In the days leading up to her spring 2017 runway show at Bridal Fashion Week in New York, Canada’s Rita Vinieris is busy putting the final touches on her latest collection of luxury wedding dresses.
A petite woman, she flits about her 10,000-square-foot atelier in Toronto’s Greek Town, pinning folds and approving the hand-beading assistants are sewing into a strapless number with a fishtail silhouette.
Other dresses are already finished and wrapped for shipping to New York where they will be presented before an international audience of buyers and fashion editors tomorrow.
“We’re almost there,” says a harried Ms. Vinieris, breathlessly flashing a smile.
Others might say she’s already arrived.
In the 20 years since launching Rivini, her luxury made-in-Canada bridal brand, Ms. Vinieris has emerged as an internationally celebrated designer in the niche, but highly lucrative, $3-billion global wedding dress industry, according to a 2014 estimate by market research company IBISWorld.
As a girl growing up on Chester Ave., steps away from the subway, Ms. Vinieris excelled at math and science. Her earliest ambition was to become an aerospace engineer and, failing that, an architect. (Rivini)
“I spotted Rivini one of the first seasons the line was shown at the New York couture market, and I immediately recognized Rita as a very talented and creative designer,” says Lori Allen, an American television personality and bridal boutique owner in Atlanta, Ga.
“In a short amount of time, she has carved a name for herself as one of the top designers in the industry who continues to present unique and exquisite gowns each season.”
Besides specialty boutiques such as Ms. Allen’s Bridals by Lori, Ms. Vinieris’s couture wedding gowns are sold internationally by such prominent retailers as Neiman Marcus in the United States, Novarese and Matsuo in Japan, Heritique and Beyond The Dress in South Korea, L’Atelier Blanc in Lebanon and Kleinfeld in New York and Toronto.
Prices range from $4,500 (U.S.) to $12,000, depending on fabrics and finishes used. Demand is high.
Sales of Rivini amounted to $5-million in 2015 and are projected to grow this year by 15 per cent, according to Ms. Vinieris’s husband and business manager, Tony Giancola.
“Now a household brand in North America, Rivini is looking to further increase brand awareness across the water and is looking to grow the European market with an eye on Ireland, France, London and Italy,” says Mr. Giancola from behind a computer in a downstairs office.
His desk is strewn with papers on top of which lies a bolt of ivory-coloured lace, and his walls are papered with spreadsheets on sales of Rivini as well as Alyne Bridal, a lesser-priced line with gowns in the $1,500 to $3,500 range. The word Alyne is an amalgamation of the couple’s two grown daughters’ names.
“Alyne does very well for us,” pipes in Ms. Vinieris, who will show 20 new looks from the collection in New York as a static presentation apart from her Rivini runway show. “People like the simple sophistication of the brand.”
Besides Alyne and Rivini, Ms. Vinieris oversees an evening and cocktail dress collection focused on the celebrity.
Started in 2014, the brand is coveted by the likes of Kelly Osbourne, who last year wore a black lace and satin Rita Vinieris dress with a high-low hemline to the 2015 Oscars award ceremony.
Earlier this year, Being Mary Jane actress Gabrielle Union wore a sheer Rita Vinieris tulle and lace gown with plunging neckline to the 47th annual NAACP Image Awards held in Los Angeles in February.
Hollywood is a long way from the Danforth, the stretch of Toronto where Ms. Vinieris, a first-generation Canadian, grew up as the daughter of Greek immigrants.
Her father, a native of the Peloponnese, fixed houses for a living while her mother, from the island of Corfu, worked as a seamstress. Ms. Vinieris credits both for instilling in her a healthy respect for manual labour. Yet, their influence wasn’t immediately apparent.
As a girl growing up on Chester Ave., steps away from the subway, Ms. Vinieris excelled at math and science. Her earliest ambition was to become an aerospace engineer and, failing that, an architect.
“I still collect architectural magazines,” she says.
The evidence is in her upstairs office where they sit, piled high, next to a mood board on which is an image of a curvy Zaha Hadid-esque abstract building in addition to photographs of sleek cars and windswept landscapes – all inspiration for her designs.
