Project Runway star April Johnston balances good and evil in her enchanting, eccentric “I do” at Bonaventure Cemetery.
By Beth E. Concepción | Photography by Caroline McElhinny
The bride wore black.
That sounds like an opening line to a tragic tale, but it’s actually a happy ending for Savannahclothing designer April Johnston. She describes her March wedding to former Army Ranger Aaron Hoffman as a “Tim Burton-esque fantasy.” The unforgettable affair reflected the same Gothic aesthetic April showed on Season 8 of Project Runway (and Project Runway All Stars), and now markets under her couture fashion brand, Mangled Courtesan.
“I’m not like every girl,” she says—a true understatement. “I never dreamed of getting married and having a wedding. I honestly just wanted to elope. My fantasy as a little girl was to show at Bryant Park.”
So when it came time to plan her nuptials, April approached the challenge in the same way she designs her collections.
“I wanted it to be a fantasy-like thing; I wanted to have fun with it,” she explains. “It was all about dark romance.”
The unorthodox union was true to character for April and Aaron, whose first meeting was offbeat to say the least. True, they met at a bar—Murphy’s Law Irish Pub on Savannah’s Congress Street in February 2009—but the introduction was a little out of the ordinary.
“It’s kind of a bad story,” she laughs. “I sent my roommate over to smack him on the butt because I thought he was cute. She did it. He turned around, and I waved a really flirty wave. And that’s how I got his attention … I don’t hold back.”
April didn’t hold back with her wedding plans, either. She chose to have the ceremony in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery—a place that influences her designs.
“I get a lot of my inspiration from dark things,” she explains.
Although a cemetery might not seem like a first choice for a wedding location, April says it was perfect for her.
“It’s hard to explain to people,” she says. “I just really love that place, and that’s where I wanted to have it. Why not be in love and get married in the place that you love?”
Once she landed the location (a process involving “lots of paperwork”), April says everything else fell into place. She began to have fun with the whole project, complete with costume-like apparel for guests. She started by requesting that all attendees dress in black and wear vintage hats.
“Everybody loved the idea,” the bride recalls. “Once they found out about it, they were like, ‘I get to go out and buy a hat!’ I mean, who doesn’t like to dress up, you know? Everybody loves Halloween. I thought it would be fun to make something that’s ‘me’ and have everybody play along in my world. And Aaron just had to deal with it.” She chuckles, then amends, “No—he was into it.”
April even went so far as to say that if guests didn’t dress in black, they couldn’t come.
“What if somebody wore pink?” she demands. “That would screw the whole thing up.”
The Good with the Evil
While the outfits were outstanding, other key details were out of April’s control. The first bad turn was the fact that it rained. Poured, actually. Then, the musicians got their dates confused and failed to show up. The cellist and harpist were scheduled to play “Cosmic Love” by British indie rock band Florence and the Machine, but April ended up walking down the aisle to silence and stares.
“I just looked at everyone like, ‘I have no music, and I’m OK with it,’” she recalls.
There was also the matter of some uninvited guests: Savannah’s notorious flying menaces.
“The gnats attacked my guests and me,” April remembers. “I kind of looked like King Kong swatting at the airplanes.”
Was it bad juju from the cemetery ceremony? Not as far as the bride is concerned. In spite of all that happened, April says she wouldn’t change a thing.
“It is what it is,” she says. “And gnats and rain are Savannah, you know what I mean?”
The city also known as the Garden of Good and Evil found its way into every part of the event, from the confection by Tier Luxury Cakes that paid homage to Savannah’s abundant wrought iron to April’s gown, with layers that echoed trees dripping with Spanish moss. April—who earned her B.F.A. in fashion from the Savannah College of Art and Design before hitting the small screen—made her own dress with material she purchased from Liberty Street sewing shop Fabrika Fine Fabrics.
Another Savannah element—history—took a decidedly personal form. Whereas April’s dress was her “something new,” she chose her grandmother’s gray pearl earrings for her “something old.” Her “something borrowed” was her great-grandmother’s pearl necklace, which every woman in her family has worn on her big day. Naturally, the rebellious April chose to break some rules, ignoring the “something blue.”
“I did the things I wanted to do,” she says. “I wanted it to be traditional but untraditional at the same time.”
April’s strong sense of family continued to her bouquet, which she made out of black roses that her great-grandmother had crocheted years ago.
“That way I’d always have a piece of her with me—and my bouquet would never die,” the bride says.
Her mother and grandmother made the veil.
“It’s kind of significant because my grandmother taught me how to sew, and we always used to make things together,” April recalls.
April’s most significant memory of the day also involved family: the dance with her father. Her parents divorced when she was 13.
“I’ve had a really rocky time with that, and it was a pretty hard divorce to go through,” she says. “Dancing with him was pretty emotional for me, so that would probably be the most meaningful moment.”
April and her father danced to the music of Savannah band Bottles & Cans (who did get the date right) at the reception site of Cha Bella. Guests included Ruel Joyner from 24e, BleuBelle Boutique’s Heather Burge and April’s Project Runway co-star, Peach Carr.
“We’re really close, and I invited her because of that,” April says of Carr. “I didn’t invite anyone else from Project Runway. It was really small. I wanted it to be really intimate.”
In fact, only 72 people attended the wedding.
“Mondo (Guerra) and Michael (Costello) were pissed that I didn’t invite them,” she confides. “But it’s my wedding; it isn’t like a Vogue party.”
Of course, it looked a little like a Vogue party. Many of April’s fashion-forward clients and friends were in attendance, wearing the Mangled Courtesan dresses she made for them.
“I love doing one-of-a-kind things,” she says. “It’s really personal. It’s made in Savannah, made in the States, made by me. That’s pretty cool.”
April encourages other brides-to-be to embrace a one-of-a-kind sensibility for their own weddings.
“Make it what you like, whether it’s a theme that you’re into or something that’s significant to you and your fiancé,” she advises. “You just have to come up with an idea that represents the two of you.”
BEHIND THE VEIL
The big day: Friday, March 9, 2012
Planning time: Six months
Palette: Vintage black
Rehearsal dinner: None
Ceremony: Bonaventure Landing, Bonaventure Cemetery
Reception: Cha Bella
Officiant: The Rev. Steven Schulte
Gown: Mangled Courtesan by April Johnston
Accessories: Mangled Courtesan veil, maternal great-grandmother’s pearl necklace and crocheted roses (in bouquet), maternal grandmother’s gray pearl earrings
Hair: Lindsay Nix, Towne Salon
Makeup: Jules De Jesus, Dollface by Jules
Bridesmaids’ dresses: Mangled Courtesan
Reception music: Bottles & Cans
Cake: Tier Luxury Cakes
Rentals: Ranco Rentals (chairs and tent)
Photography: Caroline McElhinny