Timeless, modern and ahead of its time—these are some of the words to describe Amsale Abbera’s classic wedding gowns. The late designer made a huge mark on the bridal industry before she passed, and her legacy continues to live on today.
Those who worked with her had nothing but praise for her creativity and passion. Here’s a look at how Aberra’s company came to be and how it continues to thrive.
How It All Began
Amsale Aberra was born in Ethiopia on March 1, 1954. As a young girl, she loved fashion but never considered becoming a designer. Ethiopia didn’t have fashion designers so she didn’t know you could design beautiful clothes as a profession.
When it was time to go off to college, Amsale convinced her parents to let her study commercial art in New England.
A revolution broke out in Ethiopia while she was in America, so she was forced to stay and support herself. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts and found a number of odd jobs to make ends meet.
Aberra admitted that she was designing and sewing her own clothes because she couldn’t afford to buy new things. When she thought of becoming a fashion designer, she left Boston and enrolled in New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
After graduation, she started her career as a design assistant for Harve Bernard.
In 1985, Aberra was about to walk down the aisle to marry film executive Neil Brown and struggled to find a simple yet sophisticated gown. So, she designed her own dress and came up with a gorgeous dress featuring a sheer illusion neckline with long sleeves and thick lace detail on the neck and wrists.
Hoping to make some extra money, Aberra placed an ad in the paper for custom-made gowns for brides-to-be who shared her taste in refined, understated designs. She received a few responses and started her business right out of her New York City loft apartment.
It wasn’t until 1991 when she sold her first collection to Kleinfeld—a line of classic dresses with a modern twist.
“She really was a trendsetter in the business,” Mara Urshel, co-owner of Kleinfeld, said. “She was the first one who really introduced very classic lines, beautiful clothes and getting away from all the old traditions of lace, beads, and everything that really wasn’t modern anymore. She really created the modern wedding dress.”
Since then, Aberra has been welcomed back to Kleinfeld every season and for exclusive trunk shows.
The Empire Today
Today, Aberra’s company owns multiple labels including four bridal collections, evening and special occasion gowns, accessories and more. Her namesake collection, Amsale Bridal, is iconic with its modern designs highlighted by signature couture techniques.
Her Nouvelle Amsale collection features effortlessly bold gowns for the fashion-forward bride and starts at just $1,800. Aberra also launched a customized gown feature on her website where you can build-your-own wedding dress through the library of silhouettes, styles and fabrics.
The company’s flagship boutique, first opened in 1997, is located on Madison Avenue. The store has been renovated over the years and now features 5-thousand square feet of urban, gallery-like space that provides a sleek backdrop for Aberra’s elegant designs.
Her designs can also be found nationwide in a number of boutiques and specialty retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. Not only was Aberra a success in the wedding world, but in her personal world as well.
She was featured twice in Ebony magazine’s “Power 150” list of the most influential African Americans. She also received a legacy award at the 2012 Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit.
In 2018, the most devastating news hit the Aberra household when Amsale passed away from uterine cancer. She was surrounded by her family including her husband and business partner Neil Brown along with their daughter Rachel. Her father and half-sister were also there by her side in the end. Brown released a statement following her death:
“Working side by side we spent 360 degrees of our life together, and I know only too well both her creative genius and her infinite goodness. Words cannot express the personal loss that we feel, but we are comforted by the avalanche of support we’ve received and the commitment of our team to carry on Amsale’s legacy.”
In lieu of flowers, the family asked for contributions to be made to organizations that were near to Aberra’s heart—the Fashion Institute of Technology where she was a trustee and the Ethiopian Children’s Fund where she served on the international advisory board.
Since Aberra knew she was battling cancer, she had made a few arrangements before her passing. She brought on Margo Lafontaine in January 2018 as the new design director. Lafontaine was previously working as senior studio director at Vera Wang and worked alongside Aberra for two months before taking maternity leave.
She returned the summer after Aberra passed and began to oversee both the ready-to-wear and bridal collections.
Following Aberra’s other wish, Brown and Lafontaine decided to move forward with the Spring 2019 Bridal Collection runway show just twelve days after Aberra’s passing. Dozens of fashion insiders gathered atop the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City to see the collection reveal and tribute video for the late bridal designer.
After a moment of silence, the final model came down the catwalk in Aberra’s very first design from 1990—a floor-length duchess satin column gown with a sheer illusion neckline and long silk gloves. The back of the dramatic dress featured a pleated train and hand-rolled satin rosettes. There wasn’t a dry eye on the terrace at the end of the show.
Although Aberra is no longer at the helm of the company, her creative spirit still lives in the bridal collections today. The Fall 2021 bridal collection evokes beauty in simplicity, just as Aberra would’ve wanted. We love the dramatic embellishments and hand-painted details.
True to Aberra’s signature style, the illusion neckline plays a fun role in the ballgown above but the sexy silhouettes of the last two gowns bring the wow factor. We’re also crazy about the floral applique on the billowy sleeves of the open-back satin dress.
The Amsale evening collection features just as many sleek and romantic designs as the bridal collection. We are absolutely crazy about the black hi-low hem trapeze dress. The off-the-shoulder band just adds to the dress. Not pictured: the fabulous back bow!
Sequins are stealing the show in the fluid satin gown and the v-neck crepe gown. We can totally see these two styles used as bridesmaid dresses in pretty fall wedding colors. For a dramatic, formal look we’re swooning for the satin off-the-shoulder draped bodice gown.
One of the best places to look for wedding inspiration is through the big (& little) screen. Aberra’s designs have been featured in so many movies and TV shows that it was hard to narrow down our faves. The dress that Katherine Heigl wears when she finally walks down the aisle in 27 Dresses was amazing and classic.
The simple v-neck column gown looked stunning on the actress and you could tell she was happy to finally be a bride. Grey’s Anatomy featured two beautiful brides in season seven of the hospital drama. The two gowns were very different yet totally complemented each other.
Our final on-screen bride is one of our favorite brides—Julia Roberts. We couldn’t choose just one dress from Runaway Bride so we chose two! Roberts looks stunning playing Maggie Carpenter and her satin-lace gown from the 1999 film is so sweet.
But her final dress when she marries Richard Gere, aka Ike Graham, is too dreamy not to include. We love everything about the ballgown from the romantic off-the-shoulder and scallop-edged sweetheart neckline to the intricate lace detailing. It’s so pretty and iconic!
Real-life celebrity brides can’t get enough of Aberra’s designs and many have chosen the designer for their own big day. Ayesha Curry chose a beautiful strapless gown by Amsale for her July 2011 wedding to basketball player Steph Curry. She definitely looked like a princess in a simple yet elegant gown.
Hilaria Baldwin chose a gorgeous sparkly number by Amsale for her vow renewal with husband Alec Baldwin. The couple had an intimate ceremony surrounded by family and close friends in the Hamptons in July 2017.
Jessica Alba walked down the aisle in a gorgeous blue one-shouldered Amsale gown, but not as a bride—as a bridesmaid! We love how happy she looks with her arm candy slash hubby Cash Warren.
As you can see, Aberra left an incredible mark on the wedding world while she was alive, and her company continues to spread joy to brides today. For any brides in the midst of wedding planning, take this advice from Aberra herself:
“Always keep your focus and be true to what will make this day most special for you and your groom. There is no ‘perfect’ wedding, only a wedding that can be ‘perfect’ for you.”