It seems that women of all ages just can’t help themselves when it comes to a certain reality show. They can’t say no to watching Say Yes to the Dress … over and over and over again!
Admittedly, I am one of them. If nothing is on television, I tune into TLC for what I call comfort viewing. It doesn’t matter that I’ve seen an episode five or six times; like a moth drawn to light, I’m in! I’ve become astute at differentiating a Pnina Tornai gown from one by Mark Zunino. Currently, I’m obsessed with designs from Hayley Paige.
When we were given the opportunity to do a telephone interview with the show’s main man, Randy Fenoli, I did a little research on his background. A line of gowns he designed for the Diamond Collection over 20 years ago came up in his resume. That sounded familiar, so I went into Lancaster County magazine’s archives and lo and behold, Diamond Collection did a photo shoot in Lancaster County in the summer of 1993.
It just so happens that during the early ’90s, Lancaster County was a fashion mecca as far as photo shoots went. Magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Spanish Elle used Lancaster’s iconic farmland as a backdrop for fashion features. In that period of minimalism, the Amish were fashion icons to designers such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Jil Sander and Donna Karan.
The Vogue shoot was based at the Osceola Mill House Bed & Breakfast in Gordonville. At the time, it was owned by Robin and Sterling Schoen. The magazine was given access to the very hush-hush photo shoot. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to walk into the staging room and see all the fashions that had arrived throughout the week. Thinking back, it looked like a mini-version of the “closet” seen in The Devil Wears Prada. And, to see super model Christy Turlington in the flesh was mind-boggling.
The purpose of Diamond Collection’s visit was to photograph an advertising campaign that was set to appear in Modern Bride magazine. Once again, we were given exclusive access. Originally scheduled to be photographed on Long Island, photographer Jacques Malignon saw the Vogue photos and suggested the shoot be moved to Lancaster. “Amish Country gives us a setting that is very pure, very innocent and very romantic,” he explained during a break in photography. The Schoens once again hosted the crew and, thanks to the cooperation of their Amish neighbors, provided a range of locations for the shots. Randy recalls that the shoot’s location was “innovative and out-of-the box,” especially for the world of bridal fashions. “Nobody was doing that at the time,” he says.
Randy, who had recently graduated from design school, partnered with Robert Legere to design the line that featured ballgowns, halter-style gowns, a style that was a precursor to the mermaid, and something altogether new: short dresses that featured long, detachable tulle skirts. According to Randy, the body-hugging designs signaled the arrival of “an emphasis on physical fitness: women now have bodies to show off,” he remarked. Looking at the photographs now, the collection could be described as timeless.
Our telephone interview was in conjunction with Randy’s November 5 appearance at The Pullo Center in York. Due to a scheduling conflict, the show had to be postponed. It has been rescheduled for March 17.
Randy grew up on a cattle farm in Mt. Vernon, Illinois. He discovered his fashion-related talents at the age of 9, when he began creating his own designs and sewing his own pieces. “Where it comes from, I don’t know,” he says, explaining both his mother and father didn’t have the creative gene. “For me, it just made sense.” One of his first projects was a dress he made — in a day — for his mother. “She wore it to work the next day,” he notes. Randy’s talents eventually took him to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Upon graduating, he accepted a design position with Diamond Collection.
During the course of our interview, I told him about digging out the January 1994 issue and locating the pictures from the shoot. “Oh, my, gosh!” he exclaimed. “I totally forgot about that. You know, all I ever wanted to do is get off the farm and go to New York, and where do I end up for my first ever photo shoot? A farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania! I couldn’t believe it!” Still, he has fond memories of his first shoot, calling it “fun” and “quite the experience.” The person in one of the photos is definitely Randy, but 20+ years ago, he was rocking jeans and a T-shirt and had hair down to his waist.
Ironically, it was a trunk show at Kleinfeld Bridal that put him on the map. He began designing solo, creating two lines for Diamond. Then, he burned out. “I moved to New Orleans and went into real estate,” he recalls. He returned to New York post-Katrina and went to work at Kleinfeld’s.
