From Self-Taught Designer to Sought-After Couturier

The designer Esé Azénabor-Grembowski has gained a following in the last few years for her grand wedding dresses with dramatic silhouettes and detachable pieces. Stylists and Hollywood celebrities have requested her designs for red carpet events, TV appearances and weddings.

She was even mentioned in the 2022 remake of the film “Father of the Bride,” alongside two of her idols, Vera Wang and Zuhair Murad. “To be included with these two iconic designers is such an honor,” said Mrs. Azénabor-Grembowski, who migrated from Nigeria to Ontario, Canada, with her family in 1997 when she was 10. She moved to Dallas in 2011 for a graduate program in accounting at Southern Methodist University and has lived in the city since then.

“As a Black woman in this industry and knowing from where I came from to where I am today, it’s truly incredible,” she said.

Big, traditional Nigerian weddings inspire Mrs. Azénabor-Grembowski’s designs. “I loved seeing what family and friends wore to weddings,” she said. “Their dresses were made of traditional Nigerian fabrics featuring different colors and patterns, like ashoké and ankara, embellished with 3-D appliqué. Those dresses help influence what I think a wedding dress should look like.”

In February, Mrs. Azénabor-Grembowski expanded her brand beyond her Dallas flagship showroom and atelier by opening a second boutique, during New York Fashion Week, on Madison Avenue. And she showed her first bridal runway collection, Essence, during the New York Bridal Fashion Week, which began on April 11.

I studied accounting to please my traditional Nigerian parents, who wanted me to follow a practical career. But I have always been fascinated by fabric, and how clothes are made, since I was a kid. I used to take apart my mom’s clothing and put them back together. In elementary school in Nigeria, I had to a wear a uniform, but once a month we’d get to wear our own clothing. One time I took my dad’s trousers and remade them for me with beading and different construction. My classmates asked if I could make a pair for them, and they would bring their dads’ pants to me to reconstruct for them.

As I got older, I continued to make clothes for family and friends, and while at university, I’d design my own clothes for social events. But I never thought it was going to be my career or anything serious. I thought I would do it just for fun. Then, to make extra money, I started selling my designs on eBay. I’d buy a yard of fabric here and there, go to vintage shops to get as much beaded fabric as possible and made my own creations by mixing fabrics together.

In 2012, a friend told me I had a lot of talent for making clothes and suggested that I do a fashion show. I started researching how to put one together and reached out to Rhonda Sargent Chambers, who’s a former model and well known for producing the biggest fashion shows in Dallas. She offered to produce my show for free in exchange that I made a dress for her. Being able to say that Rhonda Sargent Chambers produced my show was a big deal; it brought out the who’s who of fashion in Dallas.

I dropped out the second semester of my first year in grad school, where I was continuing my studies in accounting, to make my collection. I launched my evening wear line that year.

One of my clients I designed gala dresses for was getting married in 2015 and asked me to make her dresses for her ceremony and reception. She was very prominent in the community and having a big Jewish wedding. She wanted two heavily beaded dresses, and I only had two months to do it. At the time, I was a one-woman show, so I hired someone to help me, and we sewed and beaded all day, slept, woke up and worked all day again.

The bride posted her photos on her social media and they went viral. So many people started calling, asking me to make their dresses for their galas, parties and weddings. That’s when I realized how special it was to make someone’s wedding dress. It’s very different than making a dress for other events. A wedding dress is something they’ve dreamed of wearing since they were little girls, and I helped make that dream come true.

I originally started with only bespoke gowns, then started my first bridal collection in 2020. Designing bridal gowns expanded my creativity. It challenged me to use texture to make a white dress pop like one in color would. It’s pushed me to learn and perfect details like corseting and matching illusion tulle to the bride’s skin tone.

My inspiration comes from my love of fabrics and mixing colors and textures. I look at a fabric and can see a dress I want to create. I’m also inspired by beads and jewels, which in my culture have meaning. They can represent happiness or the social status of the bride’s family. And I’m inspired by my travels and what’s around me. If I see a tall building in Dubai, I imagine a beautiful silver dress.

She’s worldly, loves art and culture, and is super confident. She’s definitely not a wallflower. My bride doesn’t buy a piece just because it’s by a big name like Dior or Versace — she buys it because it’s unique and speaks to her. I design for the bride who wants an opulent, ornate gown. She comes to me to create a dress that’s sparkly and over-the-top, but also timeless.

I want to help a bride celebrate herself on her big day. I want her to know that a lot of love and attention was put into what she’s wearing for her wedding. I design gowns for when a bride walks into a room and everyone’s mouth drops. She can be as extra as she wants; it’s her day. Family and friends are coming from all over, and you don’t want them to just look at the flowers and cake — you want them looking at you. Your dress should be something to remember.

My bespoke dresses are one of a kind and made totally from scratch. They start from a sketch and I show the bride fabric swatches, ask specific questions, like which of her features she’d like to highlight. Then I create the gown.

Prêt Marièe is more a ready-to-wear line from which a bride can choose her dress as is and order to her measurements. Or she can customize her gown by combining elements from different looks within the Prêt Marièe collection.

I love to use raw silk because it’s stiff and fun to manipulate. I also use a lot of silk organza. For embellishments, I like to mix different types of stones and beads, including Swarovski, seed beads, pearls and Japanese glass stones to create texture and dimension. I like to combine them all into 3-D floral artwork.

I was obsessed with having a boutique on Madison Avenue since the first time I visited New York City in 2010. I remember saying out loud, “One day I will have a store here.” And then laughed at myself, thinking how big a dream it was for me. But fast forward to today and the dream has come true.

It was a no-brainer to open a boutique in New York: I was having an overwhelming response from brides whenever I did a three-day pop-up trunk show at the Plaza Hotel. I’ve done pop-ups in Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well, and those appointments took a few weeks to fill up. But the appointments for my New York pop-ups filled within 48 hours, even in the middle of Covid.