Bride-to-be Denise Smith in Vows Bridal Boutique, Co. Cork. Photo: Clare Keogh

Wedding Dresses

Can Franc help our bride find The One (the dress, that is)?

Big ballgown, sexy mermaid, demure lace… The plethora of wedding dress styles left newly engaged Denise Smith dizzy. So could Franc's team help her find the one?

Exactly one month ago today, I arrived home to find my house plunged into total darkness.

Fumbling for a light switch as I opened my front door, I noticed a fairy flicker of light that lured me to my back garden. As I'm the type of person who regularly forgets to turn off my hair straightener, I panicked that I'd somehow managed to start a small fire in the house or its environs. While I tried to remember my Brownie-era skills about the correct way to put out an electrical fire, my boyfriend was busy unearthing a velvet box from his pocket.

My recollection is foggy but I'm told it took me two whole minutes to acknowledge my now fiancé, Jim, as he knelt patiently beside me. An inordinate amount of time, really, especially as my back garden was alight with what turned out to be not a fire at all but a giant six-foot sign that blazed the question "Marry Me?" into the night sky.

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It turns out that while I had spent the previous weeks picking out scatter cushions for the house we'd just bought, he was creeping out the staff at Home Store + More by buying 75 torches for his DIY proposal sign. When my mother showed up teary-eyed bearing bottles of bubbly, it really sank in - I was getting married.

If you're reading this and gagging at the schmaltziness of it all, then don't worry, I would have had the same reaction a few months ago. In fact, I'm a little surprised at how easily I have been swept along in engagement hysteria - the Pinterest boards, the ring shopping, the endless conversations about table settings. It took me about two hours to acclimatise to my new status as 'bride-to-be'.

While I had my sights on getting married, the wedding itself was never my primary concern. I didn't ever dream about a fairy-tale castle and a white dress. So when friends and family began to ask about the dress - was I going to go big and princessy or chic and sleek? Had I thought about having a shorter length? Was I on the fence about veils? - I didn't have the answer.

My mother and sister, always 10 steps ahead, immediately saw our upcoming trip to New York as the perfect opportunity to start the dress search and booked us in for a visit to Kleinfeld's. If you're not familiar with the store, it can only be described as the epicentre of the bridal world - it's Anfield to Liverpool fans, it's the Chocolate Factory to Charlie- it is the holy ground for the newly engaged. It's where women come from all corners of the world in search of their dream gown, and their tears and tantrums are all captured and neatly edited together into a reality TV show. The Say Yes to the Dress format has proven so commercially successful that it has spawned a dozen other bridal shows - the latest incarnation of which is fronted by wedding guru Franc (see page 10) and comes to RTÉ2 next week.

Which brings me to the present moment. After two hours and 40 minutes in transit, two tea stops and a close call between my bumper and sheep, myself and my mam have made it to Vows weddingstore for my Say Yes to the Dress bridal appointment. Tucked away in Clogheenmilcon, Blarney Business Park, Co Cork, it's not the cosmopolitan location I envisioned.

But once inside the 10,000 sq ft showroom, I am immediately silenced by the miles of lace, tulle, organza and chiffon dresses that hang on floor-to-ceiling racks. Downstairs, the showroom is every bit as regal as I had hoped for. Designed by Franc himself, a plush couch overhung by a tree of florals takes centre stage. And just like Kleinfeld's, there is a pedestal for each bride-to-be to model their chosen gowns.

I hear Franc before I see him; his Cork drawl embracing me as he kisses the air around me. I am in his presence a mere 10 seconds and he has already sized me up. "I want to accentuate your eyes so a 'V' cut neckline will be perfect." Without taking a breath, he turns to Mam: "What do you think, Linda?" Practically swooning on the spot, my mam is beside herself with excitement as he asks her advice. Pointing towards the nearest bejewelled gown in his vicinity, he encourages me to have fun and take risks.

