A catch-up with Chenca is always a delight. Here, we marvel at her impassioned clarion call to the brides themselves…
Taking over the Ritva Westenius name in 2016, Chenca shares with us her take on the bridal industry from the perspective of a designer boutique in London. Her thoughts are as illuminating and impassioned as they are thought-provoking…
Hi Chenca! What made you move away from supply and focus on the flagship London shop?
My central aim is to keep the label alive in my mother’s name as a legacy to her. Surviving economically and standing alone in London has meant we’ve had to tighten our belts; narrowing our focus and specialising on the shop has been the best way to honour my mother’s life work.
The challenges the bridal industry is now embroiled in, we saw coming ten years ago: cheaper brands that make it harder for stockists to sell, labels being abused with cheaper, lookalike dresses… we knew that moving from a handful of loyal stockists to only supplying Brides of York was the only viable option. This allows me to focus on designing one-of-a-kind, unique dresses that carry the Ritva Westenius name and keep it alive.
Tell us about the bridal scene in the high-end world of London fashion and designers…
We’re honestly up against it. I’m watching all over London as shops are disintegrating. It’s frightening and truly heartbreaking. The independent-boutique’s spirit is being destroyed by sites like WED2B, which has made shopping for bridal akin to bargain-basement hunting. I could honestly cry.
Oh Chenca, no! But before we get too bleak, what do you think the industry can do about the current situation and state of play?
I actually think it’s the public – the brides – that needs re-educating (the industry is pulling out all the stops to get creative and diversify). Did you see Stacey Dooley Investigates… Fashion’s Dirty Secrets? People’s shopping habits need to change and we have to stop buying cheap rubbish.
This has now become an ethical issue that causes real harm to those who are being exploited. In all walks of life, people want instant gratification; in the bridal world, this translates to buying cheap dresses online. I still believe in creating that forever dress. I want the brides to rekindle a passion for owningthat forever dress. My wish is for brides to support beautiful handmade dresses and understand that we’re not trying to rip them off.
Hmm, interesting. We agree that the brides themselves are key (read more food for thought from the brides on page 46). What would you say is the best business philosophy to adopt in the present climate?
I think a healthy dollop of honesty about who you are and what you bring is absolutely key. In many ways, for example, I am the worst saleswoman on the planet. I don’t put the pressure on and say to brides, “you must order this dress now because it takes such-and-such amount of time to make it…”
I can turn dresses around really quickly, so if someone walks in and says they want a dress in three weeks, I say yes I can make your dress. I also believe self-worth and a sense of self is fundamental. Ian Stuart, for example, is one of my greatest friends but there’s no point in trying to emulate his style; it’s just not me and I know that sticking to what you’re good at gives you confidence in your style and brings your label integrity.
Finally, you have to have zero pride and be realistic about your business: I look after the garden, I wash the windows, and I clean the toilets too!
Another woman who multitasks! Chenca, we salute you! We’ve been discussing whether boutiques should list the prices of their dresses on the website (see p 38)…
That would be impossible for us, a designer label. Our dresses are all plain to begin with – it’s akin to a piece of art, and at the outset, the dress is a blank canvas; it’s for the bride to choose her distinctive ‘colour’.
Adding embellishments and hand-beaded additions makes the dress a truly designer dress, made just for the bride. And for this reason, stating in advance the cost of a dress would be unworkable. To my mind, a designer label creates unique dresses – I never copy dresses but create them! This is a matter of integrity and I’ll always stick to my guns on this one!
What’s next for Ritva Westentius?
I’ll continue to think outside the box! My mother’s archives, for example, are truly a treasure trove and form part of my much-cherished inheritance (Ritva has kept every single original sketch and pattern design since her time with the Parisian couture houses in the 1950s). Perhaps I’ll paper an entire wall with these designs and call it my historical wall!
I also think the demographic of brides is changing, centring around age. We are now dressing women of maturing age and these women have different looks in mind. There’s longevity in really simple and classic styles and that’s why the ‘50s-style dress shape has real staying power. We’ll continue to stay abreast of demand and deliver exactly what brides today are looking for.
I’m drawn to your Gatsby dress in the collection (a stunning 1920s-style satin gown), but I’ve read somewhere that you don’t like tulle… is this true?!
Perhaps it’s my previous life as a ballet dancer but really darling, tulle is for tutus! Net is just not a good fabric so that’s why I’ve created a new fabric with my company that mixes tulle with hand-beaded elements for a more textured look. Whatever it’s made of, a wedding dress should be beautifully cut and designed to be as unique as the bride who wears it. It’s simple really: you’re designing for real women and they are your best walking advert.