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All photos by Chris Coe
In Sondra Celli's world, bling is a lifestyle. The bridal designer, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, rose to national fame for her over-the-top gowns on TLC's My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.
A Fashion Institute of Technology graduate—from its first-ever menswear class, no less—Celli honed her craft in New York, Italy, and Hong Kong before returning to her hometown on the Charles River to establish the studio we've come to know through the TLC lens. Her frothy "crystal couture" concoctions have found a niche among US gypsies (as well as a related group, Irish Travellers) but over her decades-long career, Celli has bedazzled everything from Greek Orthodox baptism gowns to Bat Mitzvah dresses—even New England Patriots Cheerleader uniforms.
True to form, Celli was wearing glittering pavé glasses and crystal-adorned sandals when we arrived at her studio. Below, she tells us about how she became famous, what happens to her dresses after the weddings, and the craziest things she's ever blinged.
What drew you to design in general?
My mother [Yolanda Celluci] owned the biggest bridal store here, so when I was a kid, I was always around clothes. She was sort of a pioneer around Boston; people were not dressing like her. Bling wasn't that prominent in the 1960s, it was more beading. Honestly, I was always the simple one. I liked to bling everybody else. I started in the men's division of a company and I kind of got bored because I'm more of an embellisher.
At what point in your career did the gypsies find you?
I went to Italy for awhile and then Hong Kong, doing sweaters and starting to bling them with beading. My stuff was in the department stores. And gypsies got ahold of me. I didn't know what gypsies were. They never told me they were gypsies. Within weeks I had orders going to stores all on the same street in the same town. I called a friend who was older than me and she said I was shipping to gypsies in a trailer park; that's why they were all going to the same address.
She said, "They like you because you're funky and blingy and you should keep them because they'll buy a lot from you." I was in my 20s, working out of my apartment. Finally hired a girl to work with me. Eventually it grew, I started to do mass market. In the middle-end of the 1980s, as the economy started to fall a bit and I was getting bigger, I had an office on 38th Street [in New York] and decided I had to make a decision: go super couture and high end or go mass market. I couldn't do both. I thought people with money will always have money. If the economy falls, it's Walmart or Saks, and I'm sticking with Saks. The gypsies just kept buying from me. No one ever knew. I used to say it was beauty pageant work.
Did you hide that out of fear it would hurt the rest of the business? At what point did you feel comfortable translating their culture to the mainstream?
Of course. Well, when the show approached me I said "Listen, there's a lot of things I know that I'm never going to tell." I'm friendly with them, I've been with them for 33 years; they are the bread-and-butter of my business. They've been unbelievable to me. They're hospitable, if I go down there I'm like a rockstar. I do sell to more Irish than what's shown on TV, but they refuse to go on the show. It cracks me up though because they put everything on Facebook.
Why do you think the gypsies have been so loyal to you?
I have a name with them that is considered top of the top. The girls with the money always save up and dream about having a Sondra Celli. It's not to say that there aren't other dressmakers who knock me off, but gypsies are very status oriented. I also use only Swarovski crystal. If you use Czech stones, they don't sparkle the same way as Austrian crystal and they know that, they can see it.
Is there any other material you'd work with if Swarovski didn't exist?
Originally I worked with beads. I also use a lot of liquid fringe, which is bugle beaded. The dress part of the dress is actually the inexpensive thing; it's the crystals that cost money. Sometimes they want to cut price a bit so we'll make a skirt with liquid fringe and build crystal fringe into it. We do use other beading but it's always combined with Swarovski. The show originally started with an English show. The difference between ours and theirs over there is the use of color. Gypsies in the west love color. We have more fun because we can do hot pink and lime green.
Some cultures set aside a lot of resources for a wedding dress. In spite of living in trailer parks, your customers are clearly investing a lot into these dresses. How do they do that? What do they do when they're done with them?
