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. Though we’re living in a moment where group celebrations are either being called off or adapting to extreme social distance, in many ways these pre-quarantine parties are just the escape we need right now.
Here we talked to Brenna Simmons, the associate design director at sustainable fashion brand AMUR, and Sabrina Shee, a vice-president at Citi. The childhood sweethearts reside in Brooklyn, but married last September on a remote mountain ledge in Colorado with just their immediate families, a traditional hot pot dinner they cooked themselves on site, and a photographer who specializes in “adventure elopements.”
Sabrina: We met at a Buddhist band camp in upstate New York when we were 13.
Brenna: We were inseparable by the end of the week. She was in a bamboo flute course and I was in drums, and she’d crash my class to hang out with me.
Sabrina: We were young and figuring out our sexuality. She was the first person I ever held hands with. She invited me to sleep in her bed, and I creeped over to her cabin but then I turned away. I didn’t have the guts.
Brenna: We kept in contact via email and AOL chat, and then we dated for two months the summer before college. But I was going to New York, she was going to D.C., and we had to do our own thing. We floated in and out of contact. I’d go out with friends and have too much to drink and spill the story about this girl, the person I’m meant to be with, my soulmate. I didn’t know what I was going to do because no one could match up to her. Then, she showed up on my doorstep in Fort Greene in 2015 and said, “I’m ready.”
Sabrina: We walked for five miles over the water, and I said, “I think we could get married.”
Brenna: She proposed a little over a year later on a frozen-over lake in the Black Forest in Germany. We’re very much a traveling couple. We travel all the time. We love the mountains, and we love the outdoors.
Sabrina: We were debating between a full-on elopement or something just between us and our families. After some time and consideration, I realized that I really did want my family there. We both had small families, so that made it easy. We also wanted a destination because New York isn’t cheap. I was like, “Why don’t we make a trip out of this?”
Brenna: We stumbled upon photographers that did “adventure elopements,” not weddings. It was a whole part of the industry that I had no idea about. I found Cedar & Pines ($7,500), and after FaceTiming with them, I loved them as people. They’re our good friends now. We talked about locations, and we were open to whatever. But whether it was in California or Arizona, we knew that we didn’t want a desert. We wanted our scenery to be lush and vibrant and alive and beautiful as opposed to dead. They said, “It sounds like you’re describing this place in Colorado, which we don’t usually share because we don’t want it to become overrun with Instagram people. They showed us photos and we were like, “Done.” It was truly in the middle of nowhere, and you had to fly into either Denver or Telluride then drive for hours.
Sabrina: The cabin nearby was an Airbnb. It was all solar-paneled, and you needed a four-wheel drive to get up there because there were a bunch of rocks. We just drove through dirt roads.
Brenna: We vibed with the Airbnb host, who goes back and forth between the cabin and Baja, Mexico. He was like, “I can just feel your energy. I’m so glad you’re having your wedding at my cabin.”
Sabrina: My parents were super on board. My dad, in his speech at the wedding, was like, “Sabrina has always been different. She’s never wanted to do what everyone else wants to do.” They’re also very private people, so it was nice to have this be like a little secret between all of us. We didn’t post any pictures until we returned from our trip, so none of our friends actually knew how the day went until we got back.
Brenna: We stayed at the Airbnb, and our parents stayed in either Lake City or Gunnison, the next town over. They had to fly into Denver or Telluride then drive for hours. Sometimes they’d be like, “Oh my God, the drive is so long, and what about dinner? How are we going to get things there? Why are you making it so complicated?” We kept reiterating that at least it’s not a 150-person wedding, we were cutting down a lot of expenses, and it would be amazing when they got there. When our parents arrived, they were like, “Oh. Okay. We understand now.” There were eight guests, ten including us.
Sabrina: I’m in finance, so I typically wear suits anyway, but for this I was like, “Let’s go all out.” Brenna’s co-worker recommended Martin Greenfield, a famous New York suiting company. I wore a three-piece suit in this vintage fabric that was brown linen-ish ($2,800). I didn’t want the typical black or blue color that men go for. I wanted a simple suit that made me feel comfortable, and a unique vest. I brought in a bunch of pictures, and they helped design it for me. The inside said “Puppy,” which is what Brenna calls me because I’m very active and jumpy.
