Gypsy Weddings: Dress to excess
Published 01/04/2012 | 06:00
Caragh McKayulla meets Thelma Madine, the woman who made her fortune designing very expensive dresses for Irish Travellers
The first season of the television show 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' won a Bafta nomination, millions of viewers -- more than any other documentary series in Channel 4's history -- and a heap of controversy.
The second, on now, is dividing opinion as much as the first, not least for its 'Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier' promotional poster campaign.
As before, the Travellers are fascinating but it is the dresses that are the main attractions, and this year they are even more excessive -- and expressive.
Take Delores, the bride-to-be from Rathkeale, Co Limerick, who wanted to be a pineapple on her night-before party (right) and wanted her bridesmaid-to-be dressed as a palm tree.
There were requests for a white wedding gown with the logo of the American streetwear label Baby Phat written in Swarovski crystals across the skirt.
The label's cat motif provides the inspiration for the bodice: "I want the cat's tail to go around the back of the dress and then curl along my neck down the front," she said.
Each girl's wish, no matter how fantastic, is granted by one figure at the heart of 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding', who has so far remained elusive.
Thelma Madine is the Liverpudlian dressmaker whose calm presence underpins the series and whose enormous duchesse silk, fine tulle and Swarovski confections have become the stars of the show.
Thelma's profile is to be boosted further this year with a new television series, also for Channel 4, this time with the dressmaker and her team as the focus.
There are murmurings that it may involve her taking on Traveller girls as apprentice dressmakers, but she won't divulge details.
The first thing everyone asks her, Thelma tells me, is, 'Are you a gypsy?'
"No," she says. "I am not a gypsy and I'm not in any way, or have ever claimed to be, a spokesperson for the Traveller community.
"I am a dressmaker whose clients happen to be mostly gypsies."
Yet without Thelma's co-operation, 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' would never have been made.
Thelma is a well-trusted associate of Britain and Ireland's Travelling communities, and so TV producers had been trying to get her on board for some time before the show was made.
She has an instinct for the erratic nature of Traveller communication -- she learnt a long time ago that confirmed dates and times are never adhered to, and how to work around the no-shows, non-returned calls and non-conformity that typifies a peripatetic way of life.
Her understanding of Traveller culture has enabled her to build a unique and successful business creating bespoke dresses for the Travelling community.
She has been running her business, Nico, since 1998. Before that, she had a stall at Paddy's Market in Liverpool, where she sold christening and communion outfits.
Her shop in the city centre is the face of the business and the first point of call for customers. I meet her in her workshop, in a small industrial estate nearby.
A young Irish Traveller mother is in the workshop with her six-year-old son and two daughters, aged 13 and 11. The girls are in full make-up as they are having dresses made for a party.
Thelma talks them through fabric swatches. She has been making outfits for the same family for years, and has a similar generational relationship with most of her clients.
Having dressed many girls from their christening through to their wedding, Thelma becomes something of a surrogate mother to some of them, watching them grow up.
Thelma, who lives in a sizeable house with a pool in a wealthy suburb of Wigan, refuses to talk money, but does admit that, quite early on in her dealings with Travellers, she realised that hefty deposits were the only guarantee that her clients would come back for the expensive dresses they had ordered.
And anyway, she says, there is the issue of client confidentiality, and each order she does is different.
"Some of my customers will ask me to give them a bill for four times the amount, just so they can show people that they spent this on their daughter's wedding," she says.
"It's a pride thing, but it doesn't do our business any good, really, because I get loads of Facebook messages quoting astronomical figures, with all these young girls saying, 'I'd love a dress made by you but I can't afford it. I've been told your dresses cost £100,000'."
Thelma grew up in Croxteth in the 1950s with her older brother, Tom. Her father worked in engineering, her mother in a factory canteen, in other catering jobs and in a bar at weekends.
After leaving school, she worked with her mother doing wedding catering and, inspired by the hotels and decoration of the events she attended, began to plan her own.
By the age of 18, she was married to Kenny Madine, a businessman with his own glass firm. The couple had three children, Kenneth, Tracey and Hayley, now in their 30s.
Kenny's business was successful and they had a nice life, "big house, Rolls-Royce".
