Helping Brides Say Yes to the Dress

Sellasie in the zone

Elizabeth Gabre Sellassie ’89 “in the zone” with a future bride.

On any given day, just a few blocks from the Empire State Building, Designer Loft Bridal hosts a stream of newly engaged women in search of the gown of their dreams. Some are looking for a confection of a dress, with tiers and ruffles. Others are in search of something less traditional, like a blue jumpsuit. Then there are Orthodox brides on a quest for something modest but stunning, and curvier brides who have struggled to find a perfectly fitting dress elsewhere.

Behind the scenes of their sartorial pursuits is Elizabeth Gabre Sellassie ’89, who founded the boutique in 2001. For the last two decades, she has taken great pleasure in helping them find — and sometimes even craft — the perfect dress. She traces her desire to be part of people’s weddings to her Ethiopian heritage. “Our weddings take eight days and are steeped in rituals that go back thousands of years,” she says. “We take marriage and death very seriously.”

Sellassie never expected to become a power player in the New York bridal market. She spent her 20s as an attorney at a big New York City firm, but quickly realized the work wasn’t particularly fulfilling. Then the 9/11 attack happened. “It was a pivotal moment,” she says. “It was a time when we all realized how short life can be. We had to ask ourselves: What makes me happy? What do I want to do with the time that I have?”

This wasn’t Sellassie’s first encounter with tragedy. She was born in Addis Ababa, to a family related to Haile Selassie, who began ruling the country in 1930. But in 1974 he was deposed, and 60 members of his government were executed. “A lot of those people were members of my family,” Sellassie says. “We narrowly escaped. My mother wore black from 1974 to 1989 to mourn our lost relatives.”

At the age of 6, Sellassie found asylum in the United States thanks to her father, who became the Ethiopian ambassador to the United Nations. She spent her childhood in New York City and Washington, D.C. Sellassie’s father encouraged her to learn diplomatic languages — French and Italian — and encouraged her to attend an Ivy League university.

In the end, she picked the College so she could be in New York, the city that felt most like home to her. And after such a nomadic childhood, she liked the rigid structure that the Core Curriculum provided. “I need boundaries,” she says. “I need discipline. So Columbia felt like a safe choice.”

Sellassie studied comparative literature and French, but felt pressure to find a stable career. She went to law school at NYU, and though she enjoyed the education, she found practicing law too combative for her taste. Then, as she headed into her 30s, she met a fellow Ethiopian who ran a wedding gown business in New York. Sellassie decided to take a leap: She quit her job and joined her friend’s fledgling business.

After 9/11, she decided to take out a loan to launch a boutique of her own. “In law, you take on an adversarial relationship with the world,” she says. “But in the bridal business, you’re working toward a common goal of making someone happy.”

Over the last 23 years, Designer Loft Bridal has become a well-known destination for brides in the Tri-State area, known for accommodating the needs of women who are often underserved by the rest of the industry. Every year, the boutique sells more than 1,000 gowns. They include off-the-rack dresses from labels like Pronovias and Rosa Clara that start at $2,000, but Sellassie’s team can also design custom gowns that take six months to make and run up to $15,000.

Ultimately, Sellassie says, she is grateful she changed her career course. She credits Columbia with giving her the bravery to pursue a more meaningful life. “Columbia is full of such eclectic, diverse people,” she says. “You learn to jump into any group and learn to feel at home. That gave me the confidence to enter a new industry and make it my own.”

Elizabeth Segran ’05 is a senior staff writer at Fast Company magazine, where she covers the fashion industry. She is the author of The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch The Rest of Your Life. Segran lives in Boston with her husband, Benjamin Schneer ’05, whom she met freshman year, and their two daughters.