Tribute: Amsale Aberra Revolutionized Bridal Gown Fashion Industry

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Amsale Aberra shares skills. Photo: Flickr [Tribute To Fashion Icon] 

I was deeply saddened to learn about the passing of the Ethiopian-born fashion designer Amsale Aberra. The fashion world, the African American community, Ethiopia and America have lost a great fashion icon often dubbed the originator of the "Forever Modern" look in the bridal gown design.

Finding beauty and elegance in the simplicity of a design, she revolutionized the bridal gown fashion industry. Amsale came to the US at age 19 in the early 1970s, worked her way through college initially earning a degree in political science at Boston State College.

As a child in Ethiopia she had a passion for making her own clothes. She moved to New York to pursue her childhood love of designing and making clothes by enrolling at the venerable Fashion Institute of Technology. Not satisfied with what was then available in the bridal gown market, she designed and made her own wedding dress.

She started making bridal dresses at home and demand for her design grew. Eventually she launched her own Amsale brand and opened her Madison Avenue store in 1997. She quickly rose to the heights of the rarefied, highly competitive world of haute couture in New York, one of the fashion capitals of the world.

Her bridal gowns have been featured on Oprah, the View, and Grey’s Anatomy. Her wedding dress has also appeared on several films such as Runaway Bride, Analyze This, The American Wedding, Hangover to name a few. She has dressed some of the most prominent A-Listers of Hollywood that includes Julia Roberts, Kim Basinger, Halle Berry, and Salma Hayek. Among her other admiring fans and clients are also Katy Perry, Ariana Grande and Heidi Klum.

She was a respected leader in the business world and there was special admiration of her in the Black business community. She won the Legacy Award at the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit in 2012 and Ebony magazine had named her twice among its "150 most influential African Americans."

She was a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and a trustee of the Fashion Institute of Technology. She is also a humanitarian and sits on the Board of the Ethiopian Children’s Fund. I was privileged to have known her, meeting her for the first time about four years ago when the Ethiopian community in the tri-state area invited her to be the guest of honor at the annual dinner reception of the Ethiopian Renaissance Council which I chaired.

We had then thought that inviting her would be an overreach, but to our eternal pleasure, she promptly accepted saying she shared our mission to encourage investment in Ethiopia.

We expected a diva of course. She proved us wrong. She was so unassuming and humble that she arrived unobtrusively and sat somewhere in the back. It was one of the guests who noticed her that came to tell me she was sitting in the back. I went to fetch her introducing myself and asked her to come with me to the seat of honor we had reserved for her.

Once settled, she put us all at ease talking about her life and work and asking us about our experiences, families and so forth. We were talking like long lost friends. She seemed genuinely happy to be among us enjoying the traditional Ethiopian cuisine of injera and wot and listening to Ethiopian music.

She thanked us for inviting her saying it is not often that she gets opportunities to be among her fellow countrymen and women. She sat there for well over three hours. I couldn’t help but notice that she looked tired. I asked her if she was. She said yes but also wanted to stay with us until the end.

I said to her that she did us all proud by her outstanding achievement in the fashion world and that we were deeply honored by her presence but I also suggested perhaps she should go home and rest, doctor’s orders I said in jest. She smiled and reluctantly left at close to midnight.

The New York Times in its online obituary calls her a "trend setting bridal gown designer". It is her humility however, more than anything else, that has remained etched in my memory.

Amsale died on April 1, at age 64 leaving behind her father, her daughter and her half sister. My heartfelt condolences to her family.

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