Fashionistas may have expected Austin Scarlett's first signature collection since departing wedding gown maker Kenneth Pool to be suffused with dramatic flair, akin to the corn husk dress that won the first challenge in Project Runway's inaugural season or the daring formals he opts for artsy soirees at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
After all, the young designer has a penchant for all things theatrical.
In fact, he's preparing for his costume debut with the Forth Worth Opera with a piece by Daniel Crozier on the life of 17th-century Mexican nun, Juana Inés de la Cruz.
Surprising his devout following at a trunk show at Mia Bridal Couture in River Oaks — complete with Michael's Cookie Jar pastries, nibbles by Occasio Events and Plants & Petals florals — Scarlett's weddings gowns flow with a nostalgia for simpler times. He incorporates his personal love of Parisian vintage couture to meld modern and youthful patterns into old-world glamor.
"Austin is an old soul trapped in a 29-year-old body," Allison Alexander, his business director, jests.
"People in other parts of the country have this assumption that Texas brides all wear enormous, debutante, satin ball gowns. It's the complete opposite."
Consider his Strapless Duchess Satin Floreale: The asymmetrical skirt ruffle could belong to a voluminous ball gown — think mega, puffy sleeves and some sort of gravity defying headpiece. But Scarlett opts for a sexy, form-fitting bodice that accentuates the natural womanly curves and exposes skin.
The Tulip gown finds its muse in a flower bouquet, yet it's updated with hand-painted stems that rise to the strapless neckline, fastened by a grosgrain ribbon at the waist. Her face becomes the blossoms.
Yet in lieu of dictating his "something-old, something-new" style, Scarlett's approach follows a trend in brides seeking garments that reach beyond just appearance. Whether an added color, initials embroidered in the train, a detail on the petticoat, women want something more meaningful, a touch that tells her story and evinces the essence of the couple in love.
"The Houston woman has a love of tradition, a love of classical beauty," Scarlett tells CultureMap. "But they're also fashion forward. They love to dress up, they embrace femininity, and my collection is the perfect match. It's fresh and modern in the interpretation of those traditions."
Scarlett offers options. Take the two-piece organza ball gown. It has a layered petal bodice and overskirt separate from the underskirt, which can be removed to transform the ensemble into a petite — and seductive — cocktail dress.
All the fabrics are imported from Italy; much of material is lightweight, like silk, satin and tulle. Hand beading stitched in India — not China — adds elegant textures to flowing textiles. Dresses range from $4,000 to $10,000 in the regular collection, and the sky is the limit for a custom made gown.
"Mine is a craft as much as it's an art as much as it's a commercial good. Though my approach is always artistic. Doesn't that mean you are going to shock some people?"
"People in other parts of the country have this assumption that Texas brides all wear enormous, debutante, satin ball gowns," Alexander says. "It's the complete opposite. Brides here love a very modern, almost bohemian look.
"One thing they don't want — for sure — is to look like every other friend who's been married, and Houston brides don't shy away from taking a risk."
Next to intimate apparel, a wedding gown is the single most personal dress a woman will purchase. Doesn't (almost) every little girl dream of her day when she says I do to her Prince Charming? That Scarlett chose to delve into this genre of fashion says something about his passion for connecting one-on-one with his clients.
"When I work with brides and see fulfillment in their eyes while they imagine that pivotal moment in their lives, I am humbled and honored to be part of their story," he says. "It's a huge responsibility to realize their dream. That's something I love.
"There are so many pressures coming from so many directions in the fashion industry. But at the end of the day, you have to be true to yourself even if it means going against the advice of others. Mine is a craft as much as it's an art as much as it's a commercial good. Though my approach is always artistic.
"Doesn't that mean you are going to shock some people?"