Life By Design: How Designer Heidi Elnora Went From Hayfields To High-Fashion

By Tara Massouleh Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Heidi Elnora Baker hasn't stopped moving since she decided she wanted to be a fashion designer as a kid growing up in the hayfields of Sardis, Alabama. She would try on her grandmother's clothes and redesign them to fit her taste. By the time she reached the 10th grade, there was no doubt in her mind about what she would one day become--she just had to figure out how to get there.

Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

It's just past 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and already Heidi Elnora Baker has walked 9,443 steps.

The wedding dress designer, media personality, entrepreneur, wife, mother of two, and self-described girl boss hasn't had a moment to herself all day--and that's the way she likes it. In fact, this interview, held inside an intimate bridal changing room in her year-old Atelier on Morris Avenue, might be the only time Heidi has sat down since she rolled out of bed at 7 that morning. It might also be the last before she crawls into bed sometime around midnight.

Of course, all of that will come only after she visits a couple more brides, makes sure all her Atelier employees are squared away, feeds her boys, recounts her day with her husband, and spends the last few hours before bed mindlessly sketching new designs on her iPad, while contemplating her next move.

Still, with all she has going on, talking with Heidi, you don't get the sense she's rushed for time. She leans back on the couch, pulls a leg up to her chest and gets comfortable. She's not fiddling with her phone or looking over her shoulder. With the curtains to the spacious changing room drawn closed, Heidi is candid, real, and unapologetically honest.

"Girl, I've already gone almost 10,000 steps," she says, checking her Fitbit. "I'm just a goer. I have this fuel inside of me--it's weird. I just have this fire all the time."

In a way, Heidi hasn't stopped moving since she decided she wanted to be a fashion designer as a kid growing up in the hayfields of Sardis, Alabama. She would try on her grandmother's clothes and redesign them to fit her taste. By the time she reached the 10th grade, there was no doubt in her mind about what she would one day become--she just had to figure out how to get there.

"In 1996, when I first said I wanted to be a fashion designer, it wasn't considered a real job," Heidi says. "But that's what I was passionate about. I remember one time someone said 'That's not a real job,' and of course, I'm this smart aleck 16-year-old, so I said 'Well, we wear clothes don't we?'"

Coming from a modest background, Parsons School of Design wasn't exactly an option when Heidi began looking at colleges--though eventually she would find her way to New York as a contestant on Project Runway. Instead, she used another of her talents to earn tuition. On a softball scholarship to a junior college in Alexander City, she kept her creativity alive by sewing pajama pants for her teammates.

While in college, she stumbled upon an advertisement for the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia.

Knowing that she could only afford to go via softball, she looked into the program. "Low and behold I was offered a presidential scholarship to SCAD, so I played softball and went to art school there, and it was such a blessing because I felt, for the first time, that I really fit in."

After graduating from SCAD, Heidi moved to Atlanta and began designing children's clothes for Carter's. "It was a lot of bears and bunnies and lots of shades of pink--it was like bubble gum pink and precious pink and flower pink," she says.

Meanwhile, she spent her nights sewing women's ready-to-wear in her basement. "I would use all my money from my day job and buy fabric and eat Ramen noodles," she says.

After being encouraged by a friend, 24-year-old Heidi tried out for Project Runway, a then-new reality show where aspiring designers compete to show their collections at New York Fashion Week. She made the show, but ended up being the second contestant eliminated. Her brief taste of the big time only added fuel to her fire. Heidi returned to Atlanta with a renewed sense of purpose and more determination than ever.

Back in Atlanta, something finally, and quite literally, stopped the immovable force that is Heidi Elnora. "I was hit by a drunk driver," she says. "That drunk driver stopped me. It was God's way of saying, 'Yo, kid, you're not paying attention to me, so I'm going to stop you in your tracks."

Heidi's mom moved her back to Alabama to recover. While at home, she fell in love. Bored out of her mind and stuck at home, Heidi visited her friend Tonya at her boyfriend's house. Tonya's boyfriend had a roommate. That roommate, Jeff Baker, became Heidi's husband in 2009, and the two, along with their sons, Jack and Bo, now live in the house where the couple first met.

"So I'm really thankful for the drunk driver," Heidi says. "Because without that happening, I wouldn't be here, I wouldn't have the babies, I wouldn't have my husband, I wouldn't have this building [heidi elnora Atelier], I wouldn't have everything I have now."

While home, Heidi also fell back in love with Alabama. So six months after meeting Jeff, she put in her two weeks' notice at Carter's, moved home, and started her now-nationally recognized company through a non-profit organization for women in business. "I started my company with a huge loan, a huge interest rate, and I didn't know what the heck I was doing because at the time I was 25 years old."

Being that she was in love, Heidi decided that she would design wedding dresses. "I wanted to create something that someone would cherish," she says. To Heidi, wedding dresses are works of art. "It's like a mural you would hang on your wall. Women's ready-to-wear comes and goes, but your wedding dress is something that will last forever." -- Today, heidi elnora brand wedding dresses are sold in retailers across the nation, including giants like Nordstrom, and even some in London.

In 2014, the brand received national attention when Heidi began filming "Bride by Design," a reality show on TLC, where she helps brides find their perfect wedding gowns. Just last year, Heidi crossed one of the last remaining items off her bucket list.

"One of my goals was to own a building in downtown Birmingham," she says. Her vision came together in March of 2016, when she bought an old parking deck on Morris Avenue and turned it into her dream shop.

She designed every aspect of her flagship Atelier, from the 8-foot-wide staircase you see when you first walk in, to the multi-room dressing rooms that are designed so brides can show off their selections in stages and keep their appointments intimate.

Even with the massive growth of her fashion house, Heidi still designs each and every dress under the heidi elnora name. That includes dresses in all three of her signature collections: Build-A-Bride, basic dresses that brides customize through add-ons and embellishments; Hello Darling, her laidback, bohemian line; and heidi elnora, her high fashion line.

Each collection represents a part of who Heidi is--Hello Darling, her upbringing in the country; heidi elnora, her edgy art school days at SCAD; and Build-A-Bride, her tendency to mix-and-match and constantly recreate. "It helps me to be all those people," she says. "That's why I had to design four dresses for my own wedding; I had to be all the girls that I am."

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