The Harlem School of the Arts Remembers Amsale Aberra, Trailblazing Black Fashion Designer and FIT Alumna

Aberra honored by her namesake fashion label at Bridal Fashion Week April 13th, 2018, nearly two weeks after her passing from cancer.

Next month, Ethiopian-American fashion designer, entrepreneur, and FIT alumna Amsale Aberra will be posthumously honored at the Harlem School of the Arts’ annual benefit fundraiser. She will be the recipient of a Visionary Lineage Award alongside several other prominent contributors to the artistic community, including her daughter, singer/songwriter Rachel Brown.

During her lifetime, Aberra was revered for her elegant, minimalistic couture bridal collections, which later expanded under her namesake brand, Amsale, to include ready-to-wear lines and designer gowns adored by Hollywood. A self-starting woman and savvy entrepreneur, Aberra founded what is now an international bridal empire from a humble loft apartment and was one of the first African-American designers to be recognized as an aesthetical trailblazer in the bridal industry.

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Aberra moved to the United States for college to escape political upheaval in her home country. Growing up, Aberra had always loved fashion, but it never occurred to her that she would become a fashion designer, let alone a couture designer. “In Ethiopia, there were no fashion designers,” she recalled to Huffington Post. “I never knew that designing beautiful clothes was a profession to which one could aspire.”

While studying political science in New England, Aberra first began to sew her own clothes out of necessity and soon fell in love with the craft. She later moved to New York City and enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she earned an Associate’s Degree in Fashion Design.

Aberra in the gown she designed for her own wedding in 1985.

In 1985, while planning her own wedding, Aberra struggled to find a wedding gown that satisfied her taste. Bridal stores at the time typically offered gowns with full, large-shouldered silhouettes ornamented by maximalist embellishments, embroidery, and lace. Though coveted at vintage markets nowadays, the gowns seemed gaudy to Aberra, who desired a simple yet timeless style that transcended trends. “Twenty years after the wedding, I want a bride to be able to look at her pictures and be as happy with the way she looked as she was on her wedding day,” she said.

An entrepreneur at heart, Aberra transformed her dilemma into a business opportunity and began to offer modern, custom-made gowns to brides like her. She started her business out of her apartment in New York City, cutting dresses on her kitchen table, and landed her first wholesale account with bridal giant Kleinfeld.

Mark Ingram, who worked under Aberra in the late Nineties, described the designer as the inventor of the modern wedding dress. “She was doing strapless, plain, and sheer illusion necklines and sleeves before anybody in the late Eighties,” he told Women’s Wear Daily. However, Aberra didn’t have sufficient funds to promote her designs and compete with larger bridal brands at the time, recalled Mara Urshel, co-owner of Kleinfeld. “But she stayed true to her course. You could always tell an Amsale.”

Julia Roberts wears a wedding gown made by Aberra in the movie “Runaway Bride”.

In 1997, Aberra was the third ever bridal designer to open a boutique on Madison Avenue in New York City. The store later expanded into a sleek, 5,000-square-foot space with a gallery-like atmosphere to showcase multiple lines. From 2010 to 2017, an Amsale flagship store in Seoul attracted the brand’s burgeoning international customer base.

Over the years, Aberra’s gowns were featured in “The Hangover”, “27 Dresses” and “Grey’s Anatomy”, to name a few. Her greatest impact, however, remains in the aesthetical realm, with her foundational influences found in almost every modern bridal collection today.

Stay tuned for Blush Magazine’s coverage of the Harlem School of Arts’ 2018 Masquerade ball-themed fundraiser, which will take place on October 22th at the Plaza Hotel New York. For more information or tickets to the event, please visit hsanyc.org/fall2018benefit.

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