David McCaffrey on a life making dreams come to life
It’s a warm Friday afternoon in late spring and traffic is heavy on the streets and sidewalks of Ottawa’s Byward Market. Cars are crawling under a beaming sun that shoppers seem to savour as they peruse stores on the strip. One boutique at the corner of Sussex and Clarence is garnering more than its share of attention.
Packs of pedestrians stop periodically to gaze into the large windows that frame the shop. The glass on the northern side of the brick building houses two mannequins draped in gold cocktail dresses, while the two windows adjacent one another to the south lend a view of elegant wedding gowns in a number of styles. Reaction to the dresses by the passersby is unanimously euphoric.
Inside the boutique, walls are fitted with large mirrors and paintings by local artist Katherine Jeans. A shelf is stacked with custom jewellery, mostly earrings and necklaces, by Claudia and Young Designs. There are three racks lined with silk dresses. Overhead, crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling between an abundance of star-like LED lights. At first glance, it is clear McCaffrey Haute Couture is a place where a woman’s dream can come to life.
Sporting a pair of grey Vero Cuoio shoes, dark jeans and a light-blue flower print button up that hangs loosely over a gold chain pendant that reveals Roman Catholic roots, designer extraordinaire David McCaffrey looks as fashionable as his newly-revamped boutique. Under a short crop of greying hair and atop a smile that stretches like a continuum, his eyes are alive with enthusiasm as he explains how the renovation of the boutique at 465 Sussex came about.
“We didn’t have a designer, architect, or anything like that. I would sit up late at night and draw little sketches. After finally coming to the concept on paper, and putting it into reality, it’s amazing how every square inch of this place is utilized now,” he says, adding: “We really didn’t cut any corners in coming up with the perfect place. During the day it’s a great store for bridal and fashion, and now at night it’s a really cool lounge.”
Parked beside Christina Selin, his partner in life and business, in one of two glass-encased change rooms at the rear of the store, McCaffrey looks at his two loves with equal awe. His attention migrates continually from his gorgeous girlfriend to his beautiful boutique. He’s happy on this day – ecstatic even, and for good reason. In addition to being the recipient of six Matinée Fashion Foundation awards and a 2011 Consumer’s Choice Award, McCaffrey was most recently honoured with editor’s pick by The Knot at New York City’s Couture Bridal Show. After 15 years helping to revolutionize the North American bridal industry by way of his custom gowns, the Ottawa-based designer is watching his career come full circle.
To compliment the new boutique, McCaffrey has also launched a new website and introduced a selection of evening and cocktail dresses to his collection. He believes he is witnessing and participating in a renaissance of sorts that has slowly but, surely infiltrated his creativity and design process in particular.
“When you have these other elements, it makes it so much more intriguing. It inspires me to make more and more things. Everything in the store is new; I filled up the whole boutique with all brand new product. As soon as I put something out, and it’s there for a week, I need to make more.”
Production is admittedly an addiction to McCaffrey. Quality is an obsession. For instance, the silk that goes into his gowns come from Milan, Italy, and aren’t distributed to any other designer in North America. His laces, meanwhile, are crafted in France on 100-year-old looms. The company he gets the laces from is the same place that supplied the House of Alexander McQueen for the Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine (Kate) Middleton’s wedding dress.
“It’s six months sometimes to make some of the laces from the time I order them. Quality is very important to me,” says McCaffrey. “Over the years I’ve been able to build a supply chain that nobody has – handmade flowers from Spain and all these intricate things, down to getting high-quality zippers.”
A close attention to detail has allowed him to grow the McCaffrey Haute Couture brand from its roots in the capital city to dozens of boutiques across North America, which carry his dresses and accessories. Among his many partners across Canada and the US, he is celebrating a 14-year relationship with New York’s Kleinfeld Bridal, home of the hit reality television series Say Yes To The Dress.
Cherish Monahan, store manager at Solutions Bridal in Gainesville, Florida, says that what sets McCaffrey apart from other bridal designers is a keen eye for small elements. Her store carries a range of his veils – something that isn’t set to change anytime soon, thanks namely to the high-quality of the Canadian boutique’s products.
