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!” Gathering with old friends and eating mini grilled cheeses in formalwear to celebrate love feels more special these days than ever, even downright miraculous. And the betrothed have never been less attached to the old wedding handbook — or the need to please their great-aunt. So in a flurry of pampas grass and perfectly mismatched-to-match bridesmaid dresses, how do you pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answers, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal, right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers.
Here, we spoke with Sydney West, an attorney who works in technology transactions, and Clarke Birrell, a government-contracts consultant. The couple live in Washington, D.C., but they were willing to wed anywhere as long as it provided an escape for their 115 guests. They chose a property in the Hudson Valley that allowed their nearest and dearest to sleep in on-site cabins, but opted for a darkly romantic, candlelit aesthetic for the wedding itself, inspired by the styling of “It”-girl interior designer Athena Calderone. The weekend kicked off with cowboy hats in a quarry and ended with guests dancing down a Soul Train–style line.
Clarke: One of my friends gave me the advice to, if possible, get engaged somewhere else, when it’s just the two of you, so you can spend that evening and the next day together. It was in May 2022 in Shenandoah, this beautiful area of Virginia.
Sydney: We got up super-early. I knew the agenda for the day, and I thought he was going to propose later, at a vineyard. We hiked Kennedy’s Peak and I kept thinking, This is a really long hike and we need to get back so I can get ready for the vineyard. Clarke was like, “Just a little bit further, just a bit further.”
Clarke: I proposed at the fire-tower lookout.
Sydney: It was very quiet, being out in nature, and so lovely. We met on Bumble. I had just moved back to the States from Hong Kong. I grew up living in Korea and Germany because my parents were in the Army. I saw on his profile that he’d lived in Paris and done the Peace Corps in Cameroon.
Clarke: We were both coming back to the U.S. after living abroad, which gave us a shared momentum and excitement for being in D.C.
Sydney: And in his pictures, he seemed super-adventurous, hiking and doing outdoorsy things. Early on, I felt very comfortable being my full, true, goofy self. I felt safe.
Clarke: For the wedding, we looked at places in the mountains, at the beach, in the city, and even internationally. We coalesced around a venue style that was more rural in a beautiful setting.
Sydney: We looked for a place where we could get married outside in nature and where guests could escape the day-to-day. We wanted almost a family-reunion vibe, since it was the first time a lot of us were getting together since the pandemic.
Clarke: And we didn’t want a wedding mill where you were in for four hours and then out. Gather Greene had many of those qualities. We did a lot of hiking around there during the pandemic, and Sydney’s mom and brother went to West Point, so she’s very familiar with the area.
Sydney: There were 115 guests in total, with about 40 of our family and friends staying at Gather Greene. A lot of people stayed in Albany. As soon as I saw the property’s quarry and shale pond, I knew it was where I wanted to have the welcome party. I thought a western cowboy theme would be cool, but because it’s New York, I wasn’t sure.
Clarke: Sydney’s friend Jane had the idea for “Hats Off to Sydney and Clarke,” and the dress code was “western chic.” We wanted everybody to be festive and embrace the rustic area. Everyone was excited to see one another’s hats and boots and bolo ties.
Sydney: My mom got us matching hats in Dallas; mine was white and gold, and hers was camel and turquoise. My dress was Taller Marmo, and people were joking that I found this dress and then picked the theme. But it was a last-minute purchase! I couldn’t find anything for a while.
Clarke: Sydney had a more elaborate outfit. I went to a western store in Virginia and got a black shirt with rose embroidery on the shoulders, with a black cowboy hat and black Chelsea boots. I wore my grandfather’s bolo tie, which was a nice remembrance of him.
Sydney: There was a path to the quarry that led to the drinks, food, and music, so we stood at the entrance and were able to greet everyone, like a receiving line. We had Kenan of Chances With Wolves as the DJ for the weekend, and his wife, Ro, of Les Loups was our photographer. We wanted the wedding day to feel more dark and moody.
Clarke: We referenced her friend Jane earlier. We went to Jane’s wedding in Tuscany in 2022, and we were really inspired by the one huge, long table they had for dinner, and the special lighting that made the evening so memorable. We tried to emulate that, but with two long tables.