That's the sad thing. The truth is, the Irish sell to the Romanichals, and the Romanichals sell to the Travellers. Sometimes they move them back and forth. The problem today is Facebook. You don't want to wear a dress everyone has already seen; they call that "rerun" and that's death. They will completely rip the stones off the whole dress and then use them on something else. They'll send a baggy of stones they stole off the dress because they don't want to waste the crystal, because it's massive money.
So they bring those secondhand crystals back to you to design into say, party dresses? How many stones are used on average?
Thousands. It could be 15,000 or 20,000. We just did a boy's suit jacket that had 63,000.
How often do men come in? You don't see that often on the show.
A lot. They'll do it for weddings, but they'll also do it for car parties. When they buy a car, they stand next to it in a rhinestone coat to present their car or truck. That hasn't been on the show because the Irish don't want to do it.
You were thrust into this world of television. Is that a move you ever anticipated?
I was always making my mother's crazy costumes, but staying in the background. The crew Facebooked the gypsies to find the biggest designer here in the US and they gave them my number. The film team thought "Where's Waltham? How can you do business out of here?" And I said "I have so much of it, it doesn't matter where I am."
Have you ever encountered an idea you weren't sure you could tackle? What was the hardest dress to execute?
No. I'll find a way. The one on the show was Annie's, the white one with fur. The reason though was that the film crew had left, and the heat broke. So it was freezing. We were here with heaters and fingerless gloves, sewing lights into the dress. We were shaking and had a deadline that was beyond.
And of course it's an ice queen-looking dress, so funny coincidence there. With these really big dresses, clearly some engineering is required. How did you gain that experience?
None of us know what we're doing. We figure it out as we go. We pow-wow. I'm always in the "couture" department at Home Depot.
Most of your design process seems to be over calls and email.
They know me, they've trusted me for so long. And I sketch and send it to their phone. I still don't get too particular on a sketch, because I don't know what I'll need to change, so I give a rough idea. And I know what they've had, what their sister-in-law had.
Is your non-gypsy business mostly the Boston area or do they always come from everywhere?
We have a bride right now from Connecticut who has a magician come to her wedding and her dress will light up. We've had Irish step dancers come from New York. Pretty much New England mostly. For longer distances, we ship the bodice first, they get it pinned, they send it back, then we bling it.
You've nailed a lot of niche markets.
Communion, christening, Bat Mitzvah, quinceañeras. I get Italians, Greeks, Lebanese—ethnic groups that love bling. You have to learn the customs of each.
Is there any niche you haven't yet entered that you'd love to?
No, we've rhinestoned everything: toilet plungers, paper, pots and pans. A basketball. People ask us to bling everything. I'd love to do a car, even though it's been done. We'd love to do it our way. Your head becomes a library of ideas and you keep adding to it.
If you weren't designing clothing what would you be doing?
Cooking. I cooked all last night, until one in the morning. I made lasagna and sauce. And I make cheesecake all the time. I love it. Then I give it away. If someone emails and says they are visiting the studio from say, London, I always cook fresh food for them.
What has been the biggest surprise of your career to date?
TV. Never thought I would do it. I think the reason they chose me is because I wasn't looking for it. I'm just your average girl from Waltham who built a business and somebody discovered it. I'm not blown away by it, but I think it's cool that it happened. I'd be doing this whether or not I was on TV.
Favorite places for food and shopping in Boston?
You're gonna crack up. My favorite store is Target. The reason is, they are open late and I can buy groceries, batteries, it's a one stop shop. It's hip but it's a good price. I can get everything done in a night and I get late night urges to cook. Food, we try everything. I'm a Groupon queen.
Obviously Target does a lot of fashion collaboration. Have you ever considered doing mass-market collaborations with other designers or retailers?
Yes, that's just starting to happen. But we can't produce.
If you went that direction, how would you avoid diluting the brand or quality?
Well we've already talked to Swarovski and we would use crystal with less facets but still is Swarovski. And I would be very on top of it. But there are ways to do it for less; we do it all the time. We can't be $500, but we can come down a little bit.