“McCaffrey veils are so soft and I don’t know exactly how they do it, but they somehow create really pretty movement. The quality speaks for itself,” says Monahan. “It’s really important for our store to make sure the quality of the accessories is similar [to the gowns], so that’s why McCaffrey is so great. They put in a little bit more care and you can really tell comparing it to some of the other lines. It’s very modern and fresh.” Throughout an illustrious career that spans a decade and a half, McCaffrey has time and again been lauded for his ability to sculpt and shape a dress to suit a woman’s body. Mezzo soprano Wallis Giunta, the official face of McCaffrey Haute Couture, believes she’s just one of many women who benefit from his gift.
“He can make any body type look beautiful, feminine and flattering,” Giunta points out. “There are lots of beautiful dresses, there’s lots of beautiful clothing, but it’s not always clothing that makes the person inside the dress look good. That’s what David’s really good at. It’s truly special.”
McCaffrey is unable to pinpoint where his ability to design for, and connect with, the female body stems from. Whether it’s an innate, God-given gift, or a product of intuition and years of experience remains a mystery, even to the man himself.
“I don’t know, when I was a kid I was pretty good in art. I wasn’t great, but I enjoyed it. All my other classes I didn’t really care about,” he answers, confronted by the question, before concluding: “I have a great eye for shapes and colours – I can coordinate that really well.”
Having the co-ordination of a contortionist in the context of fashion design is one of the many tools McCaffrey has at his disposal. Charisma and an uncanny ability to strike a balance between classic and chic are a couple others. Still, despite working in a field that commands a flare for creativity, the trait that perhaps best describes his genius is pragmatism.
He’s quick to admit that being a designer is a glamorous gig, but that one has to be a realist to do it for a living. A career in the fashion industry, he says, is contingent on great art, as well as solid understanding of the art of business. Being able to create a wonderful design, McCaffrey believes, is of little value if you can’t have it reach its intended target – that is to say someone who’ll actually drop money on the garment.
“Being a fashion designer’s like winning the lottery. It just never happens. The reality is there are tons of people that want to do it,” he reflects. “People paint and they make beautiful music, and it’s kind of a sad thing in our society that it never really becomes anything unless you turn it into money. That’s just the way our society works because we have to live in our money system. So that becomes success – being able to take your art, and turn it into money.” As the McCaffrey Haute Couture brand manager and person responsible for near everything other than dress designs, Selin agrees with her partner. She points out that one of the characteristics that differentiate McCaffrey from others in the field is his practicality.
“You have to make something that’s saleable,” Selin emphasizes. “You can create all these great things, but if nobody ever buys them, that doesn’t work. So, that’s something that sets David apart, perhaps not from all, but from many designers – having that understanding that you can do great things, but you have to bring all that together, in terms of creating beautiful designs that people actually really want.”
While McCaffrey credits travel and the great outdoors for much of his inspiration, back inside the boutique it’s evident Selin serves the role of his muse. Between questions he gets lost in her eyes like a blind tourist without a map. The feeling is mutual and reciprocated by way of a shy yet vibrant smile reminiscent of a quiet schoolgirl on a first date with the quarterback of the football team. Their love is genuine as the silk in his gowns and McCaffrey doesn’t shy away from showering Selin with compliments.
“Christina’s the hardest working person I’ve ever met. She’s an extremely brilliant person; her skill levels are just amazing. Everything that I don’t do, Christina does. She takes good care of me. When you find the right person, you know it and it’s a big deal. She’s my forever.”
Marriage is most definitely on the horizon for the two, but for now they’re content in a partnership with no official tag. As it stands, McCaffrey and Selin are more than content living for the moment, helping others fulfill their wishes of a blissful special day. And no wedding, they reflect, would be complete without a happy wife wearing the dress she’s dreamed of since she was a little girl.
“Girls constantly walk in saying, ‘I’ve been looking at these windows for 10 years, I’m here to buy my dress.’ And you want to be able to make that dream come true,” says Selin, an air of honesty in her tone. “It really is a dream. A woman wants to look so great on her wedding day,” McCaffrey adds. “A lot of women dream about that since they’re very young and when the time finally comes, this is it – this is her stage, this is her 15 minutes of fame.”
Story by Remi L. Roy