With March being International Women’s Month many of us will be paying tribute to women who’ve been trailblazers for ours and for generations to come. Women of all backgrounds have left a lifetime of impact. Whether it’s attending college, becoming a lawyer, running a business, or in this case, being a couture dress designer.

Meet Stacie A. Sanders Martin, bridal & couture dress designer of Sparkle and Sass by Stacie. Currently celebrating her new showroom and Atelier, this Atlanta-based designer has brought her childhood dream to life after years of working in corporate America and being laid off at 36 weeks pregnant; choosing to see the silver lining, she went full speed ahead.

When did you first discover your passion for fashion, designing dresses specifically?

I love this question! I discovered my love of fashion from a very early age as a young child. I was obsessed with watching pageants and wanted to be Miss America. I loved the evening gown portion the most and would walk around the house in my mom’s dresses and heels pretending to be a pageant queen.  But the most inspiration for designing and just an overall love of gowns I would have to attribute to Princess Diana. I loved her and her style. I remember reading every book and looking at all of the pictures of her wearing just stunning dresses and wanting to wear and create looks like hers.  There’s one dress in particular, with a fully pearl beaded dress with a high neck jacket also with pearl beading that was my absolute favorite. The look is so timeless and iconic it could still be worn today. I leverage her timeless style as inspiration for each piece I create giving them a modern look with classic elegance.

Was there a particular incident or an Oprah ‘a-ha’ moment for you that prompted you to start your business?

I don’t think there really was an “ah-ha” moment per se, but more of unfortunate circumstances that led me to bet on myself and start the business.  When I was 36 weeks pregnant with my son, the company I worked for was sold and my division closed. At the time, I was having a lot of difficulties with the pregnancy so I was in some ways relieved to not have to work anymore but knew it would be a long while before I found another job. I ended up having major complications giving birth and needed a lot of extra time to recover.  While recovering, my husband was laid off from his job as a result of a company reorganization. It was then, I decided to follow my dreams, and partner with a good friend to start renting evening gowns. We converted the in-law suite in my basement into a showroom and dressing room and started taking appointments. We did this for a year, then I bought out my friend (we are still close to this day), rebranded, and started retailing evening and bridal gowns, still out of my home. During my first year, I realized that almost every single client wanted to customize some part of her dress. They loved the top of one and the bottom of another, wanted more beading here or there or to change the shape. I would literally end up customizing dresses daily so I thought to myself, why not just offer custom designs. I studied and taught myself to sketch on paper, found factories to mass-produce and it took off! Because I was out of my home, most of the large brands wouldn’t sell to me so I found designers overseas who then gave me exclusive dresses in the state of Georgia, and those same designers opened up their factories to me to produce my collections. Now, about 75% of my business is custom-designed dresses and I feel that I’m living my calling and betting on myself in everything that I do.

What was the biggest struggle you had starting your business?

FUNDING! Literally the biggest struggle that I’ve had and continue to have is funding. I started with $15K I had in savings and have been self-funded ever since. I wasn’t eligible for PPP because my sales weren’t high enough in 2019 and banks won’t give you a loan without years of profit to show. Most small businesses aren’t profitable for the first 5 years, I’m fortunate that in year 3 I turned a profit, however getting a loan is still incredibly difficult. If I had $50K to invest into the business, it would allow me to develop a full collection of dresses and spend more in marketing to really drive growth. I will say that even though I haven’t had the funding, I’ve gotten very savvy with money and it feels good to be truly self-made. Now, if someone wants to invest I won’t say no lol.

 What’s a major lesson you’ve learned by having a business?

Get everything in writing with enforceable contracts. I’ve had situations where the client’s provided the wrong measurements and since there were no contracts, I ended up paying for all of their alterations and accepting fault for measurements they provided that wasn’t correct. It was an expensive lesson to learn but now I have detailed agreements that every customer signs when they purchase a dress.

What’s the one thing you wish more people understood about couture/designer dress fashion?

How much work, time and detail go into every piece which is why it demands a higher price point.  When I am designing a custom couture dress, I’m literally drawing the sketch based on what the client has told me and musing from other dresses. Then, I’m working on fabric selection options. The fabric must be strong enough to allow for beading etc and also fit with the bride’s selected shape of the dress plus keeping in mind the time of year, venue, etc. One of the biggest challenges that all designers are facing right now is a shortage of fabric and laces due to COVID. Once we select fabrics, we need to measure to ensure that we will be able to have enough of the desired fabric to cut the dress and have overage in case of errors in construction. From there we select laces, threads, beading, etc and this is all before the client has even reviewed the sketch and fabric options for approval.

The construction of the dresses is done by hand. We are making and cutting patterns, reviewing sizing and making adjustments to the patterns, re-ordering fabrics, organizing the lace and/or beading placement, etc before we have even sewn a single stitch. Once all of this is final, we can cut the fabric and begin sewing, most of which is done by hand. The sewing process alone can take months with various seamstresses sewing different pieces and applying beading.  It’s a lot of work and I make sure I’m involved in every step of the process. With my factories being in Europe and Africa, I’m working around the clock across various time zones to inspect the quality of every piece, make decisions and critique the work of every dress I design.

 Who’s one celebrity you’ve dreamt of designing for and dressing?

Oh man, there are so many! Of course, I’d love to dress my fellow native Texan, Beyonce, however, I will have to say, Kate Middleton. I love her style and just how effortlessly timeless and elegant it is. She radiates positivity and class and in some way, it would be like dressing my inspiration, Princess Diana.

Written by Ashley-Victoria Smith