Sometimes it’s a subtle nudge to consider another designer. At other times, the voice is more matter of fact, explaining why a certain style doesn’t pair with a venue.
This Marchesa? The beading may be too much. Do you want to try Jenny Packham? Reem Acra? A beaded belt might not work with this gown. That other gown was pretty, but it was too old. This is better. Are you going to wear a veil? Maybe a hair clip instead?
The advice comes to those brides-to-be who shop (and stop to listen) at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. The source is a short, conservatively dressed saleswoman.
Her name is Hermin Papazian. Her age is 74. Her official title is bridal consultant. But, in truth, she is a bride whisperer.
Equal parts personal stylist and doting grandmother, Papazian cuts through the sprawling collection of designer ball gowns, mermaids, sheaths and other styles that make up Saks’ bridal salon — her domain for 16 years (she also worked there two years prior when the space was leased to Kleinfeld Bridal).
She attempts to find the “perfect gown” for her clients and says her success rate is 90%.
“I don’t want to pressure them,” Papazian says. “When I was young, I didn’t like anyone pressuring me. I ask them questions. I ask them to look around and see what they like.”
And while they look, Papazian sizes them up, quickly deciding which style and designer will work best.
She never takes the way they’re dressed into consideration. “That’s a very wrong thing to do,” Papazian says. “The only thing I look at is their height, their figure. There are certain gowns that some people can wear and some people cannot.”
She wastes no time as she shares her opinions.
“I was looking at these other dresses from this other designer, and they were not me at all,” says Mariana Klaveno, an actress. Papazian came up to her, took “one look at the dresses and said, ‘Why are you looking at these ugly dresses? These dresses are not for you. You’re classic. You’re old Hollywood. That is the dress for you.’ And she’s pointing ... right there on the mannequin, and it’s literally like an angel came down .... I had a sense of relief.”
Klaveno ended up with a sexy yet classic Elizabeth Fillmore sheath-style gown for her February wedding.
Papazian says she makes a point of not pushing bigger-ticket items, saying she’ll instead put a customer in a $10,000 gown with a so-so fit just to prove that a less-expensive choice is the better option for her. (At Saks, gowns run from $3,800 to more than $20,000 for custom orders — significantly higher than $1,121, the average price nationwide in 2011, according to wedding resource guide the Knot.)
Nor is she concerned with sealing the deal at the first encounter, telling brides to look at other gowns and other boutiques and think on it before they come back to her.
Kari Miller, Saks’ director of fashion and public relations, says most brides take three to four visits to make up their minds. That means Papazian might meet with a client seven or eight times, which includes three fittings and any other stop-ins before or after the big day.
“She’s very patient,” says Alexa Alemanni, also an actress, who worked with Papazian before her July 2009 wedding. Alemanni fell in love with her princess-style Anna Maier Ulla-Maija gown when she saw it in a store window in her hometown in Colorado and eventually tried it on with Papazian at Saks. But she still couldn’t commit. Papazian encouraged her to try other dresses and also suggested she come to the designer’s trunk show.
“She just understands that you have that process and what that process is,” Alemanni says. “She’ll steer you and say, ‘I know that’s not your dress.’ I get how some people might not respond to her … but you forgive her bluntness because she will get just as emotional as you when you find” your dress.
Papazian says about 90% of her clients are overwhelmed when they start the selection process. And there’s no doubt that the wedding gown purchase can be stressful. There’s a lot of pressure to pick the perfect gown — a single item of clothing that traditionally has the lowest cost-to-repeated-wear ratio of anything a woman will ever own.
Papazian “develops a wonderful sense of trust with her brides,” says her boss, Saks bridal salon director David Lips-Whitaker. “With her expertise, they feel like she’s guiding them in a way. I see it every day … whatever she says, goes.”
Sure, there are trends Papazian doesn’t personally love — short gowns, for example, which she says are fine for “a very casual wedding … but for a girl I think it’s important to have that wedding gown.” Nonetheless, she doesn’t allow her own tastes to get in the way of assisting a client.
Papazian says the job takes a lot out of her, but she clearly loves it.
“It’s challenging, it’s time consuming, but you think sometimes ‘Oh, I did something good,’” she says.