When we ask newlyweds to think back on what they wanted most for their big day — and we’ve interviewed hundreds of them over the years — the most common response is “For it not to feel like a wedding!” But in a monsoon of flower crowns and macaron towers, how do you see beyond the usual tropes and actually pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answer, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal — right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers.
Shawna Strayhorn and Johnny Duverseau are full-time travelers (she works remotely in marketing, he’s a freelance computer programmer) who met in his native Haiti. In the Mojave Desert last December, they were married with the help of an elopement service that cost $1,500, before spending all their wedding money on a monthlong honeymoon in Hawaii.
Johnny: I met my wife in a bar in Haiti, where I’m from, called Yanvalou. It was my spot every Thursday, when there was a live band. When I got to the club, I saw her.
Shawna: It was a vacation hookup. I was living in Ithaca, getting my MBA at Cornell, and I took a trip to Port-au-Prince, where Johnny is from — he was working for Doctors without Borders, doing music therapy. We danced for four or five hours. I took French as a kid and I knew the basics — Haitian Creole and French are quite similar — so our first five minutes were in French. But I couldn’t do beyond that. He speaks English as well.
Johnny: We talked all the night together, we danced, we exchanged numbers. We started texting, texting.
Shawna: We talked that whole summer, every day, as I was interning on Wall Street. He was performing at a music festival in Haiti that September and invited me to come down, so I did. Then in December 2015, for our third date, we went to Cuba for two weeks. We left completely in love.
Johnny: We used WhatsApp so much, it was like we were always together. You can chat on video; you feel like they’re next to you. We didn’t miss a day without talking. When we’d been together for two years, in 2017, we went to the Dominican Republic. We were walking at the beach in Cabarate, in the Dominican Republican, her hand in my hand, we talk together and I … What do you call it? I put my knee down? I gave her the ring. It was a surprise. She was really happy and I was really happy and we had a good, good time.
Shawna: So my husband came to the U.S. on the K-1 visa. Yes, the one you always hear about on that show, 90 Day Fiancé. By the time we applied, we had lived together for five months, met families, done birthdays, done funerals, done dishes — the real shit of relationships. I found great solace in knowing that if these train-wreck couples on the show could pass U.S. immigration, we certainly could. But we had 90 days to get married in the U.S., or he would be deported, so that informed our decision to elope. I found Flora Pop, an elopement service, and John loved it. Still, we set it aside and started planning your average five-figure wedding. It was getting bigger and bigger and time was running out.
Johnny: When you grow up in the Haitian culture, you always see the same thing, the big wedding, 100 or 200 people. She found Flora Pop and it was a good idea — we could do a small wedding and with the money we could go travel.
Shawna: Victoria at Flora Pop has a couple of different packages, and ours was under $1,500. She officiates your wedding, she brings the teardrop chapel, which is an on-the-go chapel that she literally hitches up to her SUV. She’ll meet you anywhere, though she is Las Vegas–based. She provides your bouquet. I found our photographer, Amy of Aimlee Photography, through Flora Pop. They work together often, but I paid for each separately. We had only one guest, my mother — but we worked her. She was our chauffeur, our DJ, our witness.
Johnny: Flora Pop did everything for us. Victoria also brought doughnuts and Champagne.
Shawna: We rented a house in Vegas for the three of us, and when we woke up my mom and I went to Dry Bar to get our hair done: I got the style they call the Cosmo and she got soft ringlets. Then I used an on-demand makeup services app called Beauty Studio Inc. and they sent me an awesome artist, Catrina. I was going for “clean-faced, but better” and was sure to include my red lipstick, which has become something of a signature over the years. I got ready in one room, John got ready in the other, and we had a first look in the living room. We rented a ’76 Cadillac El Dorado convertible. It was beautiful — and also it was a boat. I booked that like 40 hours before the wedding, like, we can do better than a Lyft, and Googled to find Vinty Car Rental. Victoria at Flora Pop, she gives you the time and the coordinates of where to show up in the desert. It’s based on the light, sun exposure; she and the photographer work that out. We had to be there at 3 p.m., basically. My husband and my mom were not convinced. Victoria sends you coordinates and we’re driving over desert brush. They’re like, “Where actually are we going, Shawna?” And I said, “Trust me, guys. Trust me. It’s going to be beautiful.”
