My Maine Wedding: Life as Art
Belfast designer Meredith Alex "flavor-blasts" her clients' way to wedded bliss.
Photograph by Jason Mann
To view more images of Meredith Alex's designs, click here.
Six days before her wedding last fall, Erin Herbig was a wreck: the wedding dress she had bought months earlier did not fit. Herbig and her fiancée, Josh Povec, weren’t big sticklers for tradition: rather than a formal affair at a grand hotel, they’d planned an informal weekend for friends and family at the YMCA Camp of Maine on Lake Cobbosseecontee in Winthrop. Still, Herbig wasn’t willing to forego a special white gown for her wedding day.
Luckily, Herbig’s friend Meredith Alex, a Belfast fashion designer and installation artist, was on standby. A petite forty-year-old with blonde-streaked brown hair and an impetuous, vibrant demeanor, Alex had already agreed to alter Herbig’s gown. But with a dress two sizes too large, a complicated boned bodice and a limited number of hours before the big day, that plan was no longer feasible. So Alex suggested that Herbig go shopping — specifically, that she run to Vintage Finery in Orrington to find a used dress that Alex could adapt for her.
“I went that afternoon with one of my bridesmaids and found a gorgeous asymmetrical dress,” says Herbig, who works as a graphic designer for Moss, Inc. in Belfast. “The fabric was beautiful, but it looked a little dated. We needed to mod it up, and Meredith was just the person to do that.”
In fact, Alex’s style as a designer is much more suited to spicing up vintage wear than it is to simply taking in a waistband or hemming seams. Though she’s a skilled seamstress who learned to sew as a child, Alex’s design sense combines an eco-conscious outlook on the world with playful irreverence. MADgirl, her line of one-of-a-kind streetwear pieces, consists entirely of vintage clothing — with “vintage” now including Pendleton blazers from the 1980s and the occasional Ann Taylor thrift-store find —“flavor-blasted” to include polka dot trim, repurposed neckties, and the occasional feather boa. So modernizing a vintage wedding dress to give it some personality?
Totally up her alley.
“When I brought the vintage dress to her house, she put it on the dress form and got so excited,” Herbig says, smiling as she recalls the moment. “She asked me what I was thinking, and together we decided to trick it out. I wanted something nontraditional, something I could move around in without sacrificing that feeling of bride-ness.”
Inspired in part by a Christian Lacroix dress in a recent issue of Vogue, Alex dreamed up a handful of additions and alterations. The result was an entirely modern gown that fit Herbig’s aspirations of wearing haute couture to her wedding at camp. In addition to some basic tailoring, Alex added floral details, created a small tulle train, and reimagined the dress’ front panel to include a sassy silk bow. “It’s really wonderful to reuse a vintage dress,” says Alex. “You’re creating a one-of-a-kind piece — you feel like you’re not a cookie-cutter bride. It’s the closest you can come to haute couture without having a whole dress custom-made.”
For her part, Herbig was thrilled with the results — and wedding guests, she says, gushed about the dress all weekend long. “Like of all of Meredith’s designs, the dress required me to be a little more glam and a little more fabulous — which was exactly how I wanted to feel on my wedding day,” she says.
Alex was able to inspire that satisfaction in a very different way for Bucksport poet Pat Ranzoni this fall. Ranzoni, now sixty-eight, was married in a borrowed dress in 1960, when she and her husband, Ed, were working their way through the University of Maine. Alex and Ranzoni were paired as collaborators in last year’s Belfast Poetry Festival, and Alex proposed that she create a bridal gown for Ranzoni to wear at the festival. “She’s lived a very frugal, humble life,” says Alex. “She’s really into living sustainably, and I thought I could make her a beautiful, sculptural wedding dress out of fabrics that meant something to her.”
Ranzoni was slightly wary of the idea. But, she says, “I felt respect from Meredith. That’s important, because a wedding dress is such a personal representation of who you feel you are. And she has a capacity to sense the essence of other people. If not for her belief in this as a possibility, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to say yes.”
In short order, Alex put together an eclectic, artistic wedding dress. Formed on the bones of a vintage dress, Ranzoni’s gown incorporates family lace, tatting, crochet work, feathers, and pictures of her grandmothers transferred onto the new dress’ gores. Alex hand-stamped lines from one of Ranzoni’s poems on the veil, and incorporated African cattle-keeper beads into the neckline. “She was working around it like a dancer, pinning and basting and singing,” Ranzoni says. “It was not as formal as a fairy godmother, but more like being in the presence of a fairy creature.”
The collaborators received high praise at the October festival for “Poetry as Wedding Dress, Wedding Dress as Poetry: The Women Fabricate Their Dreams.” And while Ranzoni has a deep appreciation of Alex’s skill as a designer, she is even more impressed with the younger woman’s passion. “She has an amazing capacity,” Ranzoni says, “to make of her life an art, and her art a life.”
While Alex has worked on a handful of wedding dresses over the years, her work recently has focused on conceptual designs — worn by live models — that convey a particular theme or ideological point of view. (By day, Alex also serves as program director for Belfast’s Waterfall Arts, a contemporary arts center.) Most recently, Alex’s installation “Seven: A Fashion Disaster” appeared at Climate Change 21, an international gathering of scientists, policymakers, and businesspeople sponsored by the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute.
Organizer and scientist Paul Mayewski commissioned work from three artists, including Alex, to appear alongside the panel discussions on topics such as the physical science behind climate change.
A few days before the conference, Alex sits in the sunny kitchen of her Belfast home, her polka-dotted cellphone by her side. She is dressed in camouflage pants cut to capri-length and trimmed with a white-on-black polka dot ruffle. Her patterned green long-sleeved T-shirt, a thrift store find, has MADgirl screen-printed on the front, and white-on-black polka dot ruffles on the cuffs. “I’m addicted to polka dots,” she says. “They really work for me — they’re stylish, simple, clean, modern, and fun.”
She designed the outfit as part of the forty-piece collection she showed the day before at Haute for Hospice, a benefit for Hospice Volunteers of Waldo County. Just behind her, in front of the fridge, stand a few bald, vintage mannequins with long, curled eyelashes and painted-on lipstick. They sport pieces for the climate change show — now just three days away — in various stages of completion.
Working on just a few hours of sleep, Alex buzzes with energy about the installation, which involved seven live models, a thirty-two-foot RV covered in polka dots, six interns, and a concept that revolves around the extreme weather problems caused by climate change. Titled Tornado, Hurricane, Glacier, Wildfire, Drought, Ice Storm, and Heat Wave, the dresses are elaborately constructed, sculptural garments, some of which use vintage clothing as their base. Alex also designed a commemorative gown using a 1920s-style gold dress as the base and adorning it with handmade “sequins” that document the natural disasters she features in the sculptural dresses.
Alex’s applied passion for the green movement was sparked by a 2005 article in Rolling Stone that profiled twenty-five artists, musicians, and businesspeople who were doing their part to fight climate change. “I was really moved by that and wanted to figure out what I could do,” Alex says.
Earlier that same year, Alex had presented “Metamorphosis in Vogue: A Gallery of Human Sculpture” as part of a weeklong show of CalArts graduates at the Kitchen, a New York alternative arts space. Her pieces dealt with socio-political issues including eating disorders, safe sex, and abortion. “Doing pieces that educate and create public awareness felt so much better to me,” she says. “I love creating art that matters.”
For brides wearing wedding gowns designed by Alex, no piece of art could matter more.
- By: Michaela Cavallaro