After visiting dozens of wedding retailers and trying on dozens of wedding dresses, Stephanie Mwiti knew for sure that finding a ready-to-wear bridal gown, given her tall and curvy body shape was not going to be possible.
“I wanted to look and feel special on my wedding day. Squeezing myself into a dress that I didn’t like or would be over my budget wasn’t an option,” says the 30-year-old.
On that memorable day, she wore a self-designed, custom-made fitting dress with a fishtail design. That was in December 2019. The ivory-coloured dress was made from a mix of fabrics – satin, patterned lace, and a three-tiered tulle bottom.
Arnold Muriithi was the bridal designer who moved the gown from sketch to reality.
“I chose ivory over white because it best complemented my skin,” she says, adding that the dress which cost her Sh45,000 was well received.
“Most people were shocked at how inexpensive it was looking at how elaborate the design was. They wouldn’t believe it was made in Kenya by a Kenyan designer. I was very happy. It was a job well done.”
Ms Mwiti is one of the many brides Mr Muriithi has worked with since opening a bridal design outfit – Anthony Muriithi - with his UK-based co-founder, Nash Stuart in 2017. The company specialises in everything bridal – gowns, bridesmaids’ dresses, and accessories.
“The bride of today is not shy. She’s edgy and non-conforming to traditions and societal expectations,” says the 30-year-old designer who holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fashion Design from Kenyatta University.
“They aren’t afraid to break rules for their big day because it is their big day.”
Scrolling through African Fabric and Designs Kenya's Instagram page feels like walking through an art gallery, only that the art is on people’s bodies. The wedding dresses Kate Mayeye-Okaranime and her team design are pieces dripping with personality, finesse, and flair that add drama to the modern bride’s matrimonial outfit.
The appointment-only fabrics store offers “uniqueness so that the bride can show up and show out.” The bespoke works of fabrics feature exquisite marriages of different types of fabrics, feather-trimmed designs, intricate detailing that draws inspiration from the natural environment such as 3D flowers, crystal embellishments, stones and beads of various kinds, life-size bows, and bold mixes of colour.
“I describe our style as extra, exquisite and detailed. The bride that walks in through our doors and walks out dressed in our creations isn’t afraid of pushing boundaries,” explains Ms Mayeye, founder of African Fabric and Designs Kenya. Her clients come from all over the world.
The 35-year-old who has been working with fabrics since childhood adds that she does not sell elegance, something today’s bride seeks.
“Elegance is who you are. It comes from within you, and the modern bride is understanding this.”
The company mainly caters to clients who are doing traditional African weddings and want a gown that is extra or custom-made with or without an African touch.
“The demand for locally-made bridal gowns is growing, fired up by affordability and availability of great designers who deliver on quality and craftsmanship. Furthermore, Kenyans are still very much touch-and-feel people. Being part of the process of making their dream gown is something they’re willing to pay for because results are guaranteed,” she adds.
And the dream dresses are becoming anything but forgettable.
One of her recent creations is a luxury trumpet dress made from hand-beaded panel fabric with an intricately crafted pattern using rhinestones and glass beads complete with beaded fringe sleeves. The other is a satin bridal dress decorated with pearls, 3D flowers, tulle, and beaded lace.
“The love for finer things in life is encouraging people to be bolder,” the passionate fabric designer says.
A jaw-dropping, designed extraordinaire dress from them will cost at least Sh65,000.
Some dresses have embellishments that add weight to the dress but brides see it as weighted beauty.
Social media has been a major driver of this change as it has expanded the clients’ worldview. Additionally, African fabrics and colour are increasingly being embraced and accepted as beautiful. It is now fashionable to wear African print in a modernised look.
There are also new trends that are winds beneath the change in the course of bridal fashion.
“More brides are open to dyed fabric and seeking use of alternative materials, colours and styles,” Mr Muriithi says during an interview at his boutique in Rosslyn Riviera Mall, Nairobi.
His latest designs incorporate cotton and linen as brides seek comfort. Some of his clients, mostly aged between 20 and late 30s, are also abandoning the idea and aspects of the traditional wedding dress altogether.
“I’ve dressed brides in crop tops, jumpsuits, palazzo pants, and short wedding dresses. I’ve also designed coloured wedding dresses: a baby pink and a dyed baby yellow and red in an ombre finish,” he shares.
“I once had a bride who wanted to wear black. She changed her mind just because the church refused to marry her.”
Bridal fashion is also being influenced by the changes in the marriage institution. “Remarrying brides or those in a polygamous union are requesting for non-confirming wear,” he reveals. The price point for a custom dress from Anthony Muriithi house begins at Sh45,000 and takes a month to deliver.
Custom-made dresses offer timelessness, functionality and versatility which today’s brides prize. Thus, the one-wear-only type of fashion is losing its luster as brides seek out dresses that stretch beyond the wedding day.
They’re designing with the future in mind. Bridal wear that will be perfect for date night, a special dinner dress, or can be incorporated into everyday clothing long after the ‘I do”.
“Wedding dresses come with a lot of emotions. It's most girls’ dream dress. I expect to see more changes in cut, colour, and cloth as brides become more expressive,” Mr Muriithi says.