America's leading gypsy wedding dress designer, Sondra Celli, tells Sarah Daniell there is no such thing as 'too big'.
How come you even have time to talk - it's wedding season!
It's gypsy time - we're busy. They're all getting married. Most gypsies do outside jobs like painting or paving so when there's great weather that's when they work. and when they get money, that's when we sell.
How many dresses are you working on?
It's hard to say how many we make and I'll tell you why. Sometimes a dress is US$20,000 ($28,000) or US$30,000 and it'll take two weeks. The average girl spends between US$8000 and US$15,000. Sometimes you have dresses that are so massive that it takes time. If it's something really outrageous it takes a lot of work.
In terms of scale - the budget and the dress, it's like you're talking about architecture, not frocks.
We do so much technical work before we sew up a lot of this - just the drafting on how we're gonna produce some of these things is huge. But anything is possible. One of the girls here is an engineer. She's the best help here.
In the very likely event of an emotional meltdown - what do you do?
If they do get upset and emotional it's because it doesn't have enough crystal on it - there's not enough stuff. Stuff stuff stuff stuff stuff. They love stuff. We had a gypsy die and so they all wanted to wear rhinestones for the funeral. It took me a couple of nights to make rhinestone clothes for a funeral. The funeral is eight days away. I have 48 hours to get these clothes out of here - they've all bought Dolce & Gabbana boots, and fancy bags and they want clothes to go with the boots and the bags. I have girls falling asleep at the machine.
These are humble people with not massive means. Yet there's this extreme spending on a single dress for a single celebration. Why?
You have to understand the culture of gypsies. Gypsies wore all their possessions on their body because they used to travel and needed to move quickly. Today - if it's a wedding they want to show off. And to show off means being covered in jewellery and diamonds and rhinestones. So it really is a status dress to prove that the husband can make money. They call him a good "doer" - that's what gypsies say - he's a good doer, someone that can make a lot of money. They put their money in different places. they don't put it into education or home. They put it in cars and jewellery and clothing - anything material that they can show off - pretty much.
Yet would you describe them as superficial people?
I don't think that at all. I find everybody - including you and I - has some form of bragging. We might say our child goes to Harvard or our child just became a doctor - that's our way. Their way is to show how much money they have by wearing it. It's just a different form.
What's your strength in terms of what you give, beyond the big frock?
Well, I'm a decision-maker. Most of them never know what they want. They have this amount of money and they need it in two weeks or whatever. So they leave it in my hands. If I tell someone it'll be there tomorrow, it will be there tomorrow. I take their money and give them more than they paid for. I make the most beautiful dress I can possibly make, in the budget that they have. I've been with them for 39 years now. I'm 60.
Do you feel like a gypsy - like one of them?
Oh no, no. They live their lives and I live mine. I don't love that they get married and have children that young, but they don't love the fact that my daughter is 29 and not married. I just say, you do your own thing. My kid has her career. We're different.
Have you always wanted to do this?
My mother had the biggest bridal store on the East Coast. She had beautiful boutiques, three floors, bridal gowns from all over Europe. She had a health club and restaurant and a beauty shop. It was one big beautiful building with limos. I was raised around top bridal dresses from around the world. I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and I majored in menswear, believe it or not. And if you ever told me I'd be working for American gypsies I would tell you you were crazy.
How many people does it take to make a gyspy wedding dress?
There are eight girls who only do crystal all the time. I only have 14 people. Very small - four people on the machines - the secretary and myself. So the dresses get sewn up and then there's the girls applying the crystal and decorations and trim. What we do has to be taught because no one goes to design school and learns to make gypsy dresses. We take kids from the top design schools in Boston and New York.
Did you ever marry - and what did you wear?
I'm divorced - my wedding was beautiful - I got married when I was in my 20s in New York City and I wore a little short mini dress. I had no time to make it. I bought a dress. a really cute dress. I had an outrageous veil. The veil was the piece. And beautiful shoes. And that was it. If my daughter gets engaged she could say Mom I don't want anything from Sondra Celli. she could break my heart. Who knows?
What is your mantra to a bride about a dress?
Don't look at too many ideas. They make themselves crazy. Sometimes I get an email that will have so many dresses attached to it, they don't know what they want. I always tell them, find a silhouette first. The fabrics come later. Once you know the shape of what you want, everything else falls into place. But they don't do that - they send you a mermaid dress, and a full dress. Or a dress with an A line. Pick the shape first.
My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding Season 5, Wednesdays on TLC, SkyTV, from October 18, 8.30pm