wedding dress china
Image: Thomas Cobb

SOPHIE CHANG once ran a high-end bridal couture line stocked at China’s largest department stores, serving a booming market in a country where Western-style gowns became part of the scene only in the 1980s. Before she moved to Oregon in 2006, however, she sold that brand and started over from scratch—almost. In 2010, Chang opened a bridal boutique in Tanasbourne, capitalizing on the secret weapon she’d kept: her insider knowledge of China’s garment industry.

While many American start-up manufacturers struggle to find a reliable Chinese connection, the 37-year-old Chang’s background allows her to combine the handcrafted ethos Portlanders crave and the international supply chains upon which the global economy relies. As wedding-planning season ramps up in this romantically inclined month, Chang’s operation will connect Portland brides-to-be with her family’s ongoing manufacturing business in its adopted home city of Xiamen on China’s coast. Here’s how:

1. In a competitive field, Chang uses a price-to-quality ratio as her selling point. Chang’s custom gowns cost much less than comparable pieces by high-end national lines. (A Sophie Chang gown using 50 yards of silk might cost $4,000, give or take. A comparable Vera Wang might cost $10,000.) “Sophie was a few hundred dollars more than I would have spent to get something off the rack,” says Kari Ann Johnson, a 28-year-old who commissioned a custom gown from Chang in 2010, “but it’s much higher quality.”

2. A Chang custom design can evolve from her collection’s existing silhouettes or completely new ideas. Patterns are sent to Xiamen, where her family maintains deep connections in the garment industry. The absence of a middleman gives Chang complete control of a highly complex manufacturing process. “We can have 10 different craftspeople working on one gown at different stages,” she says.

3. Nearly finished gowns come back to Portland for final adjustments and embellishments, which Chang prefers to do herself. The final payoff, according to Chang, more than compensates for the complexities of running a global manufacturing enterprise out of a 1,500-square-foot store. “What I love about my job,” she says, “is all the happy brides.”