Brenna: I’m a designer, so it was obvious that I should make my own dress. But I still went shopping to have the experience, get some inspiration, and try on different silhouettes to see what would look good on my body shape. I made all of these appointments, and predicted that I would dislike everything. I wanted something sophisticated and minimal that would look good in the setting and would be comfortable to walk around in. My friend introduced me to a brand, Cortana, and only one boutique in New York carried their stuff: One Bridal Boutique in Industry City. I tried on the entire collection. When I tried on the Psiquis gown from Cortana, I gave up on the idea of designing the dress myself. It was perfect ($2,300).
Sabrina: We both got ready at the cabin, and we did our first look outside. She walked out by the little river and — yeah, she looked amazing. She was more beautiful than I could have imagined, to be honest.
Brenna: In the early afternoon, we went up to the mountains and did our own private ceremony — just the two of us. We had two sets of rings — wedding bands from Satomi Kawakita Jewelry we ordered — and then my grammy surprised me with her and my granddaddy’s wedding bands. They’re engraved on the inside with their initials and their wedding date. We wanted to incorporate private time because, at the end of the day, it’s about us.
Sabrina: We wanted to be by ourselves in the middle of nowhere, and feel small and wowed by something brand new: a marriage. Cedar & Pines scoped the location for us, and navigated us there. We drove up in a Jeep Wrangler, which was really fun, and saw these rolling mountains. We were very high up — we had to take altitude medication while we were up there to make sure we were getting our oxygen.
Brenna: The photographers had us go out to a ledge they found, told us where to stand, and said, “Okay, do your thing with your vows and ring exchange; be in the moment.” In Colorado, you actually don’t need an officiant. You can self-solemnize. We exchanged our longer vows, and had our first dance up there to “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, which we played on an iPhone.
Sabrina: The ceremony with our parents was near the cabin. My brother acted as our officiant, and all of our parents gave speeches. It was nice to hear our parents talk about our relationship and about when we were younger — it was one of the few times I could recall my dad telling me he was proud of where I am today. Brenna did the same vows, and I shortened mine. There were some things I wanted to say privately.
Brenna: I did a father-daughter dance, to “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac. My dad ballroom danced in college, and he taught me how to cha-cha-cha to this song in our living room. It’s one of my favorite memories of us. Because we were at 11,000 feet, we were both breathing heavily by the end of it. Then, we wanted to incorporate a tea ceremony, an Asian tradition. It’s to give thanks to your parents for their blessing, and for taking care of you — for everything they’ve done for you up to this point. You go from parent to parent, and, as they receive the tea, they’re supposed to give you advice or a blessing for your marriage. My dad and stepmom brought a tea set from China for us to use, and we went to a Japanese tea house in Williamsburg, Kettl, one weekend. After taste-testing a bunch of their different teas, we settled on the Genmaicha, a green tea blended with brown rice. It’s actually a very common Japanese tea.
Sabrina: We cooked the wedding dinner ourselves. That far out, getting a caterer was pretty much impossible. We wanted something to represent our culture, so we did hot pot. We went to all of the Chinese supermarkets in Denver, and grabbed the food before we went out there. We had an extensive Excel spreadsheet of everything we needed.
Brenna: In Asian cultures, hot pot is a meal you have for big groups and celebrations. It’s basically a bowl of hot soup in the middle, and then you have dishes of raw veggies and meat and tofu, mushrooms and noodles, and everybody cooks together. We had three pots: a vegetarian one, a meat one, and a spicy one. Our parents helped prepare the vegetables and cut them all up, and our florist set the table up on this little patio with flower arrangements around the pots. Then dinner was candlelit.
Sabrina: Our florist, Hazel Avenue ($2,600), helped coordinate a cake. She recommended this awesome bakery near where she lives in Boulder, The Cupcake Gypsies. A stylist, Wildly Collective, helped transport it the day of and decorated it with flowers. We stayed in Colorado for four nights, and explored the area.