorts of historical elements- puff sleeves from the 1880's (or 1980's? depends on who you ask), corsetry, fluid silky fabric evoking the 1930's, cinched waists and full skirts of the 1950's, hand draped details of the early 2000's and today. The combination of things didn't happen in a conscious way. I just felt a burst of ultra feminine energy and I wanted to let that fly. If we're going to get up, survive and celebrate, I want that to happen in dresses that sweep us away in the dream.
From struggling to make ends meet to building her Brooklyn-based boutique from the ground up, Rebecca Schoneveld’s commitment to creating a line of all inclusive wedding dresses has made her a sought-after designer in the bridal industry. Staying true to her goal, Schoneveld’s offers her bridal collection in a full range from sizes 00-30 with no additional charges for where the measuring tape falls. Her thoughtful and careful considerations are made towards all of her designs in order to ensure that every future bride feels beautiful in their body and their wedding dress.