The only thing missing from Mary Rita Nommensen's house is some pixie dust. Inside of her Riverlakes Ranch area home is a veritable bridal candy store. Willie Wonka meets Cinderella. This enchanted forest of Tulle, lace and baubles, is where, she says, the magic begins -- as if waving an imaginary wand over her dining room.
A bride-to-be's first visit leaves her and her entourage feeling like little girls again playing dress up, she said.
"People come here and they don't want to leave," Nommensen said. "I like when girls come in, they have a vision and say they don't know if it can be done. I say 90 percent of what they envision can be done. There pretty much isn't anything I can't do."
'Surgery without blood'
That kind of vow explains why her time and talent are in such demand.
This past year, she worked with 60 brides, and has stitched probably hundreds of gowns and veils over the years. Some brides-to-be have driven in from as far away as San Diego and Arizona for the material girl's magic touch.
"I'm not the typical person who does alterations," she said. "For bustles, I never use crocheted loops."
Instead, she opts for rhinestones and rattails. She color-codes the bustles on the gown or can make sections of the dress detachable, creating two looks for the price of one.
"I tell them it is surgery without blood. I need to be able to take it apart," Nommensen said.
After deconstructing the garment, she redesigns it, and puts it back together with gussets, beading and rhinestones for a finished product. The garments insides and seams are flawless.
"If it is not the perfect dress, I will make it for you," Nommensen said. "By the time the dress leaves here, it is a totally different dress and doesn't look anything like it did when it came in here."
Learning to sew
At 55, Nommensen considers herself a late bloomer. A native of Long Island, the petite spark plug brought her New York accent with her when she and her family moved to Bakersfield in 2001. One of five children, Nommensen grew up with a father who worked for the U.S. Postal Service and a mother who was a homemaker. She learned to sew in the fourth grade at her parochial school.
She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and later worked for big fashion labels like Elie Tahari and Maggy London.
A self-described eclectic overachiever, she recalls trying to make her father a seersucker suit when she was young. It proved to be too ambitious a task at first.
"But my dad told me to be patient, so I finished the suit; he wore it to church where he was an usher, even though one sleeve was longer than the other," she said laughing.
Her father learned to sew in the military and her mother made and sold rag dolls.
Tools of the trade
Her dining room no longer includes a table and chairs. A China cabinet showcases bridal accessories like crowns and gloves. It is here, amid mannequins wearing sample gowns, that bridal gown fantasies become reality.
Atop an antique credenza sits a spice rack with shakers filled with pearls, sequins and every adornment imaginable, and glass ice cream sundae dishes brim with bling.
Monogrammed veils hang from a nearby rack.
In an adjacent room, her workshop -- the inner sanctum of the refinement process -- are the tools of this fairy godmother's trade: six sewing machines, a kaleidoscope of spools of embroidery threads hanging from the wall, and shelving stacked with drawers, meticulously organized, that encase buttons, trim and other enhancements.
And this guardian angel of fabric is also cost-conscious. Mary Rita encourages brides on a budget to find a gown at a bridal discount store or on Craigslist. The cost for her ingenuity ranges from $250 to $600. Labor intensive, Nommensen knows it probably isn't cost-effective, but said it truly is a labor of love for her.
"It is a dying art; people don't know how to sew," she said.
Her clients value their investment as a work of art.
"She was such a pleasure to work with and so helpful," said Karen Martinez, whose daughter wed in August. "Both Roxanne's [her daughter] dress and mine needed to be taken down many sizes and they came out wonderful. She also added the pearl buttons down the back of [the gown] and added the bustles for the reception."
Nommensen also works her magic for rodeo princesses and church banners. But she reserves most of her time, and advice, for her brides-to-be, all of whom receive a sixpence for their shoe for their wedding day, along with a copy of the history of the time-honored bridal tradition.
To learn more about Mary Rita Nommensen's "Sew Elegant Bridal Veils & Alterations," go to bakersfieldalterations.com.