Johnny: I’m like, “Oh, where are we going?” We drove to the desert, and it was really cold, and I was like, “Send for me, someone send for me!” But I trusted her, because she has good vision. And we are together to have fun.
Shawna: I did not see my bouquet until we got out of the car in the desert. Victoria handed it to me and I said, “I love it. I love it. This is beautiful.” Big and bold with romantic notes, dusty pinks and reds, and whimsical elements, like olive branches. I hadn’t told her any colors. I just didn’t care. I had seen her work — and truthfully, it’s about trusting creative people. I worked at Refinery 29 for years, I’ve worked with world-class graphic designers. Trust creative people to do their jobs. She’s a florist by trade! My favorite part was there were olives in there, little black olives on a stem. Whoa, that was awesome. It worked in context. Some folks make the mistake of wanting to carry a bouquet like Princess Diana, down to the floor. No! It needs to work in the context.
Johnny: I got my suit at Men’s Warehouse. I like it because when you go there they make a suit for you, and if there’s a problem, it’s too small or it’s too big, they have a guarantee on it, you can make it smaller or bigger and you’re not going to pay.
Shawna: My dress was from a company called Saldana Vintage. They source all types of lace from all over the place and will make you a custom dress for under a thousand bucks. The lace that I picked had just the right amount of detail. I knew it’d be winter, so I said long sleeves — I love, love, have always loved long-sleeved formal dresses. A lot of women are shocked to find out it was under a thousand bucks. I have good taste. I can say that with confidence. And I find that often times, people will supplant money for taste. Maybe weddings at a certain price point are what I call “J.Crew nice.” Beautiful, simple, elegant, with details that have been debated for months — only to be virtually interchangeable with every wedding that season or decade. No one detail is magical, nothing offends the senses. Constraints create creativity, in my view. In our case, we were pressed for time and simply preferred planning our monthlong honeymoon in Hawaii over our wedding.
Johnny: Her dress? It was really, really, really beautiful. So many wedding dresses are almost the same, but this was different. She didn’t show me, it was a secret.
Shawna: Our vows were across three languages. John did his in Haitian Creole, I said a couple of words in French, and then we did the classic vows in English. We basically giggled and cried the whole way through.
Johnny: My vows I wanted in Creole. She didn’t know — I was like, I want to say something, and I wrote everything in Creole. Afterwards, I explained to her what I said, that “meeting you so far from your home may have seemed like a game a chance or luck, but I prayed for you and asked God to put a woman in my life who was committed to grow and build with me.” And we danced together.
Shawna: Our wedding song was “Truly” by Marcia Griffiths, a really wonderful reggae singer. I had selected that song as my wedding song probably in 2007, 2008, and as it turns out, I end up meeting a man who’s a reggae musician, who tours in a reggae band, and it all sort of worked out. I played it for him on Spotify maybe six months before the wedding and said, “This is the song I’ve wanted forever.” He said, “Perfect. Let’s go.”
Johnny: It’s an old-school tune, but I really like it. She chose it before she knew me. I play the song now, feel the soul of it, and it takes me back to our wedding day.
Shawna: Then Victoria came out with the dessert, the doughnuts to go with the Champagne toast.
Johnny: We brought a bottle of Barbancourt, a Haitian rum. Aged 15 years.
Shawna: A world-class Caribbean sugar-based rum. We finished the whole thing in like 45 minutes and got drunk-drunk and had a wonderful time. Then we dropped the car off at a lot, took an Uber to the Barrymore, on the strip, and had surf and turf, the three of us. Your classic top-shelf dinner. Then we went home and went to sleep!
Johnny: After the wedding, we went to Hawaii for one month for vacation.
Shawna: We wanted to go to Hawaii for a very long time. We knew that living like Jane and Tarzan for a month on the Big Island, 45 minutes from cell service, was how we wanted to spend our money. We just reallocated the wedding money, based on no one’s standards but our own.
Johnny: It was very good. I loved it. We are still thinking about having a party and dancing for friends. Maybe for an anniversary.