The A List: The Girl on Fire

A List Heidi use this oneHeidi Elnora Baker on where she came from, where she’s going, and her new TLC reality show. 

Written by Lindsey Lowe Osborne 

Photographed by Liesa Cole

Hair by Tonya Jones | Make-up by Tyler Goodwin, both of Tonya Jones SalonSpa


Heidi and I are old friends.

OK, that’s not true. We met for the first time when I stopped by heidi elnora Atelier to interview her for this piece. But when I sat down to chat with her, to hear her story, she immediately began asking me questions: Where was I from? How old was I when I knew I wanted to be a writer? And of course, the most important: What did my wedding dress look like? Fifteen minutes in, I could tell it wouldn’t be a run-of-the-mill interview; what I know now is that Heidi Elnora Baker isn’t a run-of-the-mill kind of girl.

This isn’t Heidi’s first time appearing on B-Metro’s A-List, but the thing about her is that she’s always doing something new. There are reasons you keep hearing her name. Maybe you yourself were a “Heidi bride.” Perhaps you’ve seen her wedding dresses on the pages of your favorite magazine (including this one). You might have attended Birmingham Fashion Week, which Heidi began in 2011. Now you can catch Heidi on TLC’s reality show Bride By Design, which hits the airwaves in the spring of 2015. According to TLC, on Bride by Design, “Designer Heidi Elnora wants every bride to feel like one-of-a-kind on her wedding day. At Heidi’s Alabama boutique, cookie-cutter gowns are nowhere to be found as brides clamor for Heidi’s custom designs and her very own Build A Bride collection. Each week Heidi and her dedicated staff will turn their personalized attention and Southern charm to the task of creating wedding gowns as unique as the brides wearing them.”

But Heidi’s story begins long before the runways of BFW and the cameras of TLC. Her story begins in a hayfield in Morris, Alabama, where she grew up, and where she still lives with her husband, Jeff, and their two little boys, Jack and Bo. “It’s nice because I’m so involved in this city with the TV show and Birmingham Fashion Week and everything, but it’s nice to go home where it’s calmer and normal,” she says. Right away, she makes it clear that it’s this beginning that laid the foundation for all that was to come. “I believe a lot in ya-yas. I had a lot of women who influenced my life and molded me into becoming the strong person that I am today,” she says. “My nana loved fashion, too. I remember one time, my nana had a pair of red, silky pants, and I would always get my little, skinny body in one side of the pants, and one side in the top, and it would be like a onesie. I would walk around the house like that, and I just thought I was so fantastic. She would always let me pretend I was Miss America or a fashion designer.”

In fact, her family supported her passion for fashion, even though it seemed impractical. “Alabama is not known as a fashion capital nor in 1996 was it the cool thing to be,” Heidi says. “But I loved it.” When she was in the 10th grade, her aunt Rebecca bought her a Barbie kit that allowed her to draw her own clothing designs; she still has the booklet of her designs and keeps it in her office. In her bedroom, teenaged Heidi fashioned an inspiration wall of magazine clippings relating to fashion. “I just loved it,” she says. “I would eat and breathe it. It’s what I wanted to be.”

Heidi’s family lived modestly and in order to go to college, she needed to come up with a way to pay for it. She’d been active in extracurricular high school activities—softball, cheerleading, and dance—and she received a softball scholarship (as well as an academic scholarship) to Central Alabama Community College. “I had a rough time there,” she says with a laugh. “But that’s where I had to be because I had to go to college and that was my only way.” To keep herself busy—there wasn’t a lot to do in Alexander City, Alabama—she worked on the sewing machine she’d bought her senior year of high school.

One day, she saw a poster advertising the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Savannah, Georgia. “I saw that they had a fashion program,” she says, “And I thought, ‘Oh God, do they have a softball program?’ because I knew that was the only way I was getting there.” Her coach called SCAD and found out that they did have a program. Heidi went down to visit SCAD. “I remember the dean at the time walked up to me and said, ‘You love this,’ and I said, ‘This is who I want to be.’’” Not too long after her visit, SCAD’s softball coach called to tell Heidi that she’d received a presidential scholarship—her housing, tuition, and food was paid for. She graduated from SCAD in just two years, a year earlier than expected so that her nana, who had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), could see her senior collection. Pieces from that collection were selected by Karl Lagerfield, the head designer of Chanel, for inclusion in one of his own exhibits.

