10/06/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Yes, singer Chynna Phillips wears both of the old bridesmaid dresses she keeps in her closet. "One," she says, "to go trick-or-treating with my kids. It's red waffled spandex that clung to my skin and at the belly button poofed into a hot-pink ballerina tutu."
The other gown, however, a pale mint sheath of floaty silk organza, was perfect for a recent cocktail party in the Hollywood Hills. "Several people complimented me on it," she says. "It made me feel sexy and hip—nobody could believe it was a bridesmaid dress." That's the one made by Thread, a company devoted to defrumping the bridesmaid dress.
In olden days bridesmaids wore gowns similar to the bride's. That was to confuse any evil spirits that might try to snatch her away. Now, though, it seems bridesmaid dresses have a different function: making the bride look good by comparison. "Bridesmaids are the unsung heroes of the wedding," says Beth Blake, cofounder of Thread. To make life easier for them, she and partner Sophie Simmons offer chic dresses that flatter every figure—and avoid the common fashion felonies: poofy sleeves, bows the size of a human head, acetate, teal.
Thread began in 1999 out of desperation. Blake, 33, then a clothing stylist for magazine shoots, couldn't find a dress to wear as her sister's maid of honor. She turned to Simmons, 31, a designer for a Manhattan boutique, who helped her create six ivory A-line dresses for the wedding party. They were a hit; Blake phoned Simmons from the reception to say, "There are 12 girls here who are getting engaged and want these dresses. We have a business!"
The two started designing in Blake's New York City apartment and in October 1999 took out an ad in Martha Stewart Weddings. In two weeks they had 300 calls. Since then they've opened shops in New York and L.A., and their creations have been worn by such celebs as Gwen Stefani
and featured in Vogue
. Henri Bendel sells them in New York City—not in its bridal salon but as cocktail dresses. When Bergdorf Goodman put a Thread dress in its Fifth Avenue window in 2002, says Blake, "we took pictures outside, then went out for champagne."
This year they will outfit 1,500 bridal parties with their unfussy dresses in natural fabrics that—no, really!—you can wear again. Most are strapless or spaghetti-strapped ("big sleeves hide bad design," says Simmons) in pastels or jewel tones.
Actress Tracee Ellis Ross (of TV's Girlfriends
) was an attendant along with Phillips in a friend's wedding. "We all had different body types," she says, "but the dress looked great on all of us." Thread gowns, which cost from $300 to $650, finally end "the idea that spending money on a bridesmaid dress is totally wasted," she says.
Bridesmaids themselves a total of eight times, Simmons (who's single) and Blake (divorced since May) were fashion-conscious little girls. When she was 12, Blake—who grew up in Grosse Pointe, Mich.—made her sister pose for pretend fashion magazines. Simmons, who grew up Paris, began sketching designs when she was 6. They met in Manhattan in 1997 on a photo shoot—and became good friends. "If Beth were a boy," says Simmons, "we'd be married."
Their union is a fortuitous one for beleaguered friends of the bride's everywhere. "Typically, when someone asks you to be a bridesmaid," says Phillips, "the dread comes over you." No longer. Now about those goofy bachelorette parties....
Rachel Felder in New York City