While the bridal king steals away my mam to talk to her about my likes and dislikes, I am introduced to my consultant, Denise. With her 15 years' experience, there are no lengths Denise won't go to to source the dress you have always imagined. Before I have even discussed budget or my wedding dress aspirations, I am noisily snorting with laughter as she relaxes me into the process.

Before coming along today, I was instructed to measure myself - a glorious event for anyone who has enjoyed three weeks of gluttonous engagement celebrations. I had quietly accepted that certain silhouettes simply weren't going to suit; delicate backless creations and sweetheart necklines seemed to mock me and my 36E chest. I thought I would be trussed up like a chicken into whatever dress could contain my curves. But with over 1,000 dresses in the building, and sizes ranging from 4-32, I'm assured that there is a dress for me and my assets.

The first dress I try on is reminiscent of a Vera Wang gown. Layer upon layer of delicate organza, a plunging V-neck and an open back make this a real scene-stealer. Looking at the dress on the hanger, however, I am intimidated by its sizeable diameter. I imagine standing too close to a candle at the altar and bursting into a ball of flames, or its sheer mass mindlessly crushing small children who wander into my path.

To my surprise, it glides on effortlessly and is paper-light. With a full train to manoeuvre, Denise guides me towards the 360-degree fitting- room mirror and I visibly recoil, not because I'm horrified, it's just one of those rare once-in-a-lifetime moments. The penny has dropped: I am wearing a wedding dress.

With the knowledge that everyone is waiting outside, I start to sweat. Those butterflies in my stomach have transformed into a herd of elephants. I am not sure if I can take the criticisms you so often hear on the show. "It does nothing for you - you look a little frumpy," or worse: silence.

I'm suddenly conscious of the camera crew who have congregated at the back of the showroom to film some promo shots for the show. A wave of anxiety hits me and I feel like I look more like a pumpkin than Cinderella. Before I have time to imagine tripping over myself, the curtains are pulled back and I make the agonisingly long walk to where Franc is positioned. Steadying me on the pedestal, he mouths, "Beautiful." I catch my mam's eye and spy what I almost think is a tear, which encourages me to take a breath. Sashaying from side to side, my body relaxes into the organza. I immediately find myself thinking this could be a contender. I don't feel restricted and there is no fear of my tummy rolls ruining the silhouette. I'm practically buoyant when I return to the fitting room.

My next look bears a remarkable resemblance to the vintage gown my mam wore on her own wedding day. Lace with off-the-shoulder sleeves, it instantly earns her seal of approval. Denise adds a lace collar for some haute couture detail, but on closer inspection we agree that less is more.

Unsure if it's suited to more of a mature lady, I head back to the changing room, which is so expansive and luxuriously designed, it makes Kleinfeld's changing rooms look almost cage-like. This time Franc and Denise have opted for a more slim-fitting gown. Embellished with sparkling crystal- adorned lace, the form-fitting style floats to a full-length mermaid-silhouette hem. I feel like a walking embodiment of Jessica Rabbit - if the first dress was fun and playful, this gown definitely has sex appeal. The spaghetti straps provide just enough support (did I mention all the dresses have built-in cups?) while the fabric clings to all the right places.

Swooping in, Franc announces it's time to be "Francified" - the equivalent of being "jacked up" in the US version of the show. My hair is styled, a veil is chosen and I am spun around once more to see my transformation. There's something about adding a veil that instantly ups your bridal factor. If I didn't look like a bride before, I definitely do now. On the show this would be the cue for the entourage to break out the tissues, and my mam doesn't disappoint: she's beaming with pride.

Talking me through hair styles and jewellery, both Franc and Denise busily adjust my train and explain the all-important bustling process.

And then before I know it, it's time for that big question: I may only be weeks into my engagement but Franc never misses an opportunity for a sale.Turning to me with a glint in his eye, he says, "Denise, are you saying yes to the dress?" It's an easy answer: "I'll take the lot."

It's probably time I cancelled my trip to Kleinfeld's. Franc has won over this bride-to-be.

 

Irish Independent