Amsale Aberra, founder, co-owner and creative director of the Amsale label, died Sunday at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
The 64-year-old designer died of uterine cancer, according to a company spokeswoman.
After rejecting the over-the-top wedding gown options of the high-rolling Eighties, Aberra decided to design her own wedding dress in 1985. The following year she built from that experience and started her namesake business, specializing in custom-designed wedding dresses. She landed her first wholesale account with Kleinfeld by trekking to Brooklyn, where the store was then located, to show her collection to Hedda Kleinfeld Schachter.
At that time, Aberra was cutting wedding gowns at her kitchen table and Kleinfeld, according to Mara Urshel, co-owner of Kleinfeld. “She really was a trendsetter in the business. She was the first one who really introduced very classic lines, beautiful clothes and getting away from all the old traditions of lace, beads and everything that really wasn’t modern anymore. She really created the modern wedding dress. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the money to promote it at the time that she did it. And a lot of other people kind of did the same thing later on.
“But she stayed true to her course. You could always tell an Amsale,” Urshel said.
Aberra’s husband Clarence O’Neill Brown, who serves as chief executive officer, said, “Amsale was not only an inspiration to the company, but someone who inspired and impacted everyone around her with her strength, kindness and humility. Working side-by-side, we spent 360 degrees of our life together, and I know only too well both her creative genius and her infinite goodness. Words cannot express the personal loss that we feel, but we are comforted by the avalanche of support we’ve received and the commitment of our team to carry on Amsale’s legacy.”
Mark Ingram, owner of Mark Ingram Atelier, described Aberra as “the inventor of the modern wedding dress. She was doing strapless, plain and sheer allusion necklines and sleeves before anybody in the late Eighties.” Before opening his East 55th Street boutique, Ingram worked for the designer for four years, heading up wholesale for bridal in the late Nineties. Sitting next to the designer in the company’s offices, he observed that she always started her designs with the shape of the skirt, which was always very simple. Aberra also made a point of limiting dresses to one or two fabrics, and maybe adding one embroidered trim or detail.
“It was minimalism in the Nineties which did not exist [in bridal.] We were competing against Arnold Scaasi and the House of Diamond — some big people who were doing some crazy stuff. Amsale was the lone ranger of clean, classic dresses,” Ingram said.
“She was rebelling against the 1980s trend of ‘Dynasty’ and all this horrible big shoulder stuff. She designed her own wedding dress because she couldn’t find what she wanted in the marketplace. That was the start of her business. She wanted clean and simple and that’s what she did,” he added.
Over the years, the designer’s creations were featured in such films as “Something Borrowed,” “The Hangover” and “27 Dresses” and TV shows including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Brothers and Sisters.” She also suited up an array of celebrities for their red carpet appearances and editorial shoots including Heidi Klum, Gayle King, Vivica Fox, Bethenny Frankel and Salma Hayek.
In addition to her signature bridal collection, the Amsale Group has a bridesmaids assortment. The company’s founder also introduced the more attainable Nouvelle Amsale Bridal and Nouvelle Amsale Bridesmaids. In 1997, the designer opened a Madison Avenue boutique, which was followed by an expanded store in 2001. There was also an Amsale flagship in Seoul from 2010 to 2017.
Aberra secured a succession plan, hiring Margo Lafontaine as design director of the company. She joined Amsale after working for nearly 12 years as senior studio director of Vera Wang and works with studio director Sarah Swann, who manages the operations of the design division.
A former trustee at the Fashion Institute of Technology and CFDA member, Aberra once said, “I believe that true style knows no place or time — more than an aesthetic, style is a way of living.”
In addition to her husband, Aberra is survived by her daughter Rachel Amsale Brown, as well as her father Aberra Moltot and half-sister Aster Yilma.