Middleton Moment

05.22.12

How Priscilla Chan Scored a Claire Pettibone Wedding Dress in Secret

Priscilla Chan managed to keep her $4,700 dress for her wedding to Mark Zuckerberg completely under the radar by flying to Denver for fittings, using a fake name, and having someone else pay for it. Isabel Wilkinson reports.
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Allyson Magda, Polaris / Newscom

When Kate Middleton appeared at her royal wedding in a dress by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, the world was shocked—not so much at the choice of designer, but rather at how she could possibly have managed to keep it a secret. Now America has had its Middleton moment.

Priscilla Chan, who married Mark Zuckerberg in a surprise wedding in their backyard in Palo Alto on Saturday, has become an instant star. And now the dress she wore for the nuptials, a simple lace gown by little-known bridal designer Claire Pettibone, has become an overnight sensation.

The dress, called “Sky Between the Branches,” retails for $4,700, on the low end in an industry in which dresses can sell for upwards of $25,000. The tank-style design, of matte sequins on embroidered lace over silk charmeuse with a mermaid silhouette, has a high lace neckline in the front and a low-cut back. According to the designer, the dress has an Asian influence and is inspired by nature. And already, Pettibone says she has been contacted by representatives from 14 boutiques worldwide who want to carry the dress. The “Chan Effect” has begun.

A bride can sometimes spend months choosing a wedding dress—and involve several friends and family members in the process. But Chan succeeded in selecting the wedding dress anonymously in an elaborate scheme that involved flying to another state, using a fake name, and having a friend handle the purchase.

Video screenshot

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The story begins in October, when Chan pulled what the designer calls a “stealth move”: she flew from Palo Alto to shop for a dress in Denver, where she wouldn’t be recognized. Having seen Pettibone’s designs online, she and a friend went to Little White Dress, a store in the Highlands neighborhood that carries the designs. According to the store’s owner, Cate Malone, Chan tried on “about a half a dozen” dresses before eventually settling on “Sky Between the Branches” and a hair clip.

Chan came into the store twice: first in October, when the order was placed, and again in April, for another fitting. She came with a friend and told the salesperson that their budget was unlimited—but seemingly didn’t raise any eyebrows. According to Pettibone, Chan used the name “Priscilla Tuan” to order the dress anonymously, but Malone at Little White Dress would not confirm that detail. The designer says it was Chan’s friend, doubling as an assistant, who handled the transaction for the purchase, which, in retrospect, seemed odd. “We had no idea who she was until yesterday,” Malone says. The order for the dress was placed with Pettibone’s factory in California, and it took about four months to complete.

“She could have come to me and I would have done anything for her,” designer Claire Pettibone says. “But instead she decided to make her own choice under the radar.”

Although Pettibone has been designing dresses since 1994, she has not been widely known until now. She says she discovered that Chan had worn her design late on Saturday night, when she and her husband returned home from dinner and went online to check the news. “Honey, she’s wearing our dress!” she recalls her husband shouting. They were shocked—and tried to find out where Chan could have purchased it. They called all their stockists around San Francisco, and even the famous Kleinfeld’s boutique in New York City, but had no luck. That led the couple to search their corporate records, where they began to go through the last year’s orders one by one, until they found an order placed by “Priscilla Tuan,” at Little White Dress in Denver, listing the order date as May 20. (There’s wide speculation that the wedding was purposely planned around the date of Facebook’s IPO, but Chan ordered the dress in October, before the IPO date was set—with the May wedding date on the order form.)

“I think aside from the marrying-the-billionaire part,” Pettibone says, “[Priscilla] is typical of the brides that are drawn to my collection: she’s smart, educated, and making her own choices. She could have come to me and I would have done anything for her. But instead she decided to make her own choice under the radar.”