Kate Halfpenny on contemporary bridalwear, coronavirus and flouting convention 

Mhairi Mann

1 November 2020

Kate Halfpenny is founder of Halfpenny London, the Bloomsbury-based bridal boutique that crafts contemporary gowns with a cool air of Hollywood glamour. The label specialises in feather-light, versatile separates and counts Rihanna, Millie Mackintosh and Daisy Lowe among clients 

"The wedding industry is a loving space full of beauty and warmth, but there are no pearls without grit and this industry hinges on the strong, quick-thinking entrepreneurs who run it" 

1 November 2020 | Mhairi Mann

I grew up in a small town called Ripley in Derbyshire and I was always obsessed with dresses and fashion. I wasn’t very academic and school wasn’t the dream for me that it was for many people. As soon as my GCSEs were done, I ran as fast as I could to art college where I just had the best time. I was then lucky enough to go to university, where I did a four-year sandwich degree in fashion with marketing and manufacturing, and specialised in bridalwear for my final show. It was the late nineties and I designed a collection of interchangeable bridal separates as I saw the potential back then for an alternative look to traditional wedding dresses. I then interned at Vivienne Westwood but I knew I couldn’t work for a fashion house and instead fell into styling and costume. I began styling music videos and TV commercials and my friend Emilia Fox asked me to design two of the three dresses worn on her wedding day in 2005. From there, I kept receiving enquiries by word of mouth and started making wedding dresses on the side and the business grew from there. I never imagined that this dreamy labour of love would become my fulltime job where I now employ a team of amazing women.

Sun sleeves and Cosmic dress

Traditional bridalwear isn’t for me. I naturally rebel against any rules or rigidity of thought and, being a stylist, I just love having choice. The versatility of separates has always appealed to me but there was no such thing when I began designing. For my graduation show, I sent models down the catwalk in cocktail dresses and huge tulle overskirts, which they whipped off halfway through, so it's always been part of my design DNA. I’m also a big fan of comfort and while we have some corsets and fitted options, a lot of my designs are really comfortable to wear and a bit more relaxed. I’m forever saying “be the bride you want to be” and the separates and layers that we offer allow brides to fully express themselves on their big day and be the best version of themselves.

Our Riri skirt is still a favourite with our brides after all these years. I designed a version of it for Rihanna a long time ago and made an ivory iteration for our bridal collection. It is made from metres upon metres of gorgeous, frothy silk organza, which is my favourite fabric. From our new collection, I am obsessed with the Luna skirt, which has the hearts sewn into the French seams. Each heart is repurposed using off-cuts from the Riri and I love making something beautiful from what would have been wasted.

We’re finding that brides are going for more drama than ever, adding layers or statement pieces. For the brides that are choosing to have a small ceremony now and a big party later, our slinky slip dress with the Neptune tuxedo jacket thrown over the shoulders looks incredible. Layers can be added to that same slip, such as a giant skirt, veil or cape, to create two completely different yet equally special outfits. 

Riri skirt
Luna skirt and Cosmic dress

There’s no doubt that Covid has impacted so many people’s livelihoods in the wedding industry. Some suppliers need support more than ever from the government with schemes or grants that take into account that some businesses don’t fit neatly into a certain category. There are sole traders, contractors and limited companies, which have fallen through the cracks. The wedding industry is a loving space full of beauty and warmth, but there are no pearls without grit and this industry hinges on the strong, quick-thinking entrepreneurs who run it. It is a tough time, there’s no denying it, but I have the pleasure of knowing many small business owners and they are made of strong stuff. We will get through this because couples will always want to get married, to celebrate with friends and family, Love will always endure.

We have been on the front foot from the beginning of the pandemic and closed the shop before the official lockdown was announced. We have kept in constant contact with our clients, over email, phone and social media and very much held their hand throughout. Lots of brides have postponed their weddings so we’ve made arrangements to hold dresses and move fittings. For new brides, we started virtual appointments as soon as lockdown started. They were so successful and we’ve learned so much that it has actually changed the way that we communicate with brides prior to appointments to create a more personalised, luxurious experience long before they set foot in our store.

Calypso sleeves and Cosmic dress; Ariel bow and Iris slip

Sustainability is a very complicated subject with many considerations and we’re trying to make any changes we can. We always try to design with a conscience by repurposing what would be wasted materials and we are also creating a new collection of limited-run pieces that are using up some fabrics from our archive.  We’ve made changes to the way we operate on a daily basis to become more conscious of our footprint. For example, we’ve made sure all of our packaging, ink and printing matter is recyclable and considerate to the environment and have lots of other pans for the future.  Little changes all add up.

I loved Gwen Stefani’s ombre dress. when she married Gavin Rossdale in 2002. Very rock n roll. 

There are so many opportunities to show off your creativity when it comes to weddings and I always love seeing the tiny yet meaningful details that couples choose to incorporate. It could be something as simple as having the same flavour cake as their grandparents had or sewing the wedding date onto the label of the wedding dress. I just love it when couples totally do their own thing with the décor and make it uniquely their own.

I’m not a fan of trends in general but if I had to choose one trend that I particularly dislike, it would be the tendency for everything to match. I just think, do what you want regardless of what’s considered cool.

The Halfpenny London boutique, Bloomsbury

My best advice to any bride-to-be is to just be yourself. Ignore all of the trends and wear something that you love and feel wonderful wearing. You aren’t suddenly trying to be someone else, you’re aiming to be the best version of yourself. So if it’s trousers you want, or you’re feeling that white isn’t for you, don’t put pressure on yourself. Remember your fiancé is marrying you for you, so find a look that simply makes you feel incredible. 

I love Tilly Thomas Lux for accessories. She handmakes beautiful, modern headpieces and other gorgeous jewellery and  I’ve championed Sally, the designer and owner, from the beginning.

My favourite vintage shop is Valentines in Whitstable, mainly for furniture. It has the most amazing finds plus the owners are utterly gorgeous and have the best taste.