Sydney couturier Rhonda Hemmingway is an icon in the world of bridal and evening wear. Over the course of her career she’s worked with a who’s who of Australian fashion, including Trent Nathan, Maggie Tabberer and Carla Zampatti.
From her studio in Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, she continues to influence the bridal and evening wear trends of today, having recently been commissioned to design a new wardrobe for Lucy Turnbull (yes, that Turnbull). From February, Rhonda Hemmingway Couture will also be found on the prestigious seventh floor of David Jones’ Elizabeth Street store, alongside gowns from Alexander McQueen, Akira Isogawa and Givenchy.
Rhonda Hemmingway Couture has been worn at the Logies and featured in celebrity weddings — newsreader Sandra Sully’s wedding dress was a Hemmingway creation. Other clients include Rebecca Gibney, Susie Porter, Jessica McNamee, Jackie Love, Maggie Tabberer and Noni Hazlehurst.
Her 2012 book, Secrets & Confessions of a Wedding Dress Designer, not only features photos and sketches from her work over the years, but includes stories from a career of handling nervous brides and rubbing shoulders with Sydney’s beautiful people.
Her life now might seem a long way from the streets of Northmead where she grew up, but that’s where Rhonda first became aware of her passion for fashion. She is, at heart, a “Hills girl” and got her earliest inspirations there.
“There was no Winston Hills then and Baulkham Hills was a tiny little suburb,” Rhonda remembers. “From our kitchen window we could see the rolling hills of the ‘hills’. Then all of a sudden there were thousands of houses.”
Her family lived right on the border with Winston Hills, which was the next street over — her parents still live in the same house.
“I can’t believe it when I go out there now. It’s just enormous.”
She attended Northmead Primary School and Northmead High.
“Growing up in an area like Northmead is perfect for children because it’s a really nice balance,” she says. “You’re friendly with the neighbours and you know everybody. I lived in Rose Bay for 29 years and we never knew who our neighbours were. I think that whole thing of growing up and playing with kids in the street is a beautiful thing.”
Then there were the weddings. Both of her parents had large families, so Rhonda went to a lot of weddings. She remembers her first, between her cousin George and his bride Jeanette, who looked so beautiful she remains in Rhonda’s memory to this day — she even ended up in her book.
“The whole street where we used to live was full of girls and they were all older than I was,” Rhonda recalls. “I did my school certificate and I wanted to do dress design at Sydney Tech, but it was expensive and my parents couldn’t afford it. My mother put me through a secretarial college and she also sent me to a Singer sewing course to learn how to make patterns.
“I’d been making dolls’ clothes and cutting up mum’s clothes since I was about eight, so it was in me. I’ve got an aunty who used to do the silks for the jockeys at Randwick Racecourse, and my mother used to make lovely clothes. It’s in my blood.”
Using her sewing skills, Rhonda began to make ball gowns for the Hills’ girls. With her sister, she took ballet lessons at Parramatta Park opposite St John’s. They often came out after class to find a wedding in progress across the road, and the two girls would wait to see the bride emerge.
“We became a little bit obsessed with brides,” Rhonda admits. “Then we would go to the Roxy Theatre, where my father worked, and watch a movie. Those movies from the 50s and 60s, they were amazing — the dresses! I became addicted to beautiful dresses and weddings. That’s how it started.”
Rhonda married and the couple moved to Europe for a few years. Travelling through Europe, visiting Paris, London and Rome, she realised she would not be fulfilled in life unless she followed her dream of studying fashion design. Back in Australia, she enrolled at tech with the support of her husband, who worked three jobs to help put her through the course.
“It was expensive,” she remembers. “If you designed an outfit you had to model it yourself and you had to have the shoes and you always wanted the finest fabrics.
“I did it for three years and in the final year you had to work for a company. I went to Carla Zampatti and she said ‘Absolutely!’”
Before that, Rhonda had worked with two designers who staged a fashion parade at the Opera House. “Maggie Tabberer was compèring, and she would come in for meetings. They wanted me to design 12 dresses, then I made six of them. I was proud of myself. But I got no recognition, and I thought that was unfair. So I went to Carla.”
Carla Zampatti kept Rhonda on her toes. Being a size eight helped; she became the house model as well as working in the office as assistant pattern maker.
