When TV viewers tune in to watch “Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta” on TLC, a show that features brides (and their entourages) seeking the perfect wedding dress, they likely think the slender Southern gentleman with the wry comments and snappy chemistry is an Atlanta resident.
A West Virginia native, Monte Durham, 62, has made his home in the Belle Haven area for many years (he’s a runner and a cyclist so be on the lookout for him when you’re out and about).
We recently spoke with Durham as he was preparing to chair the American Horticultural Society’s 25th anniversary gala this fall at its headquarters at River Farm on the banks of the Potomac River.
You’re the honorary chair of the AHS gala this year. Are you a gardener yourself? I grew up in West Virginia on a farm. We grew up gardening vegetables and food, not necessarily flowers. Here at home, at the house, we do garden. I have an affection for dahlias. That’s what I tend to take care of. River Farm is a great place for weddings.
Can you tell our readers how you became an authority on brides? I started out my career as a personal shopper at Woodward & Lothrop. I worked mainly out of the Landmark store. Women would come in and say two things to me: They had a hard time finding a good tailor or they had a hard time doing the hair the way they wanted. I thought, ‘I can’t sew but I probably can learn to do hair.’ I went back to school, Graham Webb International in Arlington and took an advanced course in London and finished my degree there. I came back and landed a job at Elizabeth Arden at Fairfax Square.
Not all hairdressers like dealing with brides. They don’t teach you to do up-dos. Up-dos are something I could do without a problem. All a sudden word’s out: Priscilla of Boston started sending all their brides to me. Then I started helping customers with bridal gowns, make-up and accessories. Then, Washingtonian wrote about me as a bridal consultant. It was just then becoming popular to be married outside of a religious facility. River Farm was a favorite, so I was there helping brides walk down that beautiful aisle in the rose garden.
We understand you are fascinated with Jacqueline Kennedy. Can you tell us a little bit about that? When I was growing up in West Virginia, my mother and father were huge Kennedy fans. Our electoral votes put him in the White House, our votes sealed the deal for him. My grandmother had a plate of Jackie and John Kennedy and I always looked at that and wondered about this couple. I’m a little bit of a history nut. My mother had a penchant as all women did at the time to dress like Jackie. So it started me wondering ‘Who is this woman?’ My grandmother gave me the plate and I had it in my first apartment. She literally saved the White House, Blair House, Lafayette Square.
Do you have any Jackie Kennedy keepsakes? I have a whole room of Jackie Kennedy memorabilia in my office. I have magazines, dolls, salt and pepper shakers. I have an exact replica of her wedding gown. When I worked at the Red Door at Tysons, I did a lot of work with Priscilla of Boston. I used to go and promote their gowns whenever I did a fashion show or wherever I was going on a TV station or going to talk about weddings. They wanted to do something special for me. I said I’d like a replica [of the gown]. I was very persistent. It arrived in two different boxes it was so big. I made it a size 10, which probably runs about an 8.
TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress” is in its 10th season airing in a longer format now when it airs Saturday nights. How did you and Lori Allen, the bridal shop owner, meet? Priscilla of Boston asked me to travel around and do trunk shows for them. They then sold to David’s and another designer wanted me to work with them In the New York showroom. Lori has the largest store in the Southeast. Hers is three floors — it’s huge. She came in, she’s one of the top clients. I was in this black suit. She looks at me and she goes, “Hmmm, who are you?” I go “Good Morning Miss Allen, I am the new image director for the company.” She goes “Really? What’s your name?” and I go “Monte Durham.” She says “You know what? You are going to be in my store next week.” I said, “Please, Miss Allen, just take a seat and we’ll start the show.” And I go in the back and said to someone in the back, “Who’s the bossy blonde?” I was in her store the following week and we became friends right away. Her two granddaughters are Jack and I’s god daughters.
Your best friend is on the series this season. What was that like? I was the wedding planner on this one show. It was hilarious. She was getting married by the beach in Florida with her, the groom, her two children and his two children. And I step into it. And Lori goes to me, ‘So Monte what all did you change about the wedding?’ I said “Really, nothing, I really haven’t.’ She goes, ‘I know you, what did you change?’ I changed the location, her hair, her make-up, the food, the dishes, the flowers, the music, the reverend, the invitation, the music, the rehearsal dinner. But hey, she’s wearing the same dress. And I gave her a shrug and new jewelry.
What do you like most about living in the Alexandria area? There are two things that come to mind: History and green spaces. How lucky are we to have both?
This article originally ran in Alexandria Living Magazine, a regional magazine covering the businesses, events and issues affecting the dynamic and growing Alexandria area.