Justina McCaffrey: how fairy tales are born

May 17, 2010

Renowned Canadian bridal wear designer, Justina McCaffrey, chats exclusively with Hannah Yakobi about trends, life and her biggest passion aside from wedding dresses. Photos courtesy of Justina McCaffrey.

Justina McCaffrey at The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.

Justina McCaffrey has a designer bag that she carries everywhere. “Designer” in this case does not refer to a brand. Instead, this bag is something much simpler, yet definitely more important.

Plastic, see-through, 8 by 10, binder-like – this is Justina’s most useful tool. Inside, she hides small scissors, clips, buttons, skinny needles, threads, beads and a handful of special pins that are her favourite and that, she says, she can only find in New York. The bag has become an important instrument in designer’s life, as she travels constantly between Canada and the US.

Once upon a time…

McCaffrey’s link to the States goes back to the start of her career at the tender age of 18. She was a charter member and graduate of the Los Angeles-based Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, where she specialized in manufacturing. She won a number of American Entrepreneurial National and International DECA Awards and, upon her graduation, moved to Ottawa in 1988, where she began a fairy tale life of a bridal wear designer.

The first wedding dress she ever designed was for her own wedding. McCaffrey eventually joined forces with her husband, David, to start a bridal wear empire, with stores across North America, and clients ranging from Hollywood celebrities to top Canadian politicians.

So why wedding dresses? “There is something so uplifting about the white colour,” she says. “There is no other industry where you can really max out on intricate handmade lace. There is nothing like the wedding dress – it really is that once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

A new era begins

The McCaffrey duo ran a very successful business until 2008, when the couple suffered financial losses and also decided to divorce. The couple dissolved their business partnership and McCaffrey now runs her own company. Her dresses are selling better and faster than ever, which is not a surprise, considering the fact that she is one of the few designers to win the Matinee Fashion Foundation Award six years in row.

Her feelings about entrepreneurial independence are very straight forward: “I enjoy it immensely. It’s like a new territory and doesn’t seem to be difficult because I have a manufacturing background. I’m also lucky to be surrounded by some very strong individuals, with multi-million dollar businesses, who provide me with advice.”

McCaffrey currently ships dresses to stores in San Francisco, San Diego, Beverly Hills and New York, and is holding talks with some big department store chains in the States, where she would like to expand.

On March 27 this year, a renowned boutique on Sussex Drive, called Justine’s, was renamed to Justine & Justina. The store is owned by an Ottawa entrepreneur, Christine Shaikin, who decided to renovate the entire space and create a separate section for bridal wear, which will be exclusively dedicated to McCaffrey’s dresses.

“I’m really thrilled to be back in Ottawa,” says McCaffrey. “Justine has always been the city’s fashion landmark. Margaret Trudeau worked there during her divorce from Pierre Trudeau, and this is a fantastic location that houses the work of many European and North American designers.”

A style, unmatched

McCaffrey’s designs stand out from other designers because of their delicacy and intricacy. She is often called The Vera Wang of Canada, but McCaffrey insists that her style is very different.

“It’s a great compliment to be compared to Vera, but I think that if you took the magnifying glass and really studied what we have to offer, you’d realize that our work is very distinct. If you take her dresses apart, there is an artistry and genius behind them, but they are not very flattering to women unless the women are very skinny.

“My dresses are the exact opposite – they are all about showing your curves, giving you a waistline, tucking you in, giving you a bust line. I also let the bride pose for pictures, before I start making her dress. People can have the same measurements but they can have very different shapes.

“And, from a more artistic perspective, I’m trying to create a totally ethereal experience and that is what my brand is all about.”

Justina’s secret

Few people know that McCaffrey is a huge fan of dance and filmmaking.

