Q+A with Bridal Designer Shawna Marino

Bridal designer Shawna Marino.
Photo by Leo Soyfer

Shawna Marino is an Indiana-based bridal and formal wear designer. When she stepped into her college freshman orientation, she discovered that she wanted to pursue fashion design, and fell in love with the ins and outs of bridal couture. PATTERN had the opportunity to sit down with Shawna and discuss her inspirations, aspirations and brand in the ever-fluctuating wedding industry.

Growing up in Indiana, what drew you to fashion design?

I wasn’t really into it until I went to college. I originally started as a sports medicine major, and then I went to my orientation and said, “I want to do fashion.” It came out of nowhere. So, I just went with it, and then I just ended up loving it. I loved all the classes, and that’s what started my interest in going after that.

Were you always inclined towards designing bridal and formal attire?

I wasn’t sure until my senior year of college, when we had to create a Senior Collection. Before that, I was hoping I’d just figure it out. Then I went to a wedding in Texas for my cousin during my senior year and said, “I want to do bridal, I want to do formal.” It’s something that drew me in, because of all the little details. I knew that this was something I would want to work with every day. I created my senior line based off of that, and ever since, it’s been the top choice.

Shawna's Plaza dress, front view.
Shawna's Plaza gown.

What drew you to Ball State, and what pushed you to change your major later on?

When I was applying, I was looking at different schools for cheerleading. I did that in high school, but decided that I didn’t want to necessarily cheer anymore. I wanted to focus more on school and what I was going to do, and I wanted to join a sorority, so I don’t want to be overwhelmed. I have a twin sister and we both decided to go to Ball State. We knew a lot of people from my high school that were going there, too. We thought, “oh, this will be a good fit for both of us.” We didn’t necessarily want to be separated yet, so it was easier to do that. Then when I went to the orientation, I decided to do fashion. I changed course, and luckily there were enough classes open that they fit me into everything I needed.

After college, you moved to New York to intern with JLM Couture. What was this experience like?

It was amazing! All the people there were very welcoming, and I learned so much. I worked with [bridal designer] Allison Webb every single day, and she taught me hand beading, lace placements, layouts and everything that goes into the little details of a design. Not everyone knows about that unless you see the behind-the-scenes of the design, but it’s so important. One piece of lace that’s off can make the whole dress look awful. She taught me almost everything I know. I learned how the whole fashion industry worked, in manufacturing production, fashion shows and everything else that it takes to get a sketch to an actual dress.

Bridal designer Shawna Marino.
Bridal designer Shawna Marino.

So what brought you back here to Indiana?

When I was first in New York, I missed my family. When I started my label, it was very easy, because I had to have a contract with the factory out there. I do the design and they produce it for me, so I can be anywhere I want to be. I don’t necessarily have to be in New York, and when I was missing family and friends, it was easier to come back or go back and forth. I do miss New York. When COVID shut down everything, I had a lot of friends leave the city, so there was no real desire to go back right away. The factory I work with is in Manhattan’s Garment District, so everything’s there- fabric shops, even little trim shops. It’s so much easier to produce out there.

In a few words, describe your brand and how it has evolved over the years.

My brand focuses mostly on elegance and beauty in both the dresses and the person that’s wearing it.  When I started out, I had someone here making a sample for me, and it just wasn’t what I envisioned.

I had contacts out in New York and that’s when I said, if I decide to create a line and produce it, I need connections, because a lot of factories won’t even give you the time of day unless you have names. I talked to one of the seamstresses that worked for Hayley Paige at JLM. They knew some of the ins and outs. I basically produced the line, came up with the collection, and then they made them for me. I put them in a couple shows, and now we’re just waiting on the market. The main part of it was definitely getting the manufacturing down, because that’s what was going to create my brand and have it be full production.

What is your favorite thing about designing wedding dresses and formal wear?

I would definitely say the lace and hand beading, I’m very particular, so I have my factory basically produce, basically, a rough draft of the dress, then I go and I hand bead and add the lace and everything. That’s definitely my favorite part, just because it’s the part that drew me to bridal in the first place.

Your work has been featured in Paris Fashion Week and Midwest Fashion Week, and will be featured in New York Bridal Fashion Week this October. Could you speak about these experiences and what it’s like to have your work in a show?

Midwest Fashion Week was a really cool experience. The people that I got to meet were all very nice and welcoming. That was when I first created my collection so no one had seen it. It was my first time seeing the runway. I was just behind the stage part, and all I could hear was screaming and cheering as my designs were walking out. I was like, “oh my gosh, people actually like them!” That was a very surreal feeling.

The same people were putting on Paris Fashion Week, but we had to do it virtually, with COVID and travel restrictions. We filmed our show at the Arts Garden. It was different, but we were able to be more creative with the video and get shots of the dresses from all angles and with up-close details. Both were great experiences.

Describe the first piece you designed for Shawna M designs.

One of my first pieces I designed was one of my Ball State Senior Collection pieces. We call it the Empire gown. When I went to interview for JLM in New York. I went to a fabric store, and I saw this piece of fabric hanging over the rafters. I was like, “I have to have that!” It’s gold and shimmery and I knew I needed to make something out of it for my Senior Collection, so I got it. I put that piece in every single show because it’s the showstopper gown. Everyone loves it, and it’s one of the designs that first created, produced and sewed myself. The fact that it’s still an iconic piece of mine is pretty cool.

Shawna's Empire gown, back view.
Shawna's Empire gown.

You specialize in custom, limited supply bridal and formal wear. How often do you design and produce new pieces?

Right now, we’ve been set back because of COVID. I tried to only create one collection and then, my goal was to get it into bridal markets and stores and everything. With markets being pushed back almost a year and a half now, it’s been more difficult. At first, I was creating about five pieces a year. This last year, I’ve been put on hold. I didn’t have an overload of designs when I wasn’t sure where the fashion industry was. I just had to put the brakes on it and wait and see. Right now, I’m still doing about five pieces a year. Eventually, once my brand grows, then we can do full collections of ten to twelve dresses every season. Right now, I just want to keep it under wraps, where I’m still in control of everything and it doesn’t get away from me.

Looking to the future, how do you see your brand growing over the next few years? What elements in particular would you like to see grow?

I would like to create more dresses in my collections. Getting into New York Bridal Fashion Week is definitely a huge step, and the market they have the week before is great because that’s where we want the buyers for stores. To have them carry our lines and then to see brides in our dresses and when they’re getting married would be awesome. That’s going to be the next step.

To learn more about Shawna and her label, Shawna M Designs, check out her website and Instagram.