Weddings

Bridal gown designer to the stars Trish Peng reveals the realities of dressing Hollywood's elite

People started asking, 'do you do bridal?' I was like, 'sure, it’s just white, right?'

Running her hand through her hair, Trish Peng takes a seat, politely asking her assistant to shut the blinds on the scorching 31 degree celsius rays streaming through the windows of her hilltop showroom inside a Los Angeles mansion. In a white sleeveless top and flowing burgundy skirt, the 27-year-old Kiwi designer looks effortlessly chic, lounging on the couch where Hollywood actresses have enjoyed high tea and champagne while watching Trish sketch their dream wedding dress.

Across the room stands a mannequin wearing the gorgeous red bridal gown which saw Trish break the record for the longest train on a catwalk during NZ Fashion Week 2016.

"It's so long it's in storage now," she says. "Photographers here sometimes want to use it for desert shoots."

On either side of the standout frock lie racks of her designs, including a glittering, sheer custom-made number for a reality starlet who changed her mind at the last minute, opting for a different outfit to avoid "overpowering" Kardashian family matriarch Kris Jenner at an event.

"It's a size two and won't fit anyone else now!" observes Trish, shaking her head in annoyance.

Despite the frustrations that can come with dressing Tinseltown's elite, the scene is one more step towards the fruition of a long-held dream to become the fashion world's next Vera Wang, the seeds of which were planted in Trish's mind 20 years ago while playing dress-up in her mum Susan's closet.

"Mum had all these 80s outfits – the chunky earrings, sunglasses, pearls and dresses," she recalls. "I used to dress up and she'd be like, 'You're crazy!' But I just knew I wanted to be a designer at the age of seven."

With Trish's father, Peter, and Susan moving from China to NZ and starting a refrigeration business, and her brother Patrick and extended family all in medicine, pursuing the cut-throat world of fashion wasn't an obvious path in the eyes of her parents, who questioned whether the teen might like to consider law or medicine.

While they fully supported her decision to forge ahead in the arts, a lack of fashion-related subjects prompted the ambitious Aucklander to take things into her own hands.

Experimenting with fabrics and teaching herself to sew, she also enrolled in a diploma in pattern-making and garment construction at the NZ Academy of Fashion Design, which she devoted Monday nights to during high school.

Meanwhile, her drama classmate Keisha Castle-Hughes shot to fame following her Oscar-winning role in 2002's Whale Rider, so when Keisha needed outfits for events, Trish would "whip something up," further fueling her passion for fashion.

Starting a bachelor of fine arts (majoring in fashion design) at Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design (after being rejected from Auckland University of Technology's fashion school), she entered every competition she could find – becoming a finalist in Westfield Style Pasifika in 2011 and named in the top three at Westpac's Young Designer Competition, which allowed her and her design partner to showcase three dresses at NZ Fashion Week.

By her final year of study, Trish was being asked to put on a pivotal show at Waiheke Island's Stonyridge Vineyard.

"I met the owner and he was like, 'Do you want to do a show?' He gave me eight weeks to make 24 dresses. I was literally sewing all day, every day, and mum was helping me. I was figuring out my aesthetic as a designer and thinking maybe I wanted to be an evening gown designer, but I did one finale bridal gown and people started asking, 'Do you do bridal?' I was like, 'Sure. It's just white, right?' Bridezillas didn't occur to me! I never planned on getting into bridal wear, I just evolved into it and it's an incredible market because everyone gets married no matter what the economy's like."

While finishing her degree, Trish spent weekends fulfilling orders then headed to New York after graduating. Soaking up the style mecca, she interned at New York Fashion Week – where the "cut-throat, catty and not that fun" scene nudged her further towards bridal wear – and worked as a style consultant at Saks Fifth Avenue, carefully making contacts that could eventually help get her brand stocked in the high-end chain.

She also entered Project Runway – the same year Kiwi Sean Kelly won the reality competition – and was told she was accepted pending her visa renewal. Rushing home to fast-track the paperwork, she devastatingly received the visa two days late.

"I was so gutted. I was in New Zealand, thinking, 'Oh my god, my life's over.' But that's when I went, 'You know what? Let's just do this fulltime. There's no going back!'"

Officially registering her business, Trish grew her clientele, opened a showroom in Auckland, then scored investment from a businessman she had met during her college years.

