For almost a century, Hillsborough's Eno River Mill was a large textile mill with on-site housing for its employees. Today, like much of the Piedmont's former industrial infrastructure, it's an artfully preserved commercial development full of businesses both big, like Mystery Brewing Company, and small, like Brooks Ann Camper Bridal Couture.
It's unusual to find a bridal shop in a maze of open loading bays and crumbling brick outbuildings, but the unusual is exactly what Camper's clients are searching for. Inside, the shop resembles an artist's studio, except that it's clean and softly lit. There are antique sewing machines—one Camper inherited from her grandmother, a patternmaker for J.C. Penney—a couch, and a dressing room. Sketches paper over the walls. Dress forms in markedly personal shapes stand in corners.
Three gowns preside at the head of the room. Elegant yet playful, they allude to the classic white dress without resembling it. One has a fleur-de-lis brooch at the neckline and a beaded fringe on the bodice. Another, a refined peasant dress, sports a colorful pattern of vines and leaves. The third, a slinky silk number, has long leather laces plunging down the back. And Camper's own wedding dress, with stylized flowers growing up from the hem of a flared skirt, is spread on a nearby worktable.
Since founding her dressmaking shop with these four garments, Camper has fled even further from tradition. Her portfolio includes a featureless white strapless contrasted with a dramatic flower-and-feather shoulder decoration, an angular orange-and-pink confection gathered into what the bride asked for as a "space bustle," and other fancies unlikely to turn up at David's Bridal.
Camper drew the line at crafting the space bustle in Spandex; she works only in natural fibers—cotton, silk, wool. But for the most part, the bride's imagination is the limit, as is evident in this set-ready sci-fi costume, a beneficiary of Camper's experience on Broadway. As far as we can tell, hers is the only custom bridal shop in the Triangle. And it may well be the only one anywhere run by somebody whose background is solely in theater, not fashion.
"In fashion, you're trying to make multiples: one thing that's going to work for the most people possible," Camper says. "In theater, you've got a real person who is probably not shaped like your stick-figure fashion model. It's a great way to approach bridal wear because it's about one person, and we're designing it together."
Camper is less than five feet tall but has an exuberant voice the size of her Texas roots. She also seems to have a lifelong knack for waltzing into things other people would kill for, then working hard to build on them.
When she went to study theater at Centenary College of Louisiana, she was interested in acting and sets, not costumes. But when she impudently told her director in Little Women that she didn't know how to iron her costume and didn't care to, he sent her to work in the costume shop, starting on Oliver. It was a "punishment" that changed her life. On a long-shot whim, she applied for the sole internship in the costume shop at the Yale School of Drama. She was so sure she wouldn't get it that she refused to fly to Connecticut when they called, insisting on interviewing by phone.
Thus did she embark for New Haven without knowing how to sew.
"The first thing I ever sewed was a hundred-and-twenty-dollar-a-yard eighteenth-century gown for theater," Camper says. "Because I was thrust into it so fast, I never realized I was supposed to be a beginner or be scared." Next, she applied to UNC-Chapel Hill's master's program in costume production. Again, thinking it was a long shot, she declined to travel to Chapel Hill to interview. She got a scholarship.
She graduated in 2001, after meeting her future husband, Charles. She went straight to Broadway, working as a milliner on everything from Wicked to Mamma Mia! And then, for a while, she just stopped.
"I enjoyed it, but I had gone from not knowing how to sew to making a hat for John Lithgow in five years, so it was a little fast and furious," Camper says. Burned out on sewing for eight hours a day, she moved back to North Carolina with Charles. They soon bought a small mill house near Eno River Mill, where Camper got a job at a museum-quality frame-making shop. She liked making frames; it was about customizing an object for a single purpose. But her sewing hiatus ended in 2006, when Charles's sister got engaged.
"My gift was the dress, and his was to make a room for me to make it," Camper says. Equipped with a tiny home workshop, she had no reason not to make Charles's other sister a wedding dress, too, and then her own.
It caught the eye of the wedding date of a friend, whose vine-patterned smock effectively started Camper's business. She put up the website where she blogs about the process behind her dresses and began taking one client at a time. Three years ago, she quit the frame shop and moved into her studio, right next door to it. It's almost the size of her whole house, and it gives her the space she needs to craft a dress from start to finish.