Designer dresses brides with an eye for timelessness

When bridal designer Victoria McMillan was in high school in Philadelphia, she knew she wanted to be an artist — she just didn’t know she would be drawing wedding gowns.

“I always said I would be an artist,” recalls McMillan, “but after graduation, I realized I really didn’t have the temperament for it. I decided to go into fashion design.”

After graduating from the Nesbitt College of Design at Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1987, McMillan combined her passion for art with her flair for fashion and landed a job as an assistant designer for the well-known bridal designer, Christos.

“I answered an ad in Women’s Wear Daily,” she says. “I didn’t really think I’d like designing wedding gowns, but I thought I’d give it a try. The design of a bridal dress is the design of a dress, right?”

McMillan was so impressed with Christos that after a short stint as a designer at a sportswear company, she returned to designing bridal dresses.

And yes, of course she designed her own wedding gown — and those of many of her friends.

“My dress was a very tailored sheath with a portrait neckline and detachable train,” she says. “If I had to do it all over again, I would definitely have a much fuller dress — more of a princess style.”

Today, as a designer, McMillan’s goal is to give the women who buy her gowns timeless mementos of their weddings. “You should be able to look at your bridal pictures 20 years from now and still love your dress,” she says. “It should not look dated. It should only enhance the beauty of the bride.”

In 1991, with her husband, Daniel, she set up a design studio in Babylon, N.Y., and named her own bridal company Alvina Valenta, using her German grandmother’s first and middle name. In 1995, McMillan received the Small Business Administration’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Two years later, the McMillans sold their company to JLM Couture, a large bridal company. Now Victoria serves as the company’s head designer and vice president.

The Alvina Valenta Couture collection continues to appeal to discriminating brides who want classic, understated elegance. Her designs stand out in glossy bridal magazine spreads because of their stylish tailored luxury.

“I try to make my dresses very sophisticated, but not overwhelming,” she says. “I really pay attention to detail and want the focus to be on the bride, not the dress.”

While McMillan says she tries to avoid “themes and trends,” she still concentrates on adding freshness to her tailored designs that have a definite retro-glamour look to them. Her signature embroidery is delicate and light, affording elegant touches to the simplest silhouettes in her favorite silk satins, silk shantung and satin organza. She has just lately introduced a heavier silk Mikado fabric into her spring collection.

And the details? Well, they’re subtle, too. “I adore bows,” admits the 38-year-old designer, “but they really have to be just right — tailored just so, so as not to look too juvenile.”

A few “showpieces” in pastel shades of icy blue, rum pink and silver are featured in each collection, but McMillan likes to stick to the classic off-whites.

“We do have white gowns,” she says, “but most women can’t really wear stark white.” McMillan instead steers her brides-to-be toward “eggshell, oyster and vanilla” shades, which tend to be more flattering. Her gowns can easily change intensity of color with a change of lining.

“Most blondes look better in an oyster or eggshell gown,” she says, “while some darker brunettes look great in white because of the contrast.”

The most flattering shape in a bridal gown?

“It’s got to be an A-line or princess style,” she says. “Most brides look better in a gown with a slightly dropped waist, rather than a natural waist. It just makes them look taller.”

And while strapless bridal gowns have been all the rage the past few years, as with everything else in fashion, it’s time to move on, McMillan says.