Gypsy Brides US Dress Designer, Sondra Celli Interviewed

11/07/2013 18:36 | Updated 22 May 2015

The eye-opening documentary series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding has brought us more show-stopping, rhinestone-encrusted outfits than we can keep track of. But, just when we thought we'd seen every possible permutation of princess-y glam, the series hopped over the pond to explore the gypsy and traveller communities of America in Gypsy Brides US.

To mark the show's UK television premiere (Wednesdays at 10pm from 9 May on Discovery Real Time) we called US gypsy wedding dress designer extraordinaire, Sondra Celli [pictured right], to talk tulle, tight turnaround times and Swarovski crystal loyalty cards...

First up: Here's Sondra's breakdown of a single US gypsy wedding dress in numbers...

gypsy wedding dress

Blimey! So Sondra, how did you get involved with the gypsy community?

"About 30-something years ago I started in business working for a lot of major stores here - Neiman Marcus and Saks. The gypsies, being pretty savvy, found somebody to give them my number. Within about two weeks I had so many orders I was falling over but they were all being shipped to the same street. I called a friend of mine who was a mentor and she said 'Honey, you're selling to gypsies - you're shipping to a trailer park!' That's how I got involved and one person told another and it got bigger and bigger."

So do the gypsy dresses make up most of your workload?

"I work for all different ethnic groups but at this point the gypsies have become almost 80% of my business. It's huge!"


What was the most out there request you've ever had?

"I've had some crazy dresses. There was one we made out of wigs - it was wild! She said, 'I want a skirt that's fringed but I want it to look like a horse's tail.' So I thought, well, we could do wigs - then she said she wanted it in colours and black so we just bought a load of crazy wigs and cut them up. We built them onto a band and cut the skull part off - it looked fabulous. The whole skirt was wild hair fringe. It was very cool."

Has anything been utterly impossible?

"Nothing is impossible! If they bring us a costume we haven't seen or done we can copy it or learn to make the internal parts the way they made them. Sometimes they say you need an architect to make some of this stuff. We've got 11 people here who are all individually gifted - yes, it's me that directs it, but you need the input of these young girls. Pretty much everyone in design school here has a non-textile class where you have to make a dress out of rubber bands of piano keys or spark plugs or whatever so everyone can figure it out.

Are there any particular celebrities you get asked to reference or copy?

"By the gypsies? All day! They're so intrigued by movie stars and celebrities of any kind. They call up and say, 'I want to look like Katy Perry'. At Hallowe'en someone wanted a cupcake dress that Katy Perry had on. We made fake cupcakes out of this foam we found and she went crazy - she was four years old and crying with happiness."

Is Katy Perry the most common request?

"I think yes because when gypsies want that celebrity [look] it's usually for kids. Once you're married and you're a gypsy you don't show as much skin. Their life is their kids. Katy Perry wears really funky clothes - she did a Smurfette dress once and someone asked us for a Smurfette on their dress. But it's mostly kids."


Katy Perry in the Smurfette dress

Did you watch the UK version of the show?

"When the show came on everybody I know came up to me and said 'You need to call this show - this is exactly what you do!' My family can't believe I'm doing the show because I'm the girl behind the scenes. I'm not someone who's out there looking for press. I love when people love my clothes but I'm not out there as a personality. When they called me and asked me to do the show it was funny because I'd seen them all and watched every week."

Have you met your UK counterpart, Thelma Madine?

No but I'd love to. Honestly, the TV has me so busy right now and probably she's having the same problem!

What's the best part of the job?

"I have so much freedom. I work for everyone but the gypsies let my head go wild. They give me one little inkling of what they want and they let me go - they totally trust me. The freedom keeps me coming back - the sky's the limit."

And the most stressful part?

"The time constraint is brutal. Sometimes I'm freaking out saying 'You can't do this to me again - it's 2am!' When I was 20something it was easier but I'm older so it's harder to push your body all night."

And all those crystals...

"The crystal is what makes the money. We only use Swarovski. The gypsies dance under lights and there's nothing that shines like Swarovski crystals. They might only go to the sixth or eighth grade but they will tell you in two minutes if they're not Swarovski stones!"

So you've got a Swarovski loyalty card by now, right?

"I really should! [The Swarovski reps] are here all the time with their jaw dropping open especially at the baby clothes - people are not used to seeing little tiny dresses with crystal fringe. Everything we can make big we can make for a baby. The baby things are the cutest - we even do the pacifiers. They're all crystal but they put their initials or whatever they want on."

What happens to the dresses after the wedding?

"I try to make them to break down - I make the petticoats to come out. But pretty much everyone who lives in a trailer park has some kind of storage unit. I've never had anyone not have one."

Are you worried you'll be swamped with new business?

"The series has only had two shows and I have so many emails for dresses. I've had to hire someone to answer the phone. I'm so glad you're calling be because it's tying the line up for a little while!"


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