It took six months and hundreds of hours of work cutting, pinning and sewing lace and silk to create the finished dress for Melissa Palfrey's wedding at Houmas House. Photo by Emily Fuselier.

Love and lace: A local fashion designer brings to life her own custom gown

Melissa Palfrey wasn’t even in her teens when her fascination with wedding dresses began. She spent hours flipping through bridal magazines and sketching out her own ideas inspired by the styles she saw inside. And though she could hardly imagine it then, her childhood dreams came to life last April when she walked down the aisle at Houmas House Plantation wearing a gown of her own design.

Photo by Emily Fuselier.

Palfrey’s pursuit of a career in fashion led her to the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design after she graduated from St. Thomas More Catholic High School in Lafayette. “To say that their program was a challenge is an understatement,” she attests. “I did not have a history of sewing and patternmaking, and I am very fortunate those courses were provided in our curriculum. Having an idea and being able to sketch it out is one thing; it is entirely another to transform it into a wearable design.”

Palfrey’s original sketch

After graduating from SCAD in 2009, Palfrey returned to Louisiana and accepted a position as a designer at Sky Blue Clothing Studio, a small Lafayette boutique that focused on reconstructing vintage garments. “My time there really sharpened my sewing and construction skills,” she says. “It is amazing what you can learn by taking apart clothes.”

After the shop closed in 2014, Palfrey moved to Baton Rouge, where she now designs commissioned garments for clients while also working in fashion retail. She has also customized wedding dresses for brides—changing details and adding elements like lace-covered sleeves to purchased gowns. The process of hand-embroidering lace into illusion netting for those sleeves would become a spark of inspiration for Palfrey’s own wedding dress when her longtime boyfriend, Joshua Newville, proposed.

“The general idea for my wedding gown had been tucked back in my mind for at least a decade prior to our engagement,” Palfrey says. “I knew that I wanted my dress to have romantic lace details, a slim bodice and a flowing train. I also loved the idea of a sleeve detail that left my shoulders exposed.”

Once she finalized the sketch for her own gown, Palfrey visited Promenade Fine Fabrics in New Orleans to procure the perfect combination of fabrics—beaded lace, French Chantilly lace and four-ply silk. She created pattern pieces for the dress’s many elements, including a corset, skirt lining, bodice and sleeves.

Before construction began, she teamed up with local seamstress and patternmaker Carol Keto—“who has countless years of experience altering wedding gowns,” Palfrey says—to work on translating the dress to three dimensions. It was a meticulous, multi-layered process that took a total of six months, even with both women working. “I didn’t catalog my time, but my estimate is that I spent at least 400 hours working on my dress,” Palfrey says. “By working together, we were able to share our knowledge and skills with one another, which was extremely rewarding.”

By the time of Palfrey and Newville’s wedding day on April 13, 2019, she couldn’t wait to show her loved ones what she had labored on for so long. “My husband’s reaction, along with my family and friends, made the creation of my gown even more memorable,” she says. “While my friends reacted with ‘I can’t believe you made this!’ my husband reacted with ‘I knew you could do it! It’s incredible.’”

With her wedding day now behind her, Palfrey reflects on all she gained from the lengthy dress design and construction process—so much more than a single garment, no matter how special. “I’ve gained a close friend and mentor through the process, as well as achieved greater faith in my design and sewing abilities,” she reflects. “And by designing my own dress, I fulfilled one of my lifelong goals and now have it as an heirloom to pass on.”