Amsale Aberra is an Ethiopian-born American fashion designer best known for bridal gowns and formal dresses that reflect her simple, elegant style. Aberra first showed an interest in clothing design at age seven when she cut up and refashioned one of her dresses. However, she never imagined that she would become an internationally respected fashion designer when she was growing up as the daughter of a government official in Addis Ababa. During the 1970s political turmoil in Ethiopia separated Aberra from her parents and compelled her to build a new life in the United States. Combining her artistic talent with her love of sewing, she studied clothing design and, in 1986, launched her own business creating custom-made high fashion wedding dresses. Within only a few years Aberra had her own studio, and her creations were sold in exclusive clothing stores throughout the United States. By the early 2000s she was president of Amsale, a multi-million dollar business with several different fashion lines and an upscale Manhattan boutique.
Amsale (pronounced Ahm-SAH-leh) Aberra was born in 1954 in Ethiopia, a country located in the eastern horn of Africa. Her father, Aberra Moltot, worked as a diplomat and government minister, and her mother, Tsadale Assamnew, worked in the home caring for her family. In 1973 Aberra left Ethiopia to study commercial art at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. She had only been in the United States for a few months when riots broke out in Ethiopia, signaling political unrest that led to a revolution. The nation's emperor, Haile Selassie, was overthrown, and many members of his government were imprisoned, including Abbera's father, who served as Selassie's vice-minister for National Community Development. Thousands of miles away in Vermont, Aberra was terrified for her father and her homeland. (Moltot survived and was released from prison seven years later.)
With no more money coming from home, Aberra was forced to quit Green Mountain College. Her sister lived in Boston, a city with a large Ethiopian immigrant population, and Aberra joined her there and began working as a waitress to support herself. Determined to finish her education, she entered Boston State College, later renamed the University of Massachusetts Boston. She studied political science and earned a bachelor's degree in 1981. However, she still loved to design clothing, and was delighted when her sister taught her how to use American patterns.
Among Aberra's new friends in Boston was a law student named Neil Brown. He and Aberra began dating seriously, and when Brown moved to New York to work in the entertainment industry, Aberra soon followed. She began studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology and earned an associate degree in fashion design in 1982. She planned to specialize in sportswear and went to work for Harve Benard, a fashionable New York clothing company.
It was a special event in Aberra's own life that led to her unexpected change of career. In 1985 she and Brown planned to marry, and Aberra began looking through bridal magazines to find the perfect wedding dress. During the mid-1980s, lush television soap operas like Dynasty and Dallas inspired a fascination with lavishly ornamented clothing, and fashion magazines were full of beaded, sequined, and feathery gowns that did not appeal to Aberra's sense of style. Since she could not find the simple, striking designs she sought, she designed and made her own dress, a graceful white silk chiffon gown with a high neck and long sleeves of sheer material.
Reasoning that other women might be facing the same problem as they searched for a wedding dress, Aberra placed an advertisement in Modern Bride magazine that featured a picture of her own dress and offered custom-made wedding gowns. She began receiving orders almost immediately and soon built a reputation for excellence by working closely with her clients to create gowns that reflected the individual personalities of her customers. Aberra's designs were characterized by simple, classic lines, brought up to date with modern touches of color and luxurious fabrics. Her innovative work soon attracted the attention of local clothing stores, and after only three years of sewing made-to-order gowns, she was approached by Kleinfeld Bridal, a respected Brooklyn wedding supplier. Kleinfeld bought Aberra's entire collection of twelve gowns, and Amsale Designs was born.
Aberra's first studio was a loft on New York'sWest 39th Street, where she worked and lived with her husband and their daughter, Rachel. As her business grew, and Amsale gowns began selling in upscale department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, she bought two other wedding design lines, Chrystos and Kenneth Pool, in order to offer her customers a choice of styles. Amsale Designs catered to an exclusive clientele, since her sophisticated designs, executed in rich satins, silks, and crepes were priced from $3,000 to $12,000.
In 1996 Aberra opened an Amsale Designs boutique salon on fashionable Madison Avenue, and a year later, she launched the Amsale Evening Couture Collection, which unveils about fifty new items of haute couture, or high fashion, eveningwear annually. By the early 2000s Aberra's designs were in great demand and were sold, not only in her newly expanded and redesigned New York salon but also in dozens of stores throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Her wedding gowns have appeared in films including Runaway Bride (1999) and Analyze This (1999), and on television shows, such as ABC's Grey's Anatomy. Celebrities including Kim Basinger, Vanessa Williams, and Halle Berry have worn her evening dresses to gala events. Amsale herself gained celebrity, appearing as a guest judge on the design competition series Project Runway on the Bravo television network in 2005 and on the "Moms Who Made Millions" episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007.
Though Aberra's designs have attracted a wealthy, elite clientele, she remains committed to her original ideals of combining classic simplicity with striking innovation. "I am passionate about fashion and designing," she told Teri Agins in Ebony. "I really didn't get into it for the glamour or the fame. I love the work."
At a Glance …
Born in 1954 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; daughter of Aberra Moltot (a government official) and Tsadale Assamnew; married Neil Brown (an attorney and businessman), 1985; children: Rachel. Education: Boston State College, BA, political science, 1981; Fashion Institute of Technology, AA, fashion design, 1982.
Career: Harve Benard, Ltd., design assistant, 1982-85; Amsale Aberra, Inc., president and creative director, 1986—.
Memberships: Council of Fashion Designers of America; Ethiopian Children's Fund, international advisory board.
Addresses: Office—Amsale Salon, 625 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10022.
Black Enterprise, August 1998, pp. 58-64.
Ebony, April 2007, pp. 124-30.
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People, April 27, 1998, p. 67.
Time, May 28, 2007, p. 60.
Amsale,http://www.amsale.com/ (accessed February 20, 2008).
De Courtay, Romy, "Simply Sensational: The Name Amsale Has Become Synonymouswith Understated Modern Classic Elegance," Panache,http://www.panachemag.com/Archive/5_04/Feature%20Story/Amsale/Simply_Sensational.asp (accessed February 20, 2008).
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