With her husband's backing and her mother's help, Thelma set up her own chain of children's clothing shops, Madine's Miniatures. It wasn't until she started designing communion dresses that Thelma started on the path that led her to where she is now.
Her own-design communion dresses were precursors in style to the wedding dresses that have made her a worldwide hit.
'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' is aired globally, and Thelma has a huge international fanbase.
Young Traveller girls make contact through her Facebook page, and her Twitter account went crazy last year when Kate Moss announced, in an interview with 'American Vogue', that it was seeing Thelma's dresses on TV that inspired her to get married.
A few years later, Thelma's business began to disintegrate, as did her marriage. She was forced to close her shops, and she and Kenny separated.
Thelma and Hayley were still living in the family home and she was trying to keep the business going from her garage -- she had an agent in Ireland by this time for the communion dresses.
But with no money coming in, she couldn't afford to heat the family home.
Times got tougher, but by 1996 she had managed to resurrect the business with financial help from an aunt and via a short-lived business partnership.
She set up a stall in Paddy's Market, still selling communion outfits, but now specialising in christening outfits for girls.
Her stall became a talking point; people liked the little costumes so much that they would come by just to look at them. Thelma's stall became something of a meeting point for Travellers as they passed through, placing orders and catching up on other families' news.
At the end of 1997, one of the Traveller women who had begun to frequent her stall and who had become a friend, Gypsy Mary, asked Thelma to make a wedding dress for one of her daughters.
She had requested that it have a 30ft train, but two weeks later requested an alteration: "It's got to be 107ft now, so that it is bigger than her cousin's. She got married last week and her train was 100ft," Mary explained.
Gypsy Mary came back the following week and ordered 18 bridesmaids' dresses.
With business ticking away nicely, still focused on childrenswear, Thelma's life was by now on an even keel.
She opened Nico in 1998, while keeping up the Paddy's stall on Saturdays, as this was still the heart of the business.
She was also settled with a new partner, Dave Armstrong; they are still together and have a daughter. She had started thinking about picking up the idea of making wedding dresses again.
But her past was about to catch up with her. When she started the business at Paddy's in 1996, Thelma had illegally claimed benefits for 11 months, up until July 1997.
"I needed cash to buy fabrics and I also needed to be eligible for legal aid to help with the divorce, which was getting really messy," she says.
Thelma served four months -- "a lifetime". While she was in prison, her best friend and right-hand woman in the business, Pauline Wooley, kept Nico running with Dave's help.
Thelma was released in early April 2002 and, though it took her a few months to readjust, she applied herself to the business and began going to wedding trade fairs.
She decided that she would start offering wedding dresses and not long after, she took an order from a bride-to-be for a wedding dress like no other.
"I want the biggest dress that's ever been made, the most crystals that have ever been on a dress and the widest skirt you've ever seen," was the instruction.
The girl was 15 and was to be married when she turned 16. Money was no object.
The dress fitted the girl's brief exactly and weighed 21 stone. The local press heard about it and the photographs made their way on to the internet and Thelma's phone rang off the wall as the media tried to talk to her and, more importantly, the bride.
But the bride asked Thelma to speak to them. So began the 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding' phenomenon.
Thelma was called by Jenny Popplewell, a producer with Firecracker Films, every month for a year until she finally gave in and agreed for Jenny to start filming for the documentary.
The two have been friends ever since because, Thelma says, Jenny stuck to her original promise.
Nico has a constant stream of orders for wedding dresses, which are usually accompanied by orders for an average of 14 bridesmaids' dresses.
There are no set wedding seasons in the Traveller year, the exception being winter weddings in Rathkeale, Co Limerick -- home, for three months, to some of the wealthiest Traveller families in the British Isles, who spend the rest of the year abroad.
Plans are underway to move into a much bigger workshop, and Thelma says that this may persuade her to upscale production to include party, wedding, communion and engagement dresses.
Thelma used to make bespoke dresses for local girls and the odd footballer's wife type, but she says she much prefers working with Travellers. She understands just what they want and loves creating fairytales.
"Ordinary brides can be finicky, whereas my Traveller customers just give me carte blanche. And they are so young and excited," she says. "A lot of other brides are a bit old and have lost that feeling of being a princess."
'Tales of the Gypsy Dressmaker'
by Thelma Madine is published by Harper Collins