German fashion designer Helen Bender specialises in bridal wear but targets gay pride parades to pitch to new customers rather than wedding fairs.
Two years ago she chanced upon a gap in the market for custom-made 'hers & hers' bridal outfits when lesbian friends turned to her for
help. "They just hadn't been able to find what they wanted," the 27-year-old told AFP at her studio in the western city of Mainz.
"I didn't even realise there was a need."
Key to Bender's role is keeping the couple's outfits for their big day under wraps from each other but ensuring they harmonise.
Pulling off the 'wow' factor is just one part of the task.
Like most women taking the plunge, lesbian couples want to look special and feel comfortable but also steer clear of gay stereotypes, said Bender, who lives with her female partner.
"What's really important to most of the couples is that they are not pushed into gender roles. You find people asking 'who is the male in the relationship?'," she said.
"A bride wants to be seen as a bride, even though she may be wearing a suit. That's why they want to match so they are seen as two brides... without looking like a 'man' and a 'woman'," she added.
Popular picks include white, cream and this season's favourite, cappuccino, in satin, silk and lace, but couples also depart from tradition, plumping for black leather, grey or fuchsia pink.
Trousers with a closely fitted jacket, 1920s-style dresses, jumpsuits or a "skirt-erall" alternative -- a long skirt worn over an overall and taken off for the evening reception -- are top choices.
One couple opted for bridal-style lederhosen for their Bavarian-themed celebration.
Bender agrees her designs have "attitude" but stresses that if a customer wants a simple dress -- or is adamantly anti-dress -- her preferences are paramount.
The designer will be tying the knot herself in September with her police officer partner in outfits designed by her but sewn by a friend to keep an element of surprise.
'Fancy' hot pants
Her most avant-garde creations include hot pants in black leather with sequins and a "hinter-skirt" cascading down the back. So far no-one has ordered it. "It looks great on the model but maybe it's too fancy," said Bender.
She takes pride in the design process being led by the brides themselves, teasing out ideas that may originate from just a colour or idea for a sleeve. "At the second fitting most brides bring their mums, mum-in-law or best friend," Bender said.
"Sometimes a best friend sees both outfits and reports back." Laboratory engineer Martina Eimann, 25, from Ingelheim, who is due to wed her partner, Sandra, in May, said Bender's input had been an important and fun part of their preparations.
"Our outfits mirror the fact that we don't want a standardised wedding. We want something very special where we feel comfortable and still are classily dressed," she said in an email.
'There were tears'
After graduating from the Sigmaringen fashion school, south of Stuttgart, Bender threw herself into a three-year business course and was still studying when she made her first lesbian bridal wear for friends in 2012.
She paired a jumpsuit and jacket in gold and cream for one bride to off-set a clean-cut, floor-length gown with a cape in the same palette for the other.
They were thrilled. "At the first fitting there were tears, which is the way it should be," she recalled.
Word spread and two more orders followed at which point Bender realised she was onto something and embarked on her first "hers & hers" bridal collection under her label "La Mode Abyssale".
"It means fashion without borders and although I came up with the name before the idea of the wedding outfits, it fits well," she said. Since 2001, German law has allowed civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, a status that falls short of marriage under the law.
Bender voiced disappointment that Germany has not yet gone as far as France, England, Wales and others but said committing to a civil union was the same, emotionally, as entering a marriage.
"I think (German) society is ready for it. I never felt discriminated against," she said.
Fourteen lesbian couples have taken their vows in Bender's creations, which cost 1,400-1,900 euros ($1,950-2,650) each plus fabric, and more than a dozen outfits are underway for this wedding season.
After showcasing her bridal fashions in New York last year at Couture Fashion Week, she is eyeing the international market -- and that for male couples. At a gay pride event last year, her stand attracted interest from men, she said, but so far none have placed orders.
"It's easier for them to find special, matching outfits, or custom-made suits."
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