Sydney: With the size of the venue, it made sense to have two tables. Everyone had a place — that was our first priority — so it felt like a dinner party where you’re reconnecting with family and meeting new friends. For our aesthetic, I worked with Candy Borales of Candy + Co Events, the best planner ever. We wanted unusual flowers — kooky was an adjective I used with our florist, Samantha Nass, unexpected and a little weird but ultimately beautiful. We didn’t want roses.
Clarke: I’m unfamiliar with Athena Calderone, but that was a reference. The flowers were a deep purple, one of Sydney’s favorite colors. The lighting was low because we’ve been to weddings where it’s super-bright and everyone can see the dance floor and you feel like you’re being watched. We wanted it a bit more swanky.
Sydney: Like a cool lounge, not a conference room. The lighting was by BearFly Designs, and Candy and I worked with Broadway Party Rentals to pick out the chairs and tabletop stuff. Gather Greene has screens that go down and lights dimmed, and there was the candlelight. It was beyond my expectations. I want it to be the vibe for the rest of my life.
Clarke: I wore a classic black tuxedo from Suit Supply.
Sydney: My dress was by Oscar de la Renta, but an older style; the person I worked with at a bridal shop in D.C. called Carine’s said it was from the last collection before he died. It was the second dress I tried on, and I was like, “Yeah, done.”
Clarke: As I was walking down the aisle, I guess my face was kind of tense or something, because Sydney’s aunt said, “Relax, Clarke.” There were a few moments when the mood was cut with humor. Our officiant was Tiffany, Sydney’s close friend and mine now, too. It was really special to have her guide that whole process. The ceremony was in the woods, and there were no microphones — we had to project. She put so much effort into picking meaningful quotes and passages.
Sydney: We said we wanted the script to be a surprise, so we were hearing it for the first time just as everyone else was. It wasn’t religious, but it was spiritual. She had a variety of cultures in the poems she incorporated. My friend Sophie and Clarke’s uncle did readings as well.
Clarke: When we were reading the vows, there was a whole passage before you say “I do,” but I jumped the gun and immediately said, “I do!” Everybody laughed.
Sydney: After the ceremony, there was a cocktail hour on the deck, which was up a path and attached to the pavilion. We had specialty drinks, not with a name or anything. Mine was tequila-based, and Clarke’s was an old-fashioned.
Clarke: Hunt & Harvest is Gather Greene’s preferred vendor, so we didn’t have much choice, but they were great: a farm-to-table operation that can make anything under the sun. We wanted to focus on seasonal dishes, and we had a big tasting in the summer with so many delicious plates. We really deferred to their great chef, Brandon.
Sydney: They provided the drinks and canapés, and they did this smorgasbord — they called it a “harvest table” — served on a rock, which came from the quarry when they were building out the site.
Clarke: Candy was always reminding us to eat. You kinda forget to eat. I can’t remember the appetizers, though everything was really fresh. One was a mushroom on a stick. So outdoorsy and nature focused. Main course was fish or duck, and people kept remarking on the duck.
Sydney: Clarke’s dad and my mom gave speeches, and they were both lovely. Our first dance was to “Reason for Breathing” by George Benson, just a cool, jazzy song. We’d been practicing.
Clarke: We took lessons at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, and it was fun to look forward to that rather than a traditional shuffle around the floor. My mom and I also went for lessons and had a dance to a Joan Baez song. It was nice to have that moment to showcase my mom.
Sydney: We wanted the music to be intergenerational. We told Ken, “You’re the expert.” A lot of songs are sampled today, so pull the source material or the songs that everyone will recognize. The music made the weekend. We told him he created the soundtrack to the start of our life together.
Clarke: There was that impromptu Soul Train line.
Sydney: When we were saying that people don’t want to have others watch them dance, a Soul Train line is the complete opposite. But everybody did their little dance down the line, and it was so fun.
Clarke: We had a small cake from Bread & Batter Bakery, and everyone was having so much fun talking with each other that it really wasn’t a big event. A side cut and move on. The shuttles left promptly at 10 p.m., so if people didn’t make their buses they were getting left behind. The inner circle was still around, but we ended the night walking Sydney’s mom back to her cabin.
Sydney: It wound down fairly quickly. Brunch the next day wasn’t anything formal. We had breakfast-to-go packages for everyone staying at Gather Greene, and we all sat in the pavilion and ate together and recapped the night. Some of these people were friends from college, and it felt like when we would gather in the cafeteria after a fun night out. That vibe.
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