Jean-Ralph Thurin: high fashion from Haiti

Caroline Taylor visits Jean-Ralph Thurin’s high-fashion bridal salon in New Jersey, where the Haitian designer brings his dreams to life

Jean-Ralph Thurin. Photograph courtesy Jean-Ralph ThurinPhotograph courtesy Andrew Chapman/acimagery.comPhotograph courtesy Andrew Chapman/acimagery.com

There never seemed any doubt about what path Jean-Ralph Thurin’s career would take. This past November, Thurin formally launched his bridal salon, Thurin Atelier [now Jean-Ralph Thurin LLC], presenting his Thurin Luxe 2008 collection to some of the most influential players in the fashion industry. Before the atelier (“workshop” in French) had even opened its doors, wedding planners, bridal parties, local news media and US national bridal publications were all lining up to book him for shows, interviews, and gowns.

There has never been a high-end salon offering custom-made, designer formal or bridal wear in central New Jersey. Most people throughout the tri-state area and northeast make the trek to New York City for that, sometimes from as far as Pennsylvania or Connecticut. And even then, the prices and traffic often make the experience more frustrating and less fulfilling than they had hoped. But with Thurin Atelier, they can now receive special one-on-one attention to make their dream gown in an exquisitely outfitted salon set in a historic and bucolic New Jersey town.

No wonder, then, that the response has been overwhelming. New Jersey’s premier bridal magazine, New Jersey Bride, has already booked Thurin for their prestigious spring fashion show on April 12.

With all the attention from his November launch and the upcoming showing, is Thurin ready for the deluge of requests that the rest of 2008 is sure to bring? He laughs playfully at the question. “I’d better be!” he says.

That’s because this has always been what Thurin wanted to do. Born in New York to Haitian immigrant parents, Thurin and his older siblings grew up in Africa—primarily in Gabon—where his father was posted on assignment with the United Nations. While his older brother and sister were outdoors playing football and sports, Thurin was inside sketching his own designs and dressing up his friends in his creations.

The family returned to New York by the 1980s, and while Thurin’s siblings went into law and medicine, his passion for fashion and design remained unabated. He enrolled in the Parsons School of Design, becoming enthralled by the fashion shows of haute couture houses of Dior, Givenchy and Chanel. It was from these exclusive salons that Thurin drew the inspiration for Thurin Atelier. His own salon had to capture nothing less than the same elegance and sophistication that had set these great designers apart.

Over the last two decades, Thurin has honed his skills in some of the most successful clothing design companies in the United States, and has travelled worldwide. This international background informs all of his designs, as he draws not only from his Haitian and Caribbean roots, but says he’s inspired by the architecture and style of every country he visits.

In the 1990s, while still working a full-time job, Thurin began designing and making wedding dresses for clients out of his Long Island home. Over the years, through word of mouth alone, his reputation as a bridal gown designer spread. So after he moved to Princeton last year, finding the perfect location for his workshop and finally launching Thurin Atelier became the natural next step.

The workshop itself is a reflection of Thurin’s perfectionism and style. Every detail—from the floors to the cabinetry, fittings, artwork, and furniture—was chosen by Thurin and his two siblings, who are now partners in Thurin Atelier.

Family has always been a key component of Thurin’s success. He still affectionately recalls that it was his grandmother, who was born in the Dominican Republic and died in 2006 at the age of 100, who first taught him how to sew. Among the 15 gowns in the Thurin Luxe 2008 collection, one is called “Marie France,” inspired by his wife, the mother of his two daughters, Ariane and Brielle, and his right hand at the atelier.

Marie France, born and raised in Haiti, is a graduate of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), with an impeccable feel for fabrics, embroidery, accessories and detailing.

On the facing walls as one enters the salon, there are two magnificent paintings by Thurin’s niece Mickayel, bursting with the colour and texture of Haitian art. The entire family—brothers, sisters, grandparents, nieces, nephews and cousins—pools resources and shares ideas at every stage to make the business the best that it can be.

Only time will tell if Thurin will earn the kind of worldwide acclaim in the fashion industry that other Haitian émigrés like Jean-Michel Basquiat or Wyclef Jean have won in art or music. But Thurin is well on his way.

More information: www.jeanralphthurin.com