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Gown styles range from fantasy to lacy reality

Victoria Nicole's Bridal Collection features this latte tulle

Victoria Nicole's Bridal Collection features this latte tulle hand-embroidered full gown with ribbon detail at the waist. (Spring 2012) Credit: Smile Bella

Like many little girls, Victoria Nicole McMillan grew up sketching fairy-tale bridal gowns -- fluffy white confections that, she says with a laugh, were "so big they barely fit on the page."

She outgrew the volume, but not the gowns.

After graduating from Drexel University in 1987 and backpacking through Europe, the Philadelphia-born McMillan packed a suitcase, headed to Manhattan and crashed in her sister's apartment. With no other career path beckoning, she answered a Women's Wear Daily ad for an assistant designer, not knowing what, or for whom, she might be designing. The answer: wedding gowns and Christos -- formally, Christos Yiannakou, the Cyprus-born designer who, by the late 1980s, was a mega name on the bridal scene. Within a few years, McMillan worked her way from production assistant to designer to out the door -- forming her own company, Alvina Valenta, in 1991.

But laboring under another name is not the same as designing under your own. And in 2010, McMillan, with her husband and business partner, Daniel, formed Victoria Nicole. These days, her atelier is a second-floor studio that sits above Nikki Jay Haircutters in downtown Babylon. But this is no mom-and-pop candy shop. The Victoria Nicole line is sold in more than three dozen bridal stores nationwide, including The Wedding Salon of Manhasset, and the dresses are earning a reputation as sleek, sophisticated and unfettered -- exactly the opposite of what the young Victoria created. "When you're a little bit older, I think you're able to separate from the sketches you did in grade school and pare it down to say, 'OK, this is the woman I've become, this is what I want.' "

Recently, McMillan, 46, who is also the mother of three girls, chatted about what she wants for her company -- and what brides should want from their dresses:

Early on, you had a wedding dress that really took off. What was it?

It was at Alvina Valenta, maybe 15 years ago. It was Style 909 -- I'll never forget it. It was off-the-shoulder, with three-quarter-length sleeves, and what was so different was that it had a very soft blush skirt and was trimmed with a guipure lace that was a combination of a sage green and a soft pink. I did it for a pop of color, but that was it -- it sold really well.

There's not a lot of froufrou about Victoria Nicole gowns. Unlike your Christos days, they're quite pared down.

I've always been a believer that less is more. I always have a little bit of a wow factor -- most brides want that special impact -- but I've never been one to do a lot of stuff. I think it distracts from the bride. The dress should enhance her, add to her, but not be the main attraction.

We've always had celebrity brides, but today's celebrities are exerting more influence than ever. How do you see it playing out?

I think it's just celebrity status in general. People are so much more aware of it. The way the media portray celebrities, they show it as, this is what you want to aspire to. So brides look at celebrities and say, I want to look like that person. When Reese Witherspoon got married, bridal stores told me that everyone was calling the next day, saying, "I want that" -- a blush Monique Lhuillier corset dress -- which I found funny. Why would you want the exact same thing? OK, she was beautiful. But what struck me is not that they wanted a similar feeling, but that they wanted that dress. On your wedding day, I would think you want it to be about you.

What about reality-TV bridal shows?

"Say Yes to the Dress," I let my daughters watch that once in a while, but there are other shows that are over the top. "Bridezillas"? The girls are so mean! There's also "Platinum Weddings," and they're lovely, but so over-the-top. In many ways, reality TV has given brides the impression that this is the way things are supposed to be, and if they're not, they're not good enough. And not everybody can have that or will have that, and I think what's behind the wedding is more the couple's relationship, or you would hope so.

Do designers see any of that when girls come into a bridal salon looking for a dress?

Sometimes. You can pretty much read a girl when she comes in. But I've always been very fortunate. The stores I work with usually have a lovely clientele, and a lot of the stores will tell me that a lot of the young ladies who buy Victoria Nicole are very sweet, very easy to work with. For some reason, a lot of them are teachers.

So is the Victoria Nicole customer someone who's not looking to be so over-the-top?

She certainly wants to be stunning. She's not afraid of pushing the envelope, having her dress be somewhat seductive, as long as it's done tastefully. We're known for a beautifully fitted trumpet, and I think that can be done tastefully and still be appropriate for the event. There are many times that I'll see dresses even on the red carpet, and I'll think, did you really have to go that low with it? Maybe it's because I'm a little old-fashioned; when I go through magazines I can appreciate the fashion-forward ads, but when her hair looks so tousled and the makeup is harsh, I don't know how your average girl relates to that.

How does a bride figure out what works for her?

I always tell girls to be open-minded, because a wedding gown, in particular, is not a hanger dress. You really need a real body in it, and then it comes to life, especially if the dress is more fitted or there is a draping detail. What is ideal is if they can have a consultant that understands their body type because some women truly don't understand what works best for them. It's always fun at a trunk show to have a girl try on a dress that I'll suggest because I'm seeing this tiny little waist that she's hiding under a sweatshirt, and she's like, 'Oh, my gosh, I don't really have that waist.' Sure you do! And this is emphasizing it! It's amazing to see them look in the mirror and feel so pretty -- and so surprised.

Does she buy it?

One thing I always tell brides is that it has to be the dress that makes you feel the most beautiful, the dress that you can't wait to put on and don't want to take off. Then you know it's yours.

That's why I don't understand the two-dress trend.It's a designer's dream, but I feel the same way. There is a lot of emotional attachment, and to go from this wonderful, full ball gown and then switch into a short dress, when are you going to be able to wear that ball gown again? Enjoy the wedding, enjoy the dress, and don't worry about changing your dress.

Is picking a dress a matter of playing it safe, or indulging in every bit of fantasy?

On your wedding day, even though it is such a special day, you want to be who you are. Of course, you want to be stunning, but you also don't want to look like you're in a costume or so out of sorts that you're not comfortable. When you don't feel confident, that's what your guests get. I think you have to have that certain air of confidence about you so that you can act gracefully and really enjoy every minute of it, but still feel like it's your day.

What's the best advice you've ever given about shopping for a dress?

To be open-minded and try on things that you might not necessarily gravitate toward on a hanger. And limit the number of people you shop with. I've sat there and watched groups of bridesmaids give their opinion on dresses, but it's not an opinion for the bride, it's for them personally. And you have to be able to remove yourself and say you're helping this young lady shop for her dress, not yours. That can be very upsetting to the bride -- no one's listening to her.

How hard is it to be Victoria Nicole when you have girls who say, "I have to have Vera," "I have to have Monique"?

It's challenging, there's no doubt about it, because I've been around as long as these people, but I've always been known under another label. So now, all of a sudden, it's Victoria Nicole, and it's all brand awareness, and most of the salons I sell to, the girls coming in are very aware , and right now, I'm building my brand. So even if they're putting on my dress and loving it, there's still that little part that's saying, "But nobody knows who Victoria Nicole is!" It's much easier to say -- or it's more fun, perhaps, to say -- "I got a Vera Wang." It will all come, that's all growing pains. But it's not going to happen overnight. And I have to be patient.

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