Ms. Vinieris describes her couture wedding gowns as ‘structured forms for the body that give support to dreams.’ (Dan Lecca/Rivini)
Continues Ms. Vinieris, “I am inspired by lines, volume and three-dimensional shapes. I see my dresses as structured forms for the body that give support to dreams.”
Her own dream was awakened in the late 1980s when by sheer coincidence several of her girlfriends were getting married at around the same time.
Several complained to Ms. Vinieris how difficult it was to find a sexy bias-cut wedding dress at a time when puffy fairytale skirts – leftover from the Princess Di years – ruled the racks.
Ms. Vinieris, who had inherited some of her mother’s sewing skills, believed she could give them what they wanted and set out to make a dress she and her friends would want to wear.
She designed and cut a pattern for a Jean Harlow-style wedding dress on the floor of her one-bedroom apartment and immediately was hooked. “Life is short,” she says. “Better to do something you love.”
Leaving the University of Toronto where she had been pursuing a degree in economics, Ms. Vinieris followed her passion and enrolled in the fashion program offered by the International Academy of Design.
After graduation, she gained 10 years’ experience working in the trade doing sportswear, furs, cocktail dresses and menswear. With that well-rounded background, Ms. Vinieris launched Rivini in 1995, at age 31.
“I saw bridal as a niche in the fashion industry that was underdeveloped,” she says. “I thought I could contribute something.”
It didn’t take long for the bridal industry to notice.
In 2002, Ms. Vinieris won the New Designer of the Year Award, and in 2006 and 2007 (two years in a row) Best Ad Campaign of the Year at the Couture Design Awards in Las Vegas.
Ms. Vinieris operated Rivini as a couturier until launching the wholesale side of her business in 1999. But success wasn’t a given.
While today she oversees a staff of 24 that counts trained cutters, sewers and beaders among the ranks, at the beginning Ms. Vinieris was a one-woman operation who took her wares on the road to sell.
“I always knew that to make it in Canada I had to make it in New York first,” Ms. Vinieris says. “I concentrated my energies on developing an international clientele first.”
To help her, Mr. Giancola quit his job as a financial planner. “I worked as her sales rep, her shipper, her trunk show co-ordinator, her financial adviser,” he says.
The Rivini showroom in Toronto, where Ms. Vinieris works with trained cutters, sewers and beaders. (Deirdre Kelly/The Globe and Mail)
“I set up the booths at the trade show in New York and for two years people walked right by us and then in 2001 it all changed, and because of a fishbowl.”
Working within a tight (read non-existent) budget, Ms. Vinieris had thought of a cheap but visually arresting way to redirect traffic to her booth.
She asked a union labourer for the loan of his ladder and then sent her husband out to buy shimmer organza while she went out to get fishbowls, blue stones and goldfish.
Back at the booth, she put the bowls on the steps of the opened ladder and draped the display with fabric. Within minutes a buyer from California walked in and placed an order for nine units. She then went around the showroom and told all her buyer friends to go to the booth with the fish bowls. They did, “and from zero we suddenly had sales that went through the roof,” Mr. Giancola says.
Ms. Vinieris was so overwhelmed she went into the ladies room that day and cried. Re-emerging about half an hour later, she was a newly confident designer who knew she was going to make it. “It was a turning point.”
Since then, Ms. Vinieris has produced thousands of dresses and amassed many fans along the way. “We’ve gone through 60 kilometres of material in the last 15 years,” Mr. Giancola says, confirming the figures on his computer.
Some of that fabric has gone into making Dari, a strapless multitiered silk gown covered in French Alençon lace. First released in 2010, the style remains a perennial best seller. Priced at $7,300, it has sold a thousand units to date.
The allure isn’t hard to understand, says Chelsy Meiss, a soloist with the National Ballet of Canada who will wear a Rivini gown at her upcoming June wedding to Toronto architect Gabriel Fain.
“I felt like a bride when I tried on Rita’s design at Kleinfeld at The Bay,” Ms. Meiss says.
“I’m happy I found my dream wedding dress.”
When Ms. Vinieris hears this, her brown eyes brighten.
“I get to dress women on the most important day of their lives,” she says. “The emotional high I get from doing that is the real payback, the reason I do it.”
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