Leaving a legacy of elegance, beauty, resilience, and glistening gowns.
It may surprise many to know that I am not the first Ursula Dedekind, I am actually the second. I was named after my grandmother or “Omi” as my family calls her. My Omi lead an incredible life that I thought deserves to be shared, especially since her passing this past March at the age of 89 years old.
Omi’s story is one of perseverance, resilience, and strength, one that typifies the struggle of many immigrants in The United States. But, it is also a story of wonder, elegance, adventure, and style- a full life to say the least. My Omi immigrated to America in 1962 with her husband and my father from Lima, Peru, where my grandparents owned a children’s clothing store called Pepe Grillo. The reason for their departure from South America was as a result of simmering political tensions in the country, which they heard about while attending a dinner party. Instead of returning to Hamburg, Germany, where they were both from, my grandparents decided to immigrate to America, as my grandmother had a cousin who was willing to sponsor them- more adventure to await them.
My Omi’s first job was at Henri Bendel- which, at the time, was a high end fashion retailer- in New York City. At Henri Bendel, she made custom ready-to-wear clothing for wealthy clients. When her client base became big enough, she rented a space to work out of in Perth Amboy, New Jersey and established her own business as a couturier. A major inflection point in her professional journey was when her husband, my grandfather, passed away from a heart attack, while delivering clothing on a hot day in New York City. From that point, my Omi decided to shift her business into selling directly to companies, lessening the burden of having to work for individual clients. Omi’s main client was Leron, who she designed and made nightgowns and lingerie for. Having tired of the work, it was by chance that one day on the street she bumped into her old colleague Monica Hickey from Henri Bendel, who was now the bridal director. Monica told her that she should make wedding gowns and, without skipping a beat, my Omi returned to Henri Bendel, this time making bridal gowns under her own name Ursula D.
Quickly, Omi made a name for herself, transitioning her skill in making beautiful nightgowns into making stunning handmade wedding dresses that could be seen in Egypt, France, Italy, Japan, and South America, as well as in Saudi Arabian palaces- elegant designs that would be desired by brides around the world. Omi was particularly famous for making her signature handmade satin organza flowers featured at the dress’s shoulder line and her pearl embroidery. Some of my Omi’s most memorable clients include Spike Lee’s wife Tonya Lewis, James Taylor’s wife Kathryn Walker, Alison Becker, my mother, actor Charlton Heston’s daughter, former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn’s niece, as well as many American socialites and even international royalty. She also made the bridesmaids dresses for Maria Shriver’s wedding who married Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1986. Yet, arguably, one of her most famous designs was for Vera Wang, known today for her own wedding dresses. Vera Wang wore a dress custom made and designed by my Omi when she married Arthur Becker in 1989. Wang’s dress- which weighed an astonishing 45 pounds- was made from pure silk satin and french lace and with hand embroidered pearls and Austrian crystals overlaid. A truly stunning dress for Wang’s big day.
My Omi loved the beauty, artistry, and creativity of making her gowns in addition to the connection it allowed her to have with others. She also enjoyed the challenge of customization, having her clients be able to design along side her their dream wedding dress. That challenge, however, did not come without a considerable amount of hard work. My father notes that she remembers Omi staying up late every night after dinner, working at the sewing machine on embroidering pieces. For her, the work was labor intensive and required extreme detail and care on her part as the designer. Deciding to retire in 1997 from such a hectic pace, Omi stepped away at the height of her career, when she was most familiar with the fashion trends and practices of the time, before wedding styles changed radically into slinky, strapless designs. However, I was happy to have grown up with her at every event, recital, and family holiday.
I will remember my grandmother for many things: her subtle German accent, impeccable style, hard working nature, and beautiful gowns. But most of all, I take away from her an awe inspiring perseverance. My Omi’s journey towards becoming a couturier for the “who’s who” did not come without its obstacles, patience, and hours of diligent work. From overcoming living through World War II as a child, to uprooting her life and living in South America, to finding a new home in The United States, my Omi learned how to navigate extreme uncertainty with grace and poise.
One day in the future, when I walk down the aisle in the dress that Omi made for my mother when she married my father, I will beam with pride, happy to know that she is with me on one of my most important days. Right by my side, as she should be. How she would have wanted it to be.