The funds allowed her to move to the US, where she opened a showroom inside the spectacular Garbutt Mansion in 2016. Clients are picked up in Ubers and chauffeured to the stunning spot, where Trish puts on afternoon tea while designing their ideal gown.

The unique, custom experience has helped set her apart from the rows of bridal stores lining Beverly Hills, but transitioning to the US while maintaining her New Zealand business remains a challenge.

"They say if you can make a business in New Zealand, you can do it anywhere, but coming to America is even harder," says Trish, who counts American Apparel founder Dov Charney as a mentor.

"It's starting from scratch in a bigger market, which is both challenging and exciting. It's so competitive here. New Zealand's a small pond, so word gets out quicker. Here, I'm learning every day about different taxes and laws. And New Zealand brides are so different to American brides. I try to design the classics range, which is very NZ, then the couture which is very American. It's about learning the different markets.

"Sometimes I do put too much pressure on myself. I'll think, 'I've been here a year – why am I not doing better?' But it's about persevering and I have no doubt I'll get there in the end. It just depends what route I take."

Named one of Angeleno magazine's 30 Dynamic Women in LA in December 2016, Trish's greatest coup came thanks to being asked by Hollywood actress Brittany Daniel to design a gown for her June wedding to Adam Touni.

The former Sweet Valley High star's wedding planner, Charley King, recommended Trish despite never having met her, and when Brittany turned up with her twin sister Cynthia, the women instantly clicked.

"I was thinking, 'White Chicks is my favourite movie,' but didn't tell her that," says Trish. "She's got a bangin' body and said, 'I want to show my body and I like lace.' I sketched for her and she was like, 'Perfect!' She's sweet – like Sweet Valley High! – humble, grounded and very zen. She wasn't demanding at all.

"It's a six to eight month journey I go on with each bride and it creates this bond where I end up being good friends with them and they invite me to their wedding. So I helped her get ready on the day, then went to the ceremony and it was beautiful. It was so rewarding seeing her in my design. I was like, 'Wow, I don't even know you that well, but I'm crying!' Going on that whole journey with her – creating the dress from start to finish, seeing her walk down the aisle in it then partying afterwards – has been a highlight."

The off-the-shoulder, mermaid-cut gown was made with hand-embellished lace and featured pearl beading, detachable sleeves and a tulle skirt. Thanks to the wedding featuring in People magazine – "that blew my mind" – business has been boosted.

"Some lady was like, 'I don't even buy People, but it was in my letterbox, and I went, 'Oh my God, who made this dress? I'm going to research you.' We're definitely getting some momentum."

While bridal wear remains her focus (with the Classics Range starting from NZD$4500 and the Couture Range, all hand-beaded and embroidered, from $6500), Trish still makes custom evening gowns, outfitting Seven Sharp host Shavaughn Ruakere for the 2017 Academy Awards, currently working on the Hollywood awards season and still dressing Keisha Castle-Huges from time-to-time. And keeping Kiwi pals close is vital in the often-ruthless town of LA.

"The first question when you meet someone is, 'What do you do?' and if you can't help them, they don't want to know you. It's about weeding that out, but at the end of the day, those people are my clients and my target market, so it's also about surrounding myself with genuine people because you can get caught up in the LA scene so quickly.

"It's hard moving to a whole new country and finding your place; it can be stressful and lonely especially at those low moments, but friends become family here. I'm also close to my parents, literally Skyping them every day!"

Her family couldn't be prouder and Trish sees them regularly thanks to visits to NZ, where business continues to thrive. Her designs, which have been worn by members of the Silver Ferns, are stocked in stores in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and interest has rocketed following Brittany's wedding.

Trish also continues to make global headlines at NZ Fashion Week, with 2016's record-breaking red gown (with its 25-metre train) followed up in 2017 with a dress made using $4000 worth of real flowers, which took 77 hours to construct.

As she continues her quest to become the next Vera Wang, she's yet to meet the icon, but was "starstruck" seeing designer Tom Ford at vegan hotspot Gracias Madre the day before talking to NEXT.

"That was awesome. And, we had a bride the other day and she's tossing up between me and Vera Wang, so we're waiting to hear back and [assistant] Kesha was just saying, 'If she goes with us, this would be the first time someone chooses us over Vera Wang.' That would be pretty cool!"

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