While many of this year’s wedding dress trends draw heavily on Kate Middleton’s elegant and restrained lace-sleeved gown, Sondra Celli caters to a slightly more ornate bride-to-be.
For 30-plus years, the Waltham-based dress designer has been creating highly decorated wedding gowns doused with bling: crystals, rhinestones, and occasionally miniature mirrors. Celli’s gowns are status symbols within Gypsy communities, and her customer base has only grown since the premiere of the TLC series “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” in April.
“We’ve been doing bling designs for years,” said Celli, 54. “The Gypsies love anything that’s celebrity-like.”
Celli’s clientele, while it is mostly word-of-mouth, is far from small. Though she and her in-house staff of 11 are Boston-based, the majority of their gown shipments go to North Augusta, S.C., a town across the river from Augusta, Ga., with a large population of Travelers, Gypsies of Irish or Scottish descent.
Dresses can run, on average, from $8,500 to $20,000, and often weigh close to 80 pounds, depending on the amount of decoration, she says.
Celli first began designing for the Gypsy community when she was living in Manhattan after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1978.
“I had been selling my dresses to Nieman and Saks and a few other high-end retailers, when out of the blue, I was getting a ton of orders from all of these stores on the same street.”
Puzzled, Celli called a client in Chicago, an experienced designer, for answers.
“She goes to me, ‘You’re selling to Gypsies,’ ” she said. “I’ve been working for them ever since.”
Demand for the gowns and accessories has been on the rise since the TLC reality show began to air, drawing an average of 1.6 million viewers a week. The season finale is Sunday.
(The term “Gypsy” refers to anyone who identifies with that community, though their family heritage and history may differ. Some reject the term as a slur, preferring to identify by familial descent. According to the Smithsonian Center for Education, the Rom are generally of Serbian, Russian, or Austrian-Hungarian descent, for example, while Romanichals are of English heritage.)
“The phone does not stop ringing,” said Farrah Derderian, Celli’s assistant and head “rhinestone girl.” “And it’s wedding season, so this is prime time for us.”
Derderian, 25, started working for Celli in 2006 as a college intern and has remained on staff, making dresses, teaching other employees rhinestone-ing techniques, and managing inventory.
“It was my junior year at Lasell, and my friend asked me if I wanted a design job. It was a local designer and it sounded like a great opportunity.”
The store produces more than just wedding gowns.
“We make party dresses, Sweet Sixteen dresses, just about any occasion where a dress might be necessary,” says Celli.
So it’s no surprise that Priscilla Kelly, 14, of Douglasville, Ga., a Romanichal Gypsy, contacted the store in search of a “Queen of Hearts” dress and dancing outfit for her family’s Halloween party.
“Sondra took my idea [for a Queen of Hearts dress] and filled in the blanks,” said Kelly. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen — ever.”
To complement Kelly’s Barbie pink ball gown with a bedazzled heart-shaped bust and ruffled train, Celli and her team also constructed shorts and a fringed bustier, both made entirely of rhinestones, as well as matching go-go boots, covered in 43,000 Swarovski crystals.
The sparkling combo has been Derderian’s favorite project thus far.
“Those outfits were a challenge, but I love that,” she said. “We don’t always get to see customers in the outfits we make, so watching Priscilla try them on was really exciting.”
Kelly said that while “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” does capture some of her community’s traditions, others have been slightly misconstrued.
“Yes, of course I love big dresses and bling, but not everybody does that,” she said. “It’s not something that we’re ‘supposed’ to do as Gypsies.”
Celli will be featured in a spinoff series set to premiere in early fall, designing a variety of dresses for clients from all walks of life.
“I’m a lucky girl,” Celli said. “These people give me freedom to be creative, and combine my vision with theirs, and I wouldn’t change that for anything.”Erica Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.