She has made several short musical films to date. The first one, called Coronation, contains no dialogue but has Mozart’s Coronation Mass playing in the background. The story focuses on a bride, who wakes up in her bed, sees a young man from the window and runs out of the house. As she makes her way through the scenic Paris, the dresses she wears change. The film turns into a pursuit, where the two chase each other and make exceptionally impressive ballet jumps in the air (both are dancers at the National Ballet of Canada). The lead role is played by Krista Dowson, corps de ballet. Since the video was made, she has become McCaffrey’s muse. The film is, fittingly, dedicated to McCaffrey’s Coronation collection.

McCaffrey’s second film is called The Ninth and plays to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. “The one thing I regret,” says McCaffrey, “is that musically-speaking we had to considerably chop it up to make all the visuals work. I’m sure that Beethoven is rolling in his grave. And I’m certain that if I had Pinchus listen to it, he’d probably screech.

“It starts off in black and white, with me at the sewing machine. I’m sewing away, looking at the clock, and then you see the date circled on the calendar and that’s the market date that everything has to be made. Suddenly, I scream in anger, because nothing is working, and throw all dresses into a big pile. Four dresses turn into ballerinas. They start dancing and are greeted by prince-like men. It all resembles a wedding ceremony, as the couples dance together. The film flashes back to me, sewing. I finish the dress and put it on the hanger. It’s ready!”

The bride wore…black?

Since 1997, when Sarah Jessica Parker famously donned a black dress for her wedding, there has been a steady trend towards wedding gowns of all shades and colours. This is something McCaffrey has experimented with too, but she has been more careful with her approach.

“When the Coronation collection was released, we burst into colour. We offered ice blues, various tones of blushes, mochas. But, right now, I just love focusing on white. I find it so refreshing and I think this is true for many other designers who work on an international scale.

“Also, I am not fond of catapulting into black. Vera Wang is using black pretty much exclusively as a contrast colour, for satin belts, for example. That makes me think of black belts in karate. A lot of designers are using black as an under fabric with white lace over top. I find that black is too harsh, it’s too much, it’s revolting.”

Food for thought, brides.

Trend book preview

Justina’s next collection is hitting the market in October 2010. The brides-to-be should look out for some specific trends.

“Expect to see plenty of beadwork, a lot of which is being used for texture,” says McCaffrey. “I will experiment with multiple layers and organzas. There will be a strong focus on asymmetrical looks, silver tones and simpler numbers. I would also recommend delicate fabrics, a lot of waist definition, full skirts and, definitely, ball gowns.”

For further information, or to contact Justina McCaffrey, please go to www.justinamccaffrey.com


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  • m.a. said:

    Excellent article!! i’ve always been a fan of Justina McCaffrey. I love how she’s continuing to be successful in the bridal wear industry. I definitely plan to shop for one of her dresses!!

    Well done, Hannah xox

  • Minka S. said:

    Great article, Hannah! Very well written. =)
    She’s quite the designer. And I completely agree with her on sticking with the traditionl white colour for wedding dresses. Accentuating with lace, beads and crystals is fine, so long as it’s in the same colour. Black and other bright colours take away from the beauty of a wedding dress and are, in fact, revolting (as she quite succinctly puts it).
    Want colour in your wedding? That’s what flowers are for. And bridesmaids’ dresses! ;)

  • Ada said:

    Love it :)

  • mdc said:

    Fantastic article Hannah ! I love her and have always been a fan, and I think moreso after a lengthy Citizen article talked about what she went through in her divorce and after. I think that her life has been amazing and her dresses are gorgeous. And I agree with the fact that black reminds me of black belts and dark things and it is revolting !

    Good job Miss Hannah !

  • Artisto Virtuoso said:

    Excellent article! I didn’t know that she was into film making and dancing.
    “I also let the bride pose for pictures, before I start making her dress. People can have the same measurements but they can have very different shapes.” So true! Love her wedding designs!

  • Ale said:

    Very interesting and instructive article for a bride-to-be. Nice work!

  • Nudie Jeans said:

    Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

  • Ludivina Braymer said:

    A thoughtful insight and ideas I will use on my website. You’ve obviously spent a lot of time on this. Thank you!

  • Chelsea Handler said:

    Hey, superb post.


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