by Allyson Mann (MA '92)
Like many little girls, Anne Barge Clegg (BSEd ’69) dreamed from a young age about weddings. But in her fantasy, she wasn’t the bride—she was the bridal designer.
“I always knew,” she says. “There was never a day that I can remember in my whole life that I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
From the tender age of 3—when she accompanied her pianist mother, Ada Williams (AB ’38), to weddings—Clegg wanted to design bridal gowns. As early as kindergarten she was drawing brides, and in elementary school she drew dresses for her classmates in Cordele, where she grew up. She was a senior art education major at UGA and practice teaching in Atlanta when she learned that Priscilla of Boston, the industry’s top designer at that time, was coming to town. Clegg gathered her sketches, stood in line with the brides and introduced herself. She left with a job offer, and two weeks after graduation she joined Priscilla in Boston as an apprentice designer.
“It was the break of a lifetime,” she says. “The experience was just totally invaluable.”
A year later Clegg returned to Atlanta, worked in the retail end at Rich’s for more than nine years and opened her own store, Anne Barge for Brides, in 1981. When bridal giant Kleinfeld acquired the store, she stayed on to manage the Saks Fifth Avenue bridal salons. In 1997 British mogul Richard Branson asked her to set up a bridal store in London and she became managing director for Virgin Bride, designing a private label bridal line. And in 1999 Clegg launched the Anne Barge Bridal Collection, later winning NBC’s “Today” show contest when one of her designs was chosen for a 2003 on-air wedding.
Nearly 10 years and more than 500 gowns later, Clegg spends much of her time traveling all over the country to trunk shows, where brides are able to see her newest designs. Her dresses are available in more than 100 stores in the U.S., Japan and Europe, but the only place to see the entire line is at Anne Barge Atelier in Buckhead—where a 1941 bridal portrait of Clegg’s mother echoes the classic, refined sensibility that characterizes her designs, whether they’re ball gowns or sheaths, halter or scoop neck.
“I think that your pictures are going to be on your mother’s mantel or someone’s mantel for at least 50 years, and you never want to look back and say, ‘What was I thinking?’” she says.
Her gowns, known for exceptional hand beading and embroidery, are overseen by a staff of 14 at the atelier and her wholesale location, which handles orders, production planning and distribution. Normally it takes four months to create a new dress, but Clegg has done it in as little in two weeks to meet a customer’s needs. But going above and beyond isn’t the exception—she considers it part of the job.
“We do everything we can to encourage a happy experience… And that means the bride can lose 40 pounds, gain 40 pounds, whatever, we’re just prepared to deal with it,” she says. “Most people just want to know you’re listening to them and that you care and you have the ability to make it right.”
That includes customizing dresses—adding or removing sleeves, changing the line of the skirt, or even adding extra arm and neck coverage for Mormon or Orthodox Jewish brides. But after nearly 40 years in the business, Clegg knows what works.
“You can walk in, and my mind’s already thinking, ‘I know just the perfect dress for you,’” she says.
“I’m so glad I had a retail background because I worked with real people, not showroom models. I can make everybody look gorgeous… There’s not a body out there we won’t tackle.”
(top photo) Wedding gown designer Anne Barge Clegg (BSEd ’69) was one of four American designers chosen by Swarovski (famed for their crystals) to participate in “Unbridaled: The Marriage of Tradition and Avant Garde,” an exhibition that opened in Paris in January. Photo by Dot Paul.
For a slideshow including photos and interview audio with Anne Barge Clegg, visit http://ugaphoto.alumni.uga.edu/multimedia/annebarge/