By Rhonda Mix
Some wedding gowns lead to “happily ever after” in more ways than one.
Alyssa Kahle is the owner and creative director of Alyssa Kristin, a Chicago-based bridal line, and she has begun to make a name for herself in the designer wedding dress world.
Kahle’s business actually began with the creation of her own wedding gown, but the dream started many years earlier, when she was a young girl. Growing up in Walworth County, she had an eye for fashion even as a child. She says at the age of four she used to observe the upholstery seamstresses at her family’s furniture businesses (they now own Kahle Wholesale Flooring in Elkhorn) and then fashion tiny treasures for her mother using the upholstery pieces from the scrap bins.
“I had an eye for it, I loved it,” Kahle says, reflecting on how much sewing fascinated her as a young girl.
Born in Dubuque, Iowa, Kahle grew up in Lake Geneva and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the start of her college years, she says an advisor asked her what she would love to do for a career. She admitted she gravitated toward fashion and a degree in textile and apparel design. However, at that time, she didn’t think pursuing such a career path would be possible or wise. She took several design courses but ended up choosing degrees in business and accounting instead because they seemed, as she explains, “more secure.”
“I thought, ‘Someday I will end up in fashion,’” she remembers. “I believed it would work out how it was meant to be.”
After graduating from college, Kahle went to work at Ernst & Young public accounting firm and then moved to Chicago in 2009 (though she describes herself as a “Wisconsin girl at heart.”). Her fashion dreams were put on hold and out of mind — for a time — until the day when she found herself engaged to be married and unable to find the perfect wedding dress.
“I could not find a dress I loved,” she recalls. “I tried on at least 150 dresses and nothing felt right. They all seemed too plain Jane or too over the top to me.”
Frustrated, Kahle shared her wedding dress woes with her fiancé. She thought back to middle school and a special “bucket list” she’d once created. Designing her own wedding gown had been number 19 on that list. With the support of her fiancé, Kahle decided to take matters into her own hands and bring the dress of her dreams to life. She also decided to switch to a less demanding job at the accounting firm. She took three weeks in between jobs to begin creating a wedding gown for her own special day.
“It was called the Alessandra,” she says of her gown. “It is a chic yet timeless, figure-hugging mermaid gown, exactly what I wanted to wear on my own wedding day on July 13, 2013.”
That first dress creation reignited her passion for fashion. Feeling inspired, Kahle realized that designing wedding gowns and making prospective brides happy was what she ultimately wanted to do with her life. And so, a dream dress opened the door to a dream career.
Kahle set out on her newfound path while working full-time at her accounting job. She applied to be part of The Chicago Fashion Incubator at Macy’s on State Street — a nonprofit organization that helps emerging designers launch their careers over a two-year period and provides six lucky applicants with opportunities as designers-in-residence, offering valuable resources such as workspace, a showroom, a curriculum and mentoring.
She was surprised and excited when she was accepted into the program in the spring of 2013, and has been moving full speed ahead ever since. Kahle estimates she works around 90 hours a week while still balancing both jobs, but it’s hard work that’s paying off — she’s making great strides in bringing her design dreams to fruition.
She says her family is supportive and her husband is her biggest fan, encouraging her “every step of the way.” She adds, “My parents and siblings have always been the cheerleaders of my life and this endeavor is no different. As an added bonus, I also have amazingly supportive in-laws. I thank my parents for my work ethic; they have showed me the value of hard work and determination through running their own business. My parents, brother, [sister-in-law], my sister, her fiancé and her son, all live in Lake Geneva and work at the family business.”
Family is so important to Kahle, in fact, that she is now designing a custom gown for her sister’s wedding next July in Lake Geneva. “I am so lucky to have them just a short car ride away and I make it back to Wisconsin about once a month,” she says. “Nothing de-stresses and refreshes me like a day with my family.”
Kahle recently started her first bridal line under the business name, Alyssa Kristin — Kristin being her middle name as well as her mother’s name. Her first collection consists of eight gowns and she has already begun work on the next collection. “The line is geared to the modern-day woman looking for a gown that speaks to her personality and fits within her budget,” says Kahle. She describes her dresses as “timeless elegance with Hollywood glamour.” Of her design process, Kahle says she likes to pick one element of a wedding dress and play it up.
Future goals include expanding her line’s offerings into evening wear and one day, eventually, opening her own retail space.
When asked what sets her collection apart from other designer wedding dress lines, Kahle points to the craftsmanship — all of her gowns are made in America with luxurious, high-quality fabrics that she describes as “effortlessly elegant” and fashion-focused while still having traditional bridal appeal.
“I try to push the boundaries with my gowns,” Kahle says. “They are not like anything else you see on the market. They are all innovative and unique designs — feminine and romantic, while also modern and refreshingly chic.”
Although Kahle never studied gown design, she sees that as a strength. “Since I don’t have a bridal design background, this helps keep things fresh,” she says. “When you don’t know the rules, you don’t have to worry about breaking them.”
Some of the best-selling dresses in Kahle’s line include the Alessandra gown, which she says is “elegant, glamorous and sexy;” the Colette gown, which offers a fun feature in the form of a removable tulle skirt; and the Vivienne gown, which features a low, open back with a “crisp, regal collar.”
She also designs bridesmaid gowns for her collection.
Most of Kahle’s buyers are private clients seeking custom dresses, though she also features her designs at Mignonette Bridal in Chicago and Loved Bridal Boutique in Columbus, Ohio. She also has plans to reach out to Wisconsin boutiques this winter.
Her dresses have been showcased in a number of national wedding blogs, including Style Me Pretty, as well as regional publications, including Wisconsin Bride.
Flexibility and accommodation are top priorities for Kahle, and she says she strives to “go that extra mile for customers.” She will Skype, talk on the phone and send packets and swatches of fabric to clients. She also has worked with a number of out-of-state clients who fly to Chicago for fittings in her retail space at Macy’s. She tries to keep her prices reasonable and believes in offering “high-fashion design at an achievable price point.”
What does Kahle love most about being a designer? “Nothing makes me feel more accomplished than helping a bride find a dress,” she reflects. “It’s a really wonderful feeling to know you were able to play a part in her big day. In a lot of jobs, you can’t really see the end result. Designing wedding dresses, you are here for the whole process. There’s no better feeling than a bride putting on one of my gowns. And it’s a really neat process, getting to know a bride and what she wants on her big day.”
For brides who find that the perfect dress keeps eluding them, Kahle says it is important to try on a variety of silhouettes and styles. “Sometimes brides are surprised by what they end up liking and find ‘the one’ was nothing like they envisioned,” she adds.
Kahle also has words of wisdom for aspiring designers. “Never give up. I’m hustling every day,” she says. “It’s not easy. Know you are going to work hard, but it will pay off. Starting out, being a small business, there are a lot of challenges. You are the COE – the Chief Of Everything. The designer. The sales representative. The web designer. You wear every single hat and face challenges,” she continues. “You have to balance all that, be efficient with your time and learn how to multitask. As you grow, you are the creative vision of your brand and company and need to be the driving force behind that. Every week I learn something new. Most of all, you have to be your own biggest fan and believe in yourself. Then success will follow.”
For more information about Alyssa Kristin, visit alyssakristin.com.