Long romantic summers in London, elegant dinner parties and a private royal collection with pieces from Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe— these are the elements that weave themselves into all young girls’ dreams. But for Savannah, Tennessee native Pat Kerr Tigrett, these seemingly fantastical dreams have materialized in remarkable ways. A local bridal couturier and serious collector of royal memorabilia, Tigrett has lived a life that she describes as her own Cinderella story. That story becomes only richer this summer as she celebrates her part in the Kensington Palace “Fashion Rules” exhibit in London.Tigrett has come a long way from days spent playing with acres of fabric provided by her mother. Unaware at the time, she now credits her mother as having placed her in the right places to cultivate her design skills. From private art classes four days a week to pageants and road trips to Memphis for modeling opportunities, Tigrett grew up in the world of design and fashion. “I never really wanted to look like anyone else,” she says. “I would stay at my aunt’s house. We would cut out fabric freehand, and I would have a new outfit for school the next day. That’s how I learned.” Under the hand of strong female leads, Tigrett was introduced to lace, embroidery, quilting and knitting from the time she entered the world. Her creative ability, cultivated over years of personal inquiry, has resulted in her own bridal designs as well as the expansive Pat Kerr Private Royal Collection. “We are what we’re taught as little children,” she says. “Mother never said no to any creative thought that I had as a child, so I had freedom to fail because there were never any mistakes. You just keep on going, you do something with it.” That confidence allowed her to enter a multitude of pageants, which would naturally segue into the modeling industry. From there, Tigrett would become heavily involved with the Miss U.S.A. program, as Miss Tennessee, and then as the owner of the program for 12 years.That decision to purchase Miss U.S.A. would lead Tigrett to become the world-renowned collector that she is, with historians and museum curators alike recognizing her impressive collection. “I was invited to go to the Orient with Miss Universe and Miss U.S.A before I bought it [the pageant] for three months. That’s when I began collecting.” Her amazement at the delicacy of embroidery in the Orient and her sense of security instilled in her by her family, led Tigrett to begin accruing a massive collection of royal memorabilia including items from Princess Diana, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Queen Victoria and King George III, among others. In addition to that collection, Tigrett has incorporated laces and textiles into her exquisite collection. “My mother taught me to appreciate and care for the really fine textiles, and I’m so grateful for that because I carried it with me.”Her eye for delicate materials and high quality textiles would lend her severely disappointed at a pivotal time in her personal life — her wedding. “When I married it was so painful trying to find something, everything looked alike and they were all primarily polyester. I had been traveling all over the world, wearing couture — it’s just another level of clothing.” Unable to find a gown that suited her exquisite palate, she created Pat Kerr designs. The line would become internationally recognized, having been worn by royals and locals alike. With elegant laces as delicate and distinctive as the bride wearing them, Tigrett has created an iconic and timeless look for her gowns. “I really look at the wedding gown as something that is totally different than other gowns. It isn’t just another dress that was cut in black for a cocktail dress and then cut in white for something else. There are very few times in one’s life that you are required to take vows, and I do ‘vow dressing.’”Her commitment to detail and the significance of vows is a tangible thread in her 2013 line, which includes a veil embroidered with the words “from this day forward.” Instead of moving with the trends, Tigrett embraces traditions, like the veil and family heirlooms. “I want to design something that is so special, it can be really pure or really simple or it can be very elaborate, but something that is so meaningful that the bride will want to treasure it and keep it to pass down for generations to her family.” As such, Tigrett’s dresses are not “cookie-cutter” designs. They require planning, time spent creating the delicate gown and most importantly a deep understanding of the bride and her family. “I’m very much involved in the tradition of family and heirlooms and collecting. I’m always encouraging my brides, if you have anything from your great grandmother’s dress, even if it’s in shreds, bring it to me. It doesn’t matter, I can find anything even if it’s buttons, a wedding ring pillow or garter.” The designer thinks not only about the past, but looks to her bride’s future as well. For brides who may lack family heirlooms, Tigrett helps create a new tradition for their children to come. “I think it’s part of our Southern heritage, and we’re really blessed with that more so than other areas.”Southern traditions are deeper than the physicality of family heirlooms, as Tigrett has learned time and again. Acting more as a mother than a fashion designer is one facet of working with Southern wedding belles. “I feel so lucky because I’m called into the most personal, private periods of life for people to be nervous or stressed, searching for guidance. They come to me and tell me the most amazing parts of their lives. I could write a book on mother in laws and mothers and their daughters. It really does bring an interesting window in your life.” Tigrett has learned a method for creating the perfect look for each of her belles, which will include her only niece in the near future. Though her touch is sure to be more sentimental than with other clients, Tigrett will assume the same method to anticipate her niece’s dress. “They give me parameters and then within five minutes I pretty much have a capsule of what I’m going to suggest. And invariably, most of the time, the gown I bring out first is what they end up with. I take them full circle.”Tigrett’s royal collection has mimicked her methods, coming full circle as well. Opening July 4 at Kensington