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.”

Each of her wedding dresses, featured in Birmingham magazine’s January 2010 issue, represented a different facet of Heidi’s personality. She wore her mom’s wedding dress, redesigned as a fun, high-low number (before high-lows were cool, she adds) to her rehearsal dinner. To her ceremony, she wore a classic strapless gown with a dramatic train and ombre pink buttons. And to her Alabama Theatre reception, she split time between a pink, lace mock turtleneck, cap-sleeved mini and an ethereal ball gown made of silver metallic brocade with an overlay of sparkly tulle. For the last, Heidi wore her hair in a faux hawk. “It was so tacky. I still think it was tacky, but I wanted it because I was never a debutante.”

Despite their differences, Heidi says each of the dresses was true to her. And that’s something true of all Heidi brides, regardless of their personal style. “It’s interesting, the people who buy here I feel like are meant to,” she says.

“There’s not just one typical girl that’s my girl. Sometimes she’s a pioneer in terms of what she’s wearing, other times she’s very classic and traditional. But no matter who she is, she stays true to who she is with her wedding dress.”

One thing you’ll never find a Heidi bride in? “They’re not going to have that barely-clothed look,” she says. “The South is where it’s still important to be a lady. I don’t like when [brides] look like they have no clothes on. A bride should look like a bride.”

“Not everybody gets to live their dream, and I’m currently living mine, which is pretty huge,” Heidi says. One part of that dream is, of course, Heidi’s wedding dress business, but another part of it is using her success in the fashion industry to inspire others. In 2011 she started Birmingham Fashion Week to do just that. “There are a lot of kids who grew up in a hayfield just like I did, who have a dream, just like I had a dream, and I wanted to give them a platform to showcase their talents.”

After six years, Birmingham Fashion Week held its final show in 2016. Heidi says though she’s not able to keep the show up, she thinks it has made a huge impact on the community and hopes a larger organization, or maybe even the city, will take it on in the future.

Another of Heidi’s ventures, Camp Couture, started just last year and will continue on a larger scale this summer.

Camp Couture is a summer design and fashion camp that teaches children ages 7-12 how to sew, give positive critiques, draw fashion figures, and learn about silhouettes and fabrics. This year, the camp will expand its age range to 5-13 year olds, and a new camp for adults 14 and up will also be available. The camp is hosted in a 1,000-square-foot event space attached to Heidi’s Atelier that she has dubbed, “The Changing Room.” In the camp’s off-season, the room can be rented for intimate gatherings, including birthday parties, bridal teas, and rehearsal dinners.

For Heidi, bringing programs like Birmingham Fashion Week and Camp Couture to Alabama is just asimportant as her fashion line. “I love Alabama; this is my home,” she says. “I like that people are friendly, I like to be around my family, I love the sense of community. I’m passionate about the state, that’s why I did Birmingham Fashion Week.”

Though it’s not always easy to be a fashion designer in Alabama (Heidi, along with Natalie Chanin and Billy Reid, owns one of three major design houses in Alabama), she says it’s always rewarding. “You can’t just walk down the street and get fabric and the energy is much slower than in New York, but it gives you a different design aesthetic because you’re making your own perspective of what you think is cool. Birmingham, and Alabama in general, is a cool place to be, and I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

At 36, Heidi has seen more success, opened and closed more chapters than most her age, but, she says, she’s nowhere near done. In December, she launched an online retail shop where brides can order dresses directly online.

She still has to get her dresses into Bergdorf’s (another of her bucket list goals), though she says she won’t start panicking until she’s 50. And she alludes to bigger things to come from her Build-A-Bride collection–she recently had it registered and trademarked after other bridal designers began producing their own separates lines.

But for now, she says, she’s content to sit still–well, still for Heidi, which means moving into a new house, rearranging furniture in the Atelier, and maintaining the countless projects she’s juggling at any given moment. “Since October, I’ve felt in my spirit that God has told me to sit and be still,” she says. “This is as still as I can get. I’m just listening to His guidance, and keeping an open mind and open heart. He really has led this whole ship and I’ll keep letting Him lead.”

But even in her stillness, Heidi is always moving. She’s constantly thinking of new ways to improve her dresses, her brand, her family, her city, her state. “I just want to be a better version of myself. There are a lot of people that are cool, but I just want to be the best version of myself.”

For the woman who wore four dresses to her wedding and has designed hundreds more, change is the name of the game. “My family’s always like, ‘Heidi, what are you going to do next?’ and I never know, but that’s the art kid in me–I just have to create.”

5 Little-Known Facts About Heidi

1. Her favorite color is black. “I’m in black death all the time; it’s my spirit color. My whole closet is black and everyone thinks I’m mourning, but really I’m in my happy place.”

2. Pieces from her senior collection at SCAD were chosen by Chanel Head Designer Karl Lagerfield for one of his exhibits. “I never got to meet him, but I would love to.”

3. She still lives in a hayfield, about 20 minutes north of Birmingham in Morris, Alabama. “I love living out in the country because it helps me get a sense of background. It helps me to have roots and wings.”

4. She’s training her sons early. “In the summers they’re here all the time, hanging out with brides, and I’m like ‘Tell her she looks pretty.'”

5. She might be Coach Heidi soon. “I really want to coach Tee-ball right now. I talked to my husband about it last night. I might even design the jerseys because that’s my new passion.”

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