“There really was no masterplan,” says Sassi Holford of her extraordinary journey to becoming one of the UK’s most established independent bridal designers. She was just 18 when a friend from her local village who was short on cash to pay for her wedding asked if she could make her a dress. Holford, who had dabbled in the craft but had no formal experience, agreed, unintentionally securing her first ever customer. Others in the village saw and loved the results, and within six months she had made another five dresses. “After that, I got in my car and drove to Exeter to sell more pieces, then to London, and before I knew it I was selling in Liberty’s,” she recalls.
Though entirely self-taught, Holford has constantly sought to hone her skills as a designer. “There isn’t a day that goes by when I don't want to learn a new technique or push those limits,” she says. It’s a philosophy that has helped secure the longevity of her business over more than four decades, taking her from a one-woman band to the leader of a nearly 50-strong team based in the company’s Somerset atelier, where all of the designs are still made. Offering a bespoke couture service as well as ready-to-wear bridal collections and occasionwear, the brand has attracted celebrity fans ranging from Helen Mirren to Holly Willoughby, and has weathered both recessions and a pandemic, only to come out stronger. Here, Holford shares some of the lessons she has learnt…
1/ People and place matter
"It’s important to surround yourselves with the right people – the team I built around myself was very considered. I also place a lot of value on my pieces being designed and made in a very organised, calm environment – each dress goes on a very logical journey around the atelier, from design and cutting to sewing and hand-finishing."
2/ Understand your supply chain
"Sustainability is very on-trend right now, but really what it means is being wholly responsible for every decision you make. We use a lot of silk, which is about as sustainable and biodegradable as it gets, and some of the fabrics we buy come from Devon, only 25 miles away. Having all our pieces made in Britain has always been, and remains, very important to us."
3/ Fashions change, but style is timeless
"When I design a dress, of course I want it to be on-trend – otherwise I’d be out of business! But I also want brides to look back at their wedding photographs in 15 years’ time and still absolutely love what they wore. Weddings today are really about showing the couple’s personality, about a feeling rather than a particular look, and that makes my job more fun than ever."
4/ Channel your ambition in the right direction
"I’ve reached a sweet spot with the bridal side of the business where, in terms of the UK market, we’re the size we want to be in order to maintain the right level of quality and service. So instead, I’m planning to scale up our presence in the US, where the growth market is much bigger, and I’m continuing to develop our occasionwear collections here in Britain."
5/ Follow your passion, and the rest will follow
"Our growth has always been very organic, because I haven’t been driven by business, I’ve been driven by doing what I love. I didn’t set out to be some sort of incredible businesswoman, I just wanted to make the best dresses I possibly could. Can I pass on a formula for success? No, because I don’t know how I got here – I just know I’m still having a blast."