Tawny Holt, owner and mastermind of Armour Sans Anguish, stands among gauzy cascades of lace trim, stiff piles of satin, and rack upon rack of bright vintage fabrics. These are the materials waiting to be amalgamated into dreamy, bohemian garments in that inimitable AsA style.
She’s graciously allowed me to explore her workshop, located in a lofty warehouse on Adeline Street; it’s a scene of controlled chaos in shades of pink, cream, and ivory. Armour Sans Anguish is a small but quickly growing business that designs and creates custom dresses for brides, bridesmaids, or anyone desirous of a personalized frock made from recycled or vintage fabric (and really, who isn’t?) That lovely tongue-twister of a name refers to the sustainability of her materials: you Francophiles might have guessed this, but “sans anguish” means “without sorrow.” Mother Gaia is very happy when you choose to upcycle!
Armour Sans Anguish was born about a decade ago, but it was a modest beginning, with little fanfare. Living in Modesto at the time, Tawny would make pieces for herself in her living room and wear them around town. She caught the eye of a local boutique owner, who asked her to make a collection for sale at the shop. Things snowballed from there, as things often do when you have luck and talent, and 3 years ago, she added a small staff and began renting a small workshop space. And with that, Armour Sans Anguish was officially a business, albeit one where the majority of customers order on their website or through Etsy. In fact, most of the dress orders come from outside the Bay Area, including a sizable number from Australia and the UK!
After soaking in the sheer pleasantness of the workshop, drenched in the late afternoon light, I shook the gauzy sunbeams from my eyes and got to the business of picking Tawny’s brain. I started by asking her the question I ask every designer and style curator. You’d be surprised at the variety of answers I get.
What does fashion mean to you?
It’s a way to have art and beauty in your life. It’s a way to think about color, and design, and composition in your day to day.
Did you ever see yourself being, primarily, a designer of wedding dresses?
This definitely wasn’t something I planned on. I never marketed myself as a bridal designer, or intended to be one! But the things that I was making happened to be fluttery and layered and romantic, and people started coming to me for that. So, yes, our bread and butter is definitely weddings. Mostly bridesmaids, some flower girls, and, of course, bridal gowns. There’s always a need for it.
I actually studied Anthropology and Feminist Theory in college, and the design and sewing work I was doing was just something to help pay for school. But by the time I graduated, I had a big enough client base that it didn’t make sense to me to try to switch careers, so I kept doing it. Then I moved to the Bay Area for graduate school, and I got a lot of exposure, got inundated with orders, and finally I just dropped out of school and got a warehouse space and a staff- all over the course of about three months! So I tried to get away from it, but I got sucked back in.
Do you design your own clothes anymore?
It’s kind of sad, but designing clothes is work for me now! In some ways, the romance is sort of gone. So I love what I do, but designing for myself and trying to think of what I want to wear is almost the last thing I want to be doing! Sometimes I end up making a piece that I just have to keep for myself, but it’s mostly an accident.
What do you like to wear in your personal life?
I wear a lot of vintage. I love Mercy Vintage: every time I go there, I find so many beautiful things I want! I’ve had events there, and the owners are very supportive and just have a very beautiful spirit. [Note from Liz: beloved and departed WYV writer Stri was a huge fan, too.]
What are the unexpected challenges of designing wedding attire?
You have to realize how emotional weddings can be for people. Before I started designing wedding dresses, I had no idea how important a certain color can be to someone! They might need a specific violet, or salmon shade: so we do a lot of hand dying. So we actually can produce any palate that someone requests.
But what I love is after the wedding: we get photos of it, and sweet thank-you notes…We get people saying, “I wore one of your bridesmaid dresses in my friend’s wedding, and now I want you to make my wedding gown!” Most of the brides I work with, I end up feeling like I want to be their friend. I would totally want to hang out with them! So it’s great to connect with people all over the world like that.
Where do you find your gorgeous recycled fabrics?
I have some people I’ve connected with online who source for me, and send me boxes of fabric they know I would be into. But I still love finding stuff myself, too, so I enjoy going to estate sales, rag houses, flea markets, and thrift stores. And those are places I would be going anyway, just because I like them, so I’m always hunting and gathering wherever I go.
When you’re not juggling wedding work, what do you like creating?
When I have spare time, I get to indulge in truly materials-driven design work, instead of client-driven. All of my designs are based on materials that I love, but more practically, materials that I can find in abundance, so I’m able to loosely replicate it. For example, last year I fell in love with making dresses from lace tablecloths. (Sometimes, though, I find a fabric that’s so beautiful, I’ll just make a one-off piece that I know I can never make again!)
What do you consider your fashion influences?
I joke that I look at all the New York Fashion Week photos every season to make sure that lace and ruffles are still happening somewhere, since those are my favorite things, and I’m always going to be doing them! So I check in to make sure they’re not over. I also love the ’70s, which seems to be still flying pretty high right now, so that makes me happy because that’s what I would be into anyway. I like psychedelia and hand-dyed tunics, too, and they’re mostly on trend right now too, which is convenient.
I also find a lot of dance influences in my style: sometimes I just want to look like a ballerina from the ’70s on her smoke break!
How do you see AsA continuing to evolve?
I would love to offer a broader ready-to-wear line. I’ve worked with a lot of eco-boutiques in the past, and I had to drop a lot of that when I started focusing on bridal. I’d also like to widen our vintage selection: that’s one of my personal passions, so it feels good when I have time to focus on that. I think bridal will always be there, but I want to see the wings of the whole operation expand more.
When did you first get serious about fashion?
I was self-taught at the beginning of AsA, but as more and more people started coming to me with orders, I realized I had to get serious about it. I couldn’t fly by the seat of my pants anymore. I had organically slow growth for the first few years, so it gave me time to, essentially, learn as I went. I’ve wanted to participate in fashion for a long time, but I wanted to do it in a way that felt more ethical, and sustainable.
Have you ever wondered about other careers you might be pursued?
I always imagined that at this point in my life, I would be a frizzy-haired Anthropology professor at community college…and I haven’t ruled that out! Before that, I thought I’d be an art major; I’ve changed my mind a hundred times. I’m really curious about counseling and psychology, too. I think the background that I have in the social sciences has been helpful in what I do, too, interfacing with so many different kinds of people.
Keep your eyes peeled for a possible upcoming event in November! Tawny periodically opens up this workspace for a casual open studio/hangout session. These events usually involve a sample sale, a $5 vintage rack, wine, snacks and other ve. Tawny laughed. “We kind of just…try on pretty dresses all afternoon!” Sign me up, ma’am!
So if you like your gowns bohemian, your fashion sustainable, and your style to be completely, utterly one-of-a-kind, sounds like you and Tawny are simpatico. You know who to call.
(And if you want to see more of Armour Sans Anguish, one of Tawny’s stunning dresses was featured in our fall photo shoot Love Is The New Black!)