It’s been eight years and a ton of rose petals and rice since we last chatted with wedding-dress designer Carol Hannah Whitfield. The Anderson native stitched her way to success in 2009 on Bravo’s Project Runway. She then threaded a new needle, opening her own studio in New York City, where today, she’s celebrating ten years in business. The 35-year-old, who learned to sew at her mother’s knee, is leading a team of 20, as her luxury gown empire expands into Japan, Europe, and Australia. In the midst of preparing to move into offices with larger production space and showrooms in Manhattan’s Garment District, she took a quick moment to catch us up.
Ten years in business. How do you feel? I definitely recognize how fortunate I am to be able to do what I love and to continue so independently. It’s a massive amount of work and keeps you on your toes, but that’s the fun part, too.
How hard is it to stay relevant and fresh in the wedding gown industry? The gift of time is that I have a strong history of sales behind us. I can take more risks without worrying so much about how it will affect the business if it doesn’t do well. There’s a lot of room to play there. I do my own thing and that keeps us relevant because my gowns are different and my aesthetic is clear. I don’t do versions of what’s already out there, and I don’t do lace.
You graduated from Westside High in Anderson, and then College of Charleston. Do you continue to draw upon your South Carolina heritage when designing? Of course. Where I’m from is a big part of who I am and informs my point of view. I’ve always considered it an advantage coming into the industry as an outsider and being able to relate more to my customers than the inner circle of fashion folks.
Does Project Runway seem like a lifetime ago? Yes! It feels like a camp I went to as a kid. I was 23 then and had nothing to lose, so it was a wonderful experience for me. I learned a lot about myself, my limits, my strengths, and weaknesses. For the first few years in business, Project Runway was a huge marketing tool and a nice fast-forward button. It gave me the advantage of having a lot more eyes paying attention at launch.
Did Heidi Klum or Tim Gunn give any advice you continue to use? Tim Gunn is still such a favorite of mine. I remember being frustrated about some situation where I had taken the high road, but later thought I should have said something else. He said you can never be too nice. It was such an encouragement to me . . . it always reminds me that being nice isn’t a weakness and you don’t have to be mean to get the job done. Southern hospitality is still the core of our stellar customer service.
Do you watch the reality shows where the bride looks for the perfect dress? I don’t, actually. It stresses me out! Reality wedding-dress shows highlight the extremes and are not the norm.
What’s your typical day? I live in a fun, vibrant neighborhood on the East River in Brooklyn. I answer emails, edit photos, and pop into Instagram on the subway. I check in at our showroom and production workroom to chat with customers and workers. Then I head to the design office for e-commerce and marketing. I’m still fully hands-on in the design side and do our pattern-making. One creative burst and my schedule goes out the window.
What advice do you have for brides picking out a dress? Go with your gut. Don’t bring more than a couple of friends and family members whose opinions you trust. Don’t concern yourself too much with trends. It’s more about how you feel in a style.