GUANGZHOU/NEW YORK – It is said that every girl has a wedding dress dream, but that dream of girls in the United States is under threat as tariffs cast a pall on the wedding dress industry that relies heavily on the skills of Chinese embroiderers.
Most wedding dresses in the world come from China, especially high-end hand-sewn wedding gowns. Additional tariffs on Chinese exports will put US retailers under financial stress, and drive the prices of quality wedding dresses even higher for US brides.
Tariffs won’t attract wedding dress makers into the US. They will only decimate US retailers and make US brides bear the cost, said Steve Lang, president of the American Bridal and Prom Industry Association.
“We love to produce our top product in the United States, but we can’t find qualified staff,” Lang said.
Some luxury wedding dresses have as many as 100,000 hand-sewn beads and crystals. Making these dresses is a daunting task that only extremely hardworking and skilled dressmakers can accomplish.
“Have you ever met any American who grew up in college and wound up sitting behind a sewing machine? (It is) Not gonna happen. People here do not want to be dress-makers,” Lang added.
Wei Jingming, 48, and her cousin are sewing glittering paillettes onto a piece of silky cloth, while her daughter-in-law is juggling with threads of 20 different colors to embroider lifelike three-dimensional roses.
Most women in Tahou are sitting outdoors, busy doing needlework as the sun sets at the idyllic village of southern China’s Chaozhou. Wei, like other villagers, is sewing for wedding dress exporters. Someday somewhere in the US, a bride will proudly wear Wei’s work at her wedding.
Almost every family in Chaozhou has a skilled dress-maker, who spends her free time doing fine embroidery for wedding dress makers. For decades, manufacturers have been pooling their talents by assigning parts of wedding dresses to different families.
More than 200,000 people work for 800 wedding dress manufacturers in Chaozhou, a place with so many skilled embroiderers which is hard to come by. The embroiderers are the main reason why China is the world’s top wedding dress exporter.
“If we move our factories outside China, US brides would have to wear white blouses for their wedding,” said Yu Yuanyu, head of the Chaozhou Wedding Dress Industry Association.
Behind the incredible pool of sewing talents in Chaozhou lies people’s undying passion for embroidery.
Needlework is the second personality for a girl in Chaozhou. In local tradition, a girl makes her own wedding dress so that her future husband and guests to the wedding can see her talent and character from what she wears on the big day.
Wearing a silk robe, She Keyan sits tall at her sewing table, fingers flying between threads. She is the official heir to the national heritage of Chao Embroidery, the art of needlework in Chaozhou.
A tradition that dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Chao Embroidery has evolved for over a thousand years, developing a system of more than 200 hand sewing stitches, which come in handy in making complex and extravagant dresses like prom and wedding gowns.
Like Wei and many other embroiderers in Chaozhou, She learned sewing from her mother. In a workshop named after her mother Kang Huifang, she leads some 40 seasoned embroiderers in making luxury wedding dresses for renowned brands such as Allure, Blush, Morilee and Alyce Designs.
From this traditional three-storey building in Chaozhou’s old town, came some of the world’s most luxurious modern wedding dresses that went on display in shop windows along Paris’ Champs-Elysees and New York’s 5th avenue.
When making wedding gowns, one cannot sweat and the room has to be clean, lest the delicate fabric gets stained. The master looks effortless as she stitches elegantly in her cozy, air-conditioned workshop, but in fact, she often has to toil for three whole months to complete just one customized wedding gown that may require over 100 procedures.
“It is our hands that give the dress warmth and texture,” she said.