“It was lovely. Carla was an amazing teacher and I stayed with her about three-and-a-half years.”
Maggie Tabberer had also recognised Rhonda’s talent, hiring her in 1980 around the time she launched her Maggie T plus-size range. With Maggie, Rhonda learned how to spruik fashion to the glossy magazines, direct photo shoots and liaise with the media — skills that would come in handy when she started her own label.
Rhonda was also asked to design Trent Nathan PM evening wear, and was awarded the franchise, running her designs past Trent for his approval.
“I had my own factory and 13 people working for me; it was amazing,” she says. “The man who introduced the bikini to Australia, Brian Rochford, wanted to introduce a fun, young party range, so I started doing designs for him as well as Trent’s things. I was also supplying wedding gowns to a shop in Double Bay called Femme Boutique.”
Divorced from her first husband, Rhonda married a second time and realised that she needed to be at home to raise her children.
“That was really hard to do, but it was the best thing I ever did really,” she says. “I gave up Trent Nathan, but I took my top two seamstresses home with me and continued to supply wedding dresses.”
Before long, she realised she had the skills and the determination to branch out for herself. “So I started, and that was 25 years ago.”
Her dream had always been to have a boutique in Double Bay, and once her children left school she opened a boutique there. However, she gradually realised that bridal gown retail, like every other business, had been affected by online shopping.
“Girls don’t come and try on dresses on a Saturday morning any more,” she says. “They go on the internet and choose where they want to make an appointment. I didn’t need a shop any more. I did a survey for a year and discovered that 65% of my brides were recommended by other brides, and 30% had seen me in a magazine, at a bridal fair or on the website. There was no one coming off the street.”
That survey prompted the move to her current studio.
“I found this place and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I love being in Darlinghurst — there’s this wonderful bustle and the whole building is full of creative people.”
Rhonda’s career highlights include designing wedding gowns for the marriage of Sydney girl Kate Stahl to Count Anton Andreas von Faber-Castell of Germany, plus the royal wedding of Princess Karla of Tonga.
But there have been some nerve-wracking moments over the years too.
“One girl had come in as a size 16,” Rhonda recalls. “We’d already made her dress, basically it was ready to go, and she said I don’t like the way I’m looking, I’m going to lose weight and get a personal trainer. I said okay, come back in three months’ time. She came back in three months and she was half the size. She was like an eight to a 10. She said that was it, so we started to finish the dress.
“She came in the week before the wedding for the final fit — that’s my rule, I don’t close off until the week before because you’ll always lose that extra half inch from the stress. This particular girl came on the Wednesday and the wedding was on the Saturday. When she walked in the door I said, ‘You look skinnier’. She said, ‘I know. I’ve dropped quite a few kilos this week’. I asked why, and she said ‘I just didn’t think I looked thin enough’. She went from a size 16 to a size six. We had to make the dress again; there was nothing we could salvage. She got it at two o’clock in the afternoon. She got married at four.”
Rhonda has no plans to retire any time soon — this Hills girl is enjoying herself too much. She remembers once in Double Bay having her future predicted by an Indian fortune teller. “He read my palm and said I was going to get tired at 92. So I’ve got about 35 years left!” ☐
Rhonda’s tips for the perfect bridal gown
- Be honest with yourself. You can buy the most expensive dress, but if it doesn’t suit you, it won’t look beautiful.
- It’s all about the cut and fit. If you have a gown made, make sure the couturier comes highly recommended and that you have seen examples of their work.
- Choose a gown that suits the season.
- Don’t be bullied into placing an order on the first day of trying, unless you really love the gown.
- Once you’ve made your decision, stop looking!
- Choose a gown that’s glamorous and beautiful rather than sexy. It’s the one dress in your life that people judge you on.
Rhonda Hemmingway career highlights
1978 – Joins Carla Zampatti in the final year of design college
1980 – Hired by Maggie Tabberer just as the Maggie T label launches
1984 – Starts her own label while designing evening wear for Trent Nathan
1991 – Launches the Rhonda Hemmingway Couture Made to Measure label
2007 – Opens her first boutique in Double Bay
2012 – Publishes Secrets & Confessions of a Wedding Dress Designer
2014 – Designs wedding gowns for German and Tongan royalty
2015 – Rhonda Hemmingway Couture finds a new home in Darlinghurst.