Palace in London, “Fashion Rules” is an exhibit celebrating the trend-changing styles of some of history’s most striking women. Showcasing the dynamic collections of Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margret and Diana, Princess of Wales, throughout the decades, the exhibits’ royal opulence abounds. As a serious collector of textiles and royal memorabilia, Kensington has requested Tigrett’s collection to be part of such an exhibit for years. But for Tigrett, the third time was the charm. “For me it was just too soon. You have to listen to the whispers of your heart. I am honored and thrilled to be a part of it because it’s the largest one they [Kensington] have done.”Showcasing the iconic style of Diana’s 1980s look, the exhibit includes two dresses never before displayed in the United Kingdom. One of these, a midnight blue strapless evening gown designed by Murray Arbeid, is one of four gowns in the Pat Kerr Private Royal Collection. The dress features dramatic layers of tulle netting, a theatrical fishtail skirt and brilliant diamante stars. Immortalizing the rich style of Diana, another of Tigrett’s gowns has been incorporated into a wallpaper tribute at Kensington. One of 10 caricatures of Diana, the depiction features Diana in a Victor Edelstein dress with a long strand of pearls, the way she wore it to Hamburg in 1987.As a designer and friend of the Princess of Wales, Tigrett appreciates the simplicity and elegance of Diana’s style. “It was delightful to watch her develop her own style. Being a new bridal designer, what her wedding gown said really influenced my gowns in the 80s with the big sleeves, long trains and detachable trains. It had a clear impact on the wedding industry because it really took you back to the ceremony and the traditions of life.”While sharing her collection of Diana is a significant part of Tigrett’s life today, she has not always been as open. Appalled by the “feeding frenzy” after Diana’s death, Tigrett became even more protective of her items. “I was getting so many calls offering vast amounts of money for the gowns,” she explains. “I just decided to do nothing at all.” Tigrett would wait 15 years before sharing the treasured gowns. At the request of her friend and governor Don Sundquist, she decided to unveil her collection at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. “I thought, ‘What better way to have the governor of my state be the patron for the first time they were shown?’ I really wanted them to be shown in my state.”Tigrett’s attitude towards her state, and Memphis specifically, could be likened to a long-lasting marriage full of romance and compassion. She has devoted much of her time to the betterment of Memphis in the form of the annual Blues and Jingle Bell Balls and serving as the chairperson of the lighting of the Memphis bridge 25 years ago, among other tasks. Balancing her couture line, exhibition openings featuring pieces from her collection and charity events, Tigrett still finds time to play dress-up with her 3-year-old granddaughter. Though she may have vacationed for one month in Europe this summer, she is all the while planning for the 20th and 25th anniversaries of the Blues and Jingle Bell Balls, respectively. The largest balls of their sort, the events celebrate Memphis’ soulful sound and the magic of Christmas while giving back to local charities. Tigrett may just be one of the busiest people around, but she would have it no other way. “Mother always said that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, and I believe that. I can’t encourage young people enough to be multifaceted. Don’t just do one thing, do several and do them all well.”CLICK: As a bridal designer, what did you think about Kate’s wedding dress and her style in general?Pat Kerr Tigrett: It was fabulous for me to see Princess Kate select lace. It spoke volumes for the ongoing importance of lace in the wedding world. I think she’s very confident and secure and her style is a pure, simple look that allows her beauty to be predominant.
C: Which designers have influenced your personal designs and that of your bridal line?PKT: I tend to go back to Charles James — the really beautiful ball gowns. I like the pureness of Cardin things. I’m not necessarily impressed by celebrity designers that just get in it for the bottom line, but that’s why we have chocolate or vanilla. But I go for more the more traditional trained designers like Galliano, Givenchy and Worth.
C: What is your personal style like?PKT: My taste goes from wearing tights and jeans everyday to glamour gowns. When I was living in London, we dressed every night. The world has totally changed, but I hope there’s going to be a return to elegance.
C: Which of your Diana dresses is your favorite?PKT: Each of them came to me in their own way. For instance, one was described in the catalog incorrectly. The catalog listed the dress as honiton lace when it was clearly handmade. So it’s kind of like a coin or piece of money that has been imprinted wrong so it becomes, in my mind, more of a collector’s item. The fact that it was the most hyped up royal sale in the world and they made a mistake. That’s life.
C: Will you buy any more of Diana’s gowns?PKT: I’m happy with what I’ve bought and don’t have any real desire to buy more. I buy other pieces of hers that come up like silver, crystal and wedding memorabilia.
C: How did your design career really begin?PKT: Neiman Marcus started me 30 years ago. I took some things up there and they bought everything. It completely sold out, which was remarkable. I was so naïve, I thought, ‘Well this is easy,’ not realizing how extraordinary it was.
C: When you’re not busy, if there is a time, what do you enjoy?PKT: I love to paint and walk on the beach. I find my center around water, and I think that’s why I love this view so, she says as she looks out her bay windows at the vast Mississippi River.
C: Do you have other items on display?PKT: I have two Marilyn Monroe dresses that were at the Ferragamo in Italy and have now moved to Prague. I have a black Chapman dress on display. The red lace dress she wore so much, though, that they couldn’t even put it on display.
Pat Kerr Tigrett
From royal collections, romance and international recognition, Pat Kerr Tigrett shares her Southern Cinderella story
Story by Lindsee Gentry | Photos by Casey Hilder