Your wedding dress is probably the item of clothing you invest in the most, financially and emotionally. However, it is probably also the item of clothing you’ll wear the least — after the big day is over it gets relegated to a beautifully packaged box. It only gets worn again if sold to another bride — “unless you have a daughter who happens to share your aesthetic, and even then two wears in two lifetimes, isn’t great,” muses designer Lee Klabin as we discuss the ethics and sustainability (or lack thereof) in the bridal fashion industry.
Klabin has recently launched her bridal design business following a successful career in couture fashion, which saw her dressing the likes of Kylie Jenner, Lily Cole and Sarah Jessica Parker (one of Klabin’s signature corsets even made a cameo appearance in the Sex and the City film).
So why the move to bridal wear? Petite, with a peroxide blonde pixie-cut topping an expressive face, her hands even more expressive; Klabin explains that she took a break from designing when she had her first child, Louis, now eight because “I don’t know how to do 50 per cent one thing and 50 per cent the other thing”. Beulah, now six, and Maxim (18-months) followed.
“Whoever said women can have it all was a psycho,” she exclaims. “You can have it all, just not at the same time.
“First-time motherhood only happens once, so I indulged in that,” she says, adding “everything happens for a reason.”
It was while she was on this break or extended maternity leave that a school mum friend introduced Klabin to crochet, which has replaced corsets as her signature look.
“I quickly became obsessed”, she says of the knitting technique usually associated with grandmas and blankets.
Corsets no longer fit her fashion vision, which remained sexy and empowering but became more functional and comfortable.
“When you’re a parent you realise what your priorities are. We all want to feel comfortable in ourselves to feel alluring and sexy.”
Another priority was the ethical side of the fashion industry. Both couture and bridal wear are designed to be worn once, which “sucks”.
She had always been aware of the exploitative and damaging practices of her industry but “when you’re busy you think, ‘OK, I’ll change the world next week, when I have time’”.
However, she credits motherhood for making her act. “You realise: ‘what planet am I leaving for my kids?’ I had this urge to instigate change, knowing I’m not the only one.”
This change comes in two forms. First, she designs wedding dresses intended to be worn more than once with hand-crafted and crocheted trains or jackets, which are even more likely to have a longer life independent of the dress itself.
“Until now, I always thought the train was the biggest waste of fabric in the bridal ensemble — but now it’s sentimental. It can become the blanket on your bridal bed, or what your kids wrap themselves up in while watching a film.”
Equally, the bride might not want to wear a jacket while walking down the aisle but might need it while sipping champagne during the reception. These items are “genuinely used and genuinely timeless, which gives you a heart flutter every time you put them on again.”
Klabin is wearing one of her crocheted jackets when we meet, so I get to examine it up close. It is greige and cream with a delicate metallic gold thread running through and fits perfectly in the café setting.
Designed by Klabin and hand-crafted by a team of knitting enthusiasts right here in the UK, I can imagine how wearing this on a regular basis would remind you of the happiest day of your life.
The women who knit Klabin’s pieces are an important part of her vision. She warns me that she’s about to “go on a rant” before talking about the dreadful conditions that foreign factory workers are subjected to.
She also laments that we no longer value craftwork, but rather focus on mass production to allow us to purchase more and more cheaply. But wouldn’t it be so much nicer, she asks, to “be connected to someone, somewhere, all the time” and know that the items we wear were made with love. “I’m trying to reintroduce the idea of a chain, a community.”
“Community” is an important concept for Klabin generally, as someone who has moved a lot. She describes herself as an Israeli designer, and makes a point of making sure that, in any interview or promotional literature, this is made clear but, in reality, she moved to the UK 24 years ago, at the age of 16 and has lived here ever since.
She spent much of her childhood moving around, living variously in Brazil, America and Vienna, but it is Tel Aviv that she thinks of as home, even though she lives in South London.
She takes great comfort in her community of family and friends, and her Jewish community.
“Culturally, I love everything that being Jewish and Israeli means,” and while she isn’t overtly religious and doesn’t belong to a shul, her approach is very Israeli.
“In Israel, Judaism is like a national thing, not something you do quietly on the side like in the UK. I’m incredibly proud of everything we’ve accomplished. We’re a tiny percentage but look at what we’ve done.”
Celebrating her Judaism and the Jewish community stems in part from not always living in countries that were friendly to a foreign Jewish family.
“I remember, when I broke up with my first boyfriend [in Vienna], he drew a black swastika on my wall” she says, still looking shocked at the thought. “But Austria was very different then to now.”
She met her husband Gary, a British barrister, on J Date, and they spend Yom Tovim with his family and go to Israel “at every opportunity” to visit family and friends, and to make sure that her children have a relationship with the country she loves so much.
The business’s logo is four intertwined rings which she describes as representing the four pillars of the Jewish home representing “what is most cherished to us all: who lives in the home rather than what material possessions lie in it. Our family, their health, happiness and everything we wish for them as we grow together”.
When starting Lee Klabin Bridal she realised there were also four principles she wanted for the company, in line with these four pillars — modern design, environmental awareness, a strong social conscience and their charitable cause, Girls not Brides, which supports young girls forced into marriage.
She talks passionately about her insistence that a percentage of every item sold — even from partnering producers — goes to the charity.
“We are painfully aware of how fortunate we are to be born when and where we are, so it’s our responsibility to readdress the balance; our duty [to help] those who haven’t been as fortunate.
Really, child brides are the opposite of what we’re celebrating but fall under the same industry — ‘wedding’.”
She has a team of six beavering away in South London, plus innumerable interns — PR interns, design interns, knitting interns, and one intern dedicated to sourcing new and sustainable fabric for use in the collection. Ultimately she wants to use only small, local suppliers and ethically produced fabrics, but admits that this will be a long road. “From a Jewish perspective, family is the bedrock of everything. We took that foundation and the pieces we make therefore are designed to celebrate and comfort us with reminders of the beautiful vows we took under the chupah.”