Tender Memories wedding dress exhibit: behind-the-scenes

2nd June 2021

Our executive director Joc O’Donnell is renowned for putting her signature creative spin on the displays found here at Bill Richardson Transport World – and transforming the deeply-sentimental Harold’s Shed into a temporary home for the Tender Memories wedding dress exhibit was no different. 

“For me, once we have decided to do an exhibition, my imagination goes into overdrive,” Joc says. “When we’re offered or donated a collection, I won’t usually accept it unless I have an idea first as to how it could be well-displayed, so the person donating it can be happy with the way it is presented.”

The Tender Memories display was probably the largest installation the Bill Richarson Transport World team had worked on, since the opening of the collection in 2015, she says.

Pulling it all together was “a real team effort” – from the workshop team, who carried out the physical work needed to install the display (including crafting the bespoke heart-shaped archway), to the events team who oversaw the launch event and beautifully decorated the archway, staff who painstakingly cleaned the vehicles to ensure the precious gowns would remain in pristine condition, marketing and administrative staff involved in the logistics, preparing the information panels accompanying each dress, the staff involved in actually piecing the physical display together, and even a number of people who helped to dry flowers to add texture to the exhibit – “Mum’s garage was half full of them!” Joc jokes.

Watching a display like Tender Memories come together is a lot of fun, she says.

“I usually have an image in my head of how the bones of an exhibit is going to look before we start – then we just need to be fluid enough to let it evolve, as it will – and as it always done,” she says. “Putting all of the pieces in place and seeing it come to fruition is very satisfying – although you do have to be prepared for things to change. One of the challenges is that sometimes, something you have imagined doesn’t quite come together the way you’d like it to.

“It’s important to allow enough time up your sleeve, so if something doesn’t go according to plan you have a bit of leeway to change your approach. You do know fairly quickly if something isn’t gelling.”

Retail team member Kate Knowles played a key role in assisting Joc with putting the display together.

Managing the display of the centrepiece dress – the red wedding gown on loan from renowned bridal designer Trish Peng; it features vintage lace from famed Parisian couture house Christian Dior, Swarovski crystals, and a 20-metre train – proved to be particularly challenging, she says.

“Our first concept was quite different to how the dress ended up on display within the exhibit, but because it’s such an incredible dress we wanted to get it right,” she says. “There was a bit of trial and error involved in it’s staging. At one point, it was suspended from the ceiling – with the help of the workshop team and a cherry-picker – but we immediately knew the concept wasn’t going to work, so we put Plan B into action.”

Ensuring each of the wedding gowns – on loan from Kiwi celebrities including Olympic athletes Barbara Kendall and Emma Twigg, broadcasters Toni Street and Stacey Morrison, politicians including Marama Davidson, Penny Simmonds, and Dr Liz Craig, and more – was displayed appropriately also proved time-consuming.

“It was surprisingly difficult to dress each of the mannequins – because each dress was different in size, weight, length, and fabric, it was actually quite tricky. That was definitely a delicate task,” Kate says.

But she’s thrilled with the result.

“Visually, you have to be able to picture what it is going to look like all pieced together in the space and setting. We had to visualise the mannequins – their height, the layering of the dress – and how it would all work together. Mannequins were staggered on each truck so they added to the overall design and look we wanted to achieve.

“I was really invested in seeing the dresses, and their different styles. There is such a diverse variety of gowns, reflecting the personalities of all of the celebrities taking part, and they all took my breath away,” she says.

“It’s hard to pick a favourite, but I absolutely love Erin Simpson’s wedding reception dress – which she bought here in Invercargill, at Brides by Donna Rae, as well as one of the dresses Trish Peng designed.

“It feels really rewarding seeing it all together after all the hard work, and people really seem to be responding to it.”

Joc has also been pleased with the response to the Tender Memories exhibit.

“It’s lovely seeing people enjoy it so much, as it is something quite different for us. We’ve been so pleased as well by the number of people who wanted to support the exhibit. A local lady, Ann Rutledge, allowed us to display two incredible knitted dresses her mother made, and share the story of how they came to be. They are gold!

“Jenny Cookson, at Bella Bean Vintage in Christchurch, loaned us some gorgeous dresses from a variety of eras and of course Trish Peng got right on board with her fabulous dresses. Plus, we wouldn’t have been able to pull together the display without the generosity of the celebrities who agreed to take part,” Joc says. “All of them have been so obliging and we’re thrilled that together we can support KidsCan, as it such a worthy cause.”

She hopes visitors to Bill Richardson Transport World are able to enjoy seeing something a little bit different within the collection, which is on display until 30 September.

“It really is hard to say what my favourite part of the exhibit is. I do love the big heart, and also how the draping softened a very industrial space. It’s so nice to have the dresses displayed in amongst the vehicles,” she says.

“Who would have thought truck decks would have worked so well as display stages for wedding dresses? They integrated surprisingly well. I think that’s what we take so much pride in here at Bill Richardson Transport World – we like to think of things a little bit differently, and Tender Memories is no different. We really do hope people enjoy it.”

Tender Memories is on display at Bill Richardson Transport World until 30 September. Entry to the exhibit is included in the cost of general admission to the vintage vehicle collection. A portion of proceeds from every ticket to Bill Richardson Transport World sold until Tender Memories concludes will be donated to KidsCan.