After graduating from SCAD in 2002, Heidi landed in Atlanta, working for Carter’s as an assistant design manager. For the four years she was there, she worked during the day and came home at night to sew in her basement. “I would sew women’s ready-to-wear, and I would eat Ramen noodles and tuna fish and mayonnaise so I could use every dime I had to buy fabric. And I would sew,” she says. “I would sew, and I would sew, and I would sew.” When she was 24, one of her friends convinced her to try out for the reality TV show Project Runway. Out of the 8,000 who auditioned in Miami, Heidi was the only one who made it. “It was another moment where I was this girl in my cowboy boots and my jeans with all of these artsy, cool people,” she says, “But I made it.” Heidi was the second contestant to go home that season and frankly, she wasn’t happy about it. “At the end, they said, ‘What’s your plan from here?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to keep trucking! You’re not stopping me,’” she says.

She went back to Atlanta and continued working at Carter’s; then, one day in 2005, she was hit by a drunk driver and everything changed. She came back home to recuperate (and ended up meeting her now-husband, Jeff, during that time.) Jeff was the reason she permanently moved back to Alabama. Once here, she recalibrated; she called Alabama Weddings magazine and shared that she’d been on Project Runway. They told her they were interested in doing a four-page spread on her work. “I called my mom, and I called Jeff, and I said, ‘I’ve decided what I’m going to do with my life: I’m going to be a wedding gown designer,’” Heidi says. “They asked why, and I said, ‘Because over all these years, I’ve designed all of these clothes, but I never would sell them or give them away, because no one would cherish the garment I created with my hands as much as I will. But a wedding dress—Someone is going to cherish it all the time and love the energy I have put into the dress.

“Every one of these dresses,” she says, gesturing to those hanging all around us, “has been in my head for years for some reason. They remind me of some woman for some reason. A wedding dress is not just something you wear; it’s a part of who I am.”

And so a wedding dress designer is what Heidi Elnora Baker became. With a loan from a nonprofit agency, she started her own business; each dress is designed by Heidi herself (which is why when you wear one, you become a “Heidi bride.”) They can be found at heidi elnora Atelier, Heidi’s Pepper Place shop that offers brides both predesigned gowns and the opportunity to dream up dresses that they will be the only ones to ever wear.

She’s made quite the splash. heidi elnora dresses are now in more than 30 stores worldwide, including Nordstrom, and have been seen in magazines like Bride, Town & Country, and Lucky. Heidi showed at New York Fashion Week for the first time in 2007 and pioneered the creation of Birmingham Fashion Week, which celebrates its fifth year in 2015. “I wanted to give people an opportunity I did not have,” she says of BFW. “In my hayfield, no one said, ‘Heidi, you can be a famous fashion designer.’ Growing up, they’d say, ‘Heidi, let’s be reasonable,’ so I’d say, ‘Well, we’re wearing clothes. Somebody’s making them.’ So I wanted to give kids an opportunity to express their talents on a stage. I don’t want people to feel limited because of where [they] are.”

In 2011, TLC contacted Heidi about a new reality TV show. Though at first she was unsure about tackling the reality scene again, she decided to go for it. The pilot for Bride by Design aired in July 2014 and got picked up for series that August; she filmed throughout the fall of 2014. It will premiere on TLC in the spring of 2015 and follows Heidi and her brides as she creates custom gowns for them.

Heidi’s story could be categorized all kinds of ways: A friendly girl who loves fashion finds a way to make her dreams come true. A hardworking overcomer sews, sews, and sews some more. A little girl sees a pair of silky, red pants in a different way and never stops looking at the world like that. However you want to put it, Heidi says it’s important to understand that she’s not the driving force behind it. “This is all God’s work. Every bit of it,” she says. “None of this is me. I just want people to know that. That is why I always tell my story.”

One Response to “The A List: The Girl on Fire”

  1. Camilla Seabolt says:

    Loved this article about Heidi and her wedding gowns!

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