Kleinfeld Bridal is a story unto itself. Founded in 1941, the Brooklyn-based store became the go-to destination for brides. By the mid-90s, however, the allure had faded. Enter Mara Urshel (a veteran of Saks Fifth Avenue), Ronnie Rothstein (an attorney turned business owner) and Wayne Rogers (who became involved in the world of finance after leaving the television show, MASH), who bought the company in 1999. With the help of investors and a move to a much larger and higher-profile location in Manhattan, Kleinfeld reclaimed its top spot as a destination for bridal fashions. The numbers are astounding: 200+ employees, 20,000+ brides per year and annual sales estimated at approximately $150 million.
Kleinfeld’s owners couldn’t help but notice Randy’s rapport with the customers. His “Hello, beautiful” greeting made women feel all the more special and put them at ease. “Oh, I guess you could say I’m part therapist and part style guide,” he says of working with brides. In 2007, he was promoted, becoming the store’s fashion director.
That same year, TLC and Half Yard Productions came calling with an idea for a reality show about the process a woman goes through in choosing the most important dress she will ever wear. The show was an instant success. Soon, brides from Main Street America were being joined by celebrities, professional athletes and international jet setters. Of course, tears, drama and unlimited budgets play key roles in keeping viewers riveted to the screen. Because it’s seen in 150 countries, Kleinfeld has become a bona-fide tourist attraction. “Visitors are welcome to come into the lobby and get a view of the salon,” Randy reports, adding that many of the consultants have their own fan clubs, as well. Vera, who heads up the alterations department appears on nearly every show. “You can tell what kind of day she is having by her hair,” Randy says of her loose bun.
Randy is of the opinion that Say Yes to the Dress is the closest thing to “real” reality on television. “TLC and Half Yard really put the applicants through a tough screening process,” he explains. The vetting process ensures that an applicant is truly getting married and is not someone who is simply trying to get her 15 minutes of fame. “There’s no money, no compensation, no discounts” he points out. According to Randy, a Kleinfeld appointment is usually scheduled for two hours; however, if filming is involved, three hours is typically allotted. If a bride walks out of the store empty-handed, that is how the appointment ended.
That brought me to point out to Randy that he has another Lancaster connection that was made through the show. In December 2011, Jacy Good appeared on the show. Randy remembered her immediately and grew quiet. “That was a very emotional story, appointment and show,” he says. Jacy’s consultant, Diane, was determined to provide her with the best service possible.
Jacy, as many of you probably remember, was on her way back to Lititz, following her graduation from Muhlenberg College in May 2008. At a traffic light on Route 222 near Allentown, a young man, who was talking on his cell phone, drove through a red light, prompting a truck to swerve and hit the Good family’s car. Jacy’s parents, Jay and Jean were killed. Jacy was clinging to life; she remained in a coma for the next two months. Through it all, her future husband, Steve Johnson, supported her efforts to recover from the tragedy. Today, the two are dedicated advocates for a program called Just Hang Up and Drive. Her show appears periodically.
While Randy is still associated with Say Yes to the Dress, he left Kleinfeld’s in 2012 in order to pursue other ventures, including a spin-off show, Randy to the Rescue. His speaking engagements and appearances take him all over the world. “I’m really excited about Season 15,” he says. Set to begin airing in January, he holds the opinion that “it is the best season yet.” Two episodes in particular may qualify as his all-time favorites.
Before saying goodbye, he had one question: “How far will I be from Lancaster when I’m in York.” When told he would be 30 minutes away, we could hear the wheels spinning in his head. So, if you see someone who looks familiar checking out market or dining in a restaurant in mid-March, you never know … it could be Randy Fenoli.
An Evening with Randy Fenoli will be held March 17 (7:30 p.m.) at the Pullo Center on the campus of Penn State York. For ticket information, call 505-8900 or visit pullocenter.york.psu.edu.
Randy’s Tips for Selecting the Perfect Wedding Gown from his book, It’s All About the Dress:
Establish a Budget
First, establish a budget for the wedding. Then, key in on the dress. This will help during the shopping process. However, if you find something beyond that figure, hopefully you’ll be able to “borrow” from the overall budget.
Establish Your Story
The dress sets the tone for the wedding and represents your style, i.e. modern, vintage, traditional, etc.
Start Shopping Immediately
Keep in mind that it typically takes six to eight months for a gown to be ordered and delivered.
Bring people to the appointment who love and support you and who are aware of the big picture (i.e., budget, etc.).
Say Yes to a Veil
As Randy often says on the show, “Without a veil, you’re just a pretty girl in a white dress.” The veil is the finishing touch that makes you feel and look like a bride.