Madeline Gardner first sold her own prom dress designs during her junior year of high school. After graduating from FIT at 19 years old, she found herself designing prom dresses again at her first real job. Today, she’s still designing prom dresses—along with bridesmaids dresses, mother of the bride dresses, and, most importantly, a stunning and expansive collection of bridal gowns—as the designer and creative director of Morilee. Gardner joined Morilee on a three-week trial basis in 1985 and has been the creative force behind the brand ever since.
“For me, it’s been a beautiful journey,” Gardner shares with Brides. “I feel like I still learn something new every single day because this industry has evolved in an incredible way. When I started at Morilee, we made 12 wedding dresses and six bridesmaid dresses. Things shifted in the ‘90s, when people from different countries started showing in New York and we started manufacturing overseas. Then, the line just grew and grew.”
“Now, we do pretty much everything from eighth grade dance straight through the grandmother of the bride and everything in between. I really hope that it just continues. I want to see Morilee's legacy just keep going,” notes the designer. “We're going to be 70 years old next year, which is incredible.”
While Gardner first went into fashion wanting to design for movies like the iconic designer Edith Head—“I love doing big ball gowns, beading, and all the glamour,” she explains—designing wedding dresses fell into her lap when she learned about an opportunity at Morilee. “I always say when the door opens, you have to go through it and don't be afraid to do so. You just don't know where it's going.”
“When I joined, the designer Jan had been here for 16 years,” remembers Gardner of her mentor. “He was incredible. He sat with me every day until he became too ill. We used to do it all by hand and he would tweak things with me. If I was making a pattern, he would say, ‘I think that's going to work better this way.’ He also taught me about everyone's personality in the company. It was all family at the time. He said to me, 'You know what, I think you can do this.’ He really gave me the confidence to try and to work through whatever challenges I faced.”
Designing wedding dresses has become a great love for Gardner, who now creates stunning gowns for brides all over the world. “This is probably the most important dress anyone's ever going to purchase in their life," she says. “Nobody forgets that dress ever. We are part of a really special moment in people's lives. That moment and that history really ties into the Morilee story. I feel really blessed to be part of that.”
So, what does the daily routine for a wedding dress designer look like? “Every day is different, which I love. I don't like anything to stay the same,” says Gardner. “I usually come in early. I try to get through my emails, because we correspond with our overseas factories that we own. I like to get that done and behind me. Then, it's either working with my design team or working with the sales team for line reviews. Or, I'll just come in, close the door, bury myself into research, and sketch. There are lots of times I will stay in my pajamas at home and just work all day in my bedroom sketching. It’s my favorite.”
The designer finds inspiration for these gowns on the red carpet, the runway, ready-to-wear stores, and social media. "There's influence coming from around the world and I try to inject that into each one of my designs to keep them really current," Gardner explains. "My brides speak to me all the time at trunk shows or through DMs. They’ll say, ‘I love this dress, but could you do something like that off-the-shoulder because that would be perfect for me.’ Then I'll sketch something up and it usually ends up being a great idea. I try to keep to our collection, but then present something that's a little bit unexpected."
So, how does a wedding dress designer create a new gown? "I usually start with either a lace or a fabric. I start sketching and see where it takes me," Gardner shares. "Then, we go to the pattern. From the pattern, it’s the placement. Placement of the lace, which really contours the body, and creating neckline and sleeves—all these things take a lot of time. Then, we bead it or print on lace or tulle. Then, the dress is made. We review these hundreds of dresses and make the selection for our collection."
Those that made the cut for Morilee's latest line have the designer extremely excited. "This one came together in such a way that everything just fell into place. It has such diversity of shape fabrications, unique embroideries, and laces. I've shown it to a few of my top retailers already and they got so excited. I felt so good because there's always that nervous factor of ‘Did I make the right dresses?’ They love that everything was really new. That's what's changed in the industry. Whereas when I started, it was a common thread from all the manufacturers, now they want new and different from each one of us. They want a signature collection. They want their brides to say this is Morilee and you can see that it's Morilee."
So, what's ahead for Gardner and Morilee as it's about to enter its 70th year in business? "The legacy of the company is going forward because we have such a great team of people that’s so dedicated and so enthusiastic about continuing to grow. I have a lot to give, and I want to keep going. It's in my blood, and I live and breathe it every day."