Designer finds a ready-made Casablanca in the Garde Arts Center
New York City fashion designer Matthew Christopher had a vision for showing off his latest line of bridal gowns: old Hollywood glamour; Casablanca; Humphrey Bogart.
But instead of creating fake backdrops and tracking down old furniture, he found the Garde Arts Center in New London, with its murals of exotic locales and geometric latticework - a set all by itself.
"It's awesome," Christopher says, dressed in a suit and ascot as if he just stepped out of a black-and-white movie himself.
"This place pulls it off completely," said Brent Kuenning, artistic director and Christopher's boyfriend. "It takes you back in time."
Kuenning had known about the Garde through friends in the area whom he visits for Sailfest, and decided it would be perfect for the shoot. Christopher also works with a bridal salon in Branford, Bridal Trousseau, so the location was convenient.
Christopher, whose gowns have been featured in The Knot, Modern Bride and Martha Stewart Weddings, among others, is known for appearing in his ads, whether it's in a football uniform or an orange flight suit.
"People are always wondering what's next," he says. "It's fresh, unique, eye-catching. It makes you stop on the page."
A model sits in one the Garde's velvet seats, the white Christopher dress she's wearing cascading to the floor. The waist is cinched with a black sash and her dramatic updo framed by a huge black hat. Christopher sits behind her, with a black mustache painted on his face, holding a box of popcorn and practicing a look of intrigue at the bride.
"I don't want it to look to kitschy, OK?" he says.
Photographer Jacklyn Greenberg, of New Haven, coaches them: "Sexy, not sinister," as everyone laughs. Then to the model: "I love the dreamy look. Go dreamy. I love the doe-y eyes."
Christopher grew up in the "middle of nowhere," as he puts it, in Iowa, but he discovered wedding dresses when he was a kid, looking at Modern Bride on a magazine rack. He moved to New York after college, landing an internship at Demetrios Bridal and continued to move up until creating his own label at age 26.
His gowns are "classic and contemporary with a modern twist, with architectural details that are both feminine and organic," he says. "Soft and elegant, with beautiful tulles and lace."
One of his wedding dresses appeared in the movie "You Again," and Kristin Chenoweth, who was in the movie, wore another (non-bridal) Christopher dress on the red carpet at the Creative Art Emmy Awards.
"A lot of bridal gowns transform into a couture gown," Christopher says. A bridal gown is "not like it was in the '80s. It's a different animal now.
"I think I love it because you're really part of the day, people falling in love and committing to one another," he says, adding with a laugh: "You know how hard it is to date."
Even though a wedding dress will only be worn once, Christopher says finding a beautifully designed dress is worth it.
"It's the one day you get to be princess Diana or a queen... that one gown that you'll look at in pictures for the rest of your life. You can't sacrifice quality," he says, then jokes: "If you get a (crappy) dress, that's your own fault."
He knows the exploding bridal industry that's helped his success has also contributed to the "bridezilla" phenomenon. Christopher sometimes encounters them when he makes personal appearances at his trunk shows.
"Most are pretty good," he says. "Some girls have 'tudes, but you learn how to adapt. My selling point is that I'm very personal, hands on. It's like having your big gay best friend help you pick out your wedding gown. Like George from 'My Best Friend's Wedding.' "
The Garde could benefit from the shoot, says executive director Steve Sigel. He hopes the shoot will increase awareness of the theater and may spur more weddings to be held there.
"The architectural space in and of itself is an experience," he says. "There's no hotel that looks like this. The decor, no one could afford to replicate it."
Christopher and Lisa Liscio, of Bridal Trousseau, hope to work with the Garde to host a bridal event that would support the community, including auctioning off a Christopher dress and donating the proceeds to a worthy cause.