A Maui dressmaker got the chance to bring movie history back to life when she painstakingly re-created a white gown from the classic film "My Fair Lady" for a Texas bride.
Working from the downstairs studio in her Haiku home, Jennifer Oberg used more than 20,000 beads, as well as custom-made silk flowers and vintage trims, to achieve the iconic look. More than 300 hours of labor went into the dress.
"This is the most intense project I've ever worked on in my career, and the most fun," she said Tuesday as she prepared to leave Maui that night to hand-deliver the gown to Austin.
Master dressmaker Jennifer Oberg puts the finishing touches on a gown modeled after a dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the film “My Fair Lady.”
ILIMA LOOMIS photo
Jennifer Oberg displays some of the detailing on the gown. More than 20,000 beads were used to replicate the original dress.
ILIMA LOOMIS photo
Jennifer Oberg spent hours studying images from the film before painstakingly re-creating the Embassy Ballgown.
ILIMA LOOMIS photo
After spending years working as a costume workroom supervisor in the film and television industry in Los Angeles, Oberg, a master dressmaker, moved to Maui to raise her family 11 years ago and started her own business creating custom-made wedding gowns. All of her gowns had been for Maui brides, until she was contacted by Texas resident Lorri Michel last year. Michel had been looking for someone to re-create the dress known as the Embassy Ballgown for her wedding in Italy this June and had found Oberg's website, theperfectfitmaui.com.
The intricately beaded, sheer white column gown with cap sleeves and gathering at the back was worn by Audrey Hepburn in a scene where, posing as an aristocratic lady, she attends a glamorous ball and dances with a prince. Cecil Beaton won the Academy Award for best costume design for the classic 1964 musical.
"(The bride) has been infatuated with this gown since she was a kid," Oberg said.
Although she was initially skeptical about working with a Mainland client - a stickler for the proper fit, Oberg typically requires at least five to 10 fittings for each gown she creates - she figured out a way to make it work. Michel flew to Maui twice for fittings, turning the trips into vacations with her fiance.
But that was just the beginning of the project's challenges. Since the original gown worn by Hepburn could not be found - studio officials contacted by Oberg said they didn't know where it was, and it's not held by any public museum, leading Oberg to guess it may be in a private collection - it had to be replicated using only images from the nine-minute scene in which it appeared in the film.
"I watched it over and over and over again," Oberg said. "Freeze frame, that sort of thing."
Using her industry contacts, Oberg was able to get an archival, high-resolution image from the film, offering a clearer - but still not perfect - view of the beading and other detail work on the intricate gown.
"I had to try to re-create it from the image, and I think we've done a pretty good job," she said.
When she was unable to find specialty materials on Maui, Oberg, who retains her membership in the Motion Picture Costumers union and Association of Sewing and Design Professionals, once again tapped her contact list. She was able to find specialists on the Mainland to source the high-end beads and crystals, and create custom-made beaded fringe for the gown's sleeves and collar.
The finished dress is built upon three layers, made of silk tulle, silk crepe and silk charmeuse.
Speaking generally, Oberg said that a dress requiring this much intense work would cost between $10,000 and $15,000.
"It's definitely an investment," she said.
After years of working in Hollywood, where projects were often limited by time and budget, Oberg said it was a joy to work on such an exquisitely crafted gown.
"I think the reason I enjoyed it so much was because I was given the freedom to take it to a very high level," she said. "This was like doing fine art."
Oberg started her career working in the costume shops of opera and Shakespeare companies, which she says was a great way to learn her craft, since the costumes are so elaborate and challenging. She later moved to Los Angeles to work in film and television, honing her skills at dressmaking, tailoring and more specialized crafts as she worked her way up the ladder to the position of workroom supervisor.
Since moving to Maui, she has also become involved in Haiku Elementary School, first as a parent volunteer and now as the coordinator of the Parent Community Networking Center. She also serves as president of the Haiku Elementary School Foundation, which raises funds to improve the school's facilities. She and husband Craig Mullins, a concept artist for films and games, have two children.
Oberg said that if there is one thing she'd like people to know about her work, it's that her dresses aren't just handicrafts but works of art. She daydreams about one day displaying her creations at an exhibition at a venue like the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.
"It's haute couture," she said, "only on Maui, not in Paris."
* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at email@example.com. "Neighbors" and "The State of Aloha," written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.