From bumping into her future husband to planning the picture perfect wedding, InStyle fashion and beauty editor, Kahlana Barfield Brown, shares her story and offers us timeless bride-to-be wisdom. (As told to Megan Kennedy)
There was something about being engaged that made me want everything to be in the moment.
In 2009, I met my husband at a West Indian Day parade. I was living in Brooklyn at the time and my girlfriend had been begging me to go to this celebration over Labor Day weekend. It wasn’t really something I had a huge desire to do—I mean, what would I even wear to a parade? My Givenchy heels? But my girlfriend wasn’t taking no for an answer. “You live in Brooklyn. You live in Fort Green—the heart of Brooklyn. We have to go to this parade!” It was just Brooklyn culture, something I had to experience at least once.
VIDEO: Go Inside Kahlana Barfield Brown's Wedding
The parade was congested with people to the point that it was almost impossible to move, and after a while, enough was enough. We started walking back to my apartment by ducking down a side street and—call it love at first sight—but, I literally bumped into my future husband. Right there in the middle of the street we just started talking. He asked me out, and after we went on our first date, I knew he was going to be my husband. It was like instant chemistry; that exact feeling of love at first sight. We dated for five years before we got engaged.
When it happened…I kind of knew it was coming. He flew my two sisters in from Seattle, who are my best friends. At first I thought they were just coming to visit me. They come to New York all the time and we usually go shopping for the day. So when they got to town, we went shopping as usual, once we got home I started to get suspicious. Later that night, two of my other girlfriends called me saying, “Hey, we know your sisters are in town. We’re coming over too!” So that same night they come over with a cake and I’m like, “What’s going on?”
The next thing I knew, the mood got super serious. My girlfriends were there, there was food, a cake, and then there was my husband. He was the only guy in the room. Obviously, something had to be going down. Then, in front of all my girlfriends my husband started talking about our relationship, how much it meant to him and how I’ve impacted his life.
My husband and I were living in a high rise building in Fort Green. It had high ceilings, big windows and an absolutely gorgeous view of Manhattan. He walked me over to the windows; I looked out, and noticed the soccer fields across the street were completely lit up. (Meanwhile it’s 11:00p.m. and you never ever see the lights on at that time of night.) I look down at the field and I see this enormous sign that says, “Will you marry me?” Immediately, my mind was buzzing with thoughts like, “Wait, how did he get permission to use the soccer field like that?!” But he actually did get the permission. He planned all of this months in advance and it was just so sweet. Then, he got on his knee and gave me the most beautiful ring.
He worked with our fashion accessories director who introduced him to the designer. I really couldn’t believe any of it, that all of this had been going on behind my back.
After our engagement, the wedding planning didn’t happen until much later. The only thing we booked right away was the venue. For us, getting married in Brooklyn was non-negotiable. I mean, we met in Brooklyn. We fell in love in Brooklyn. We got engaged in Brooklyn. We knew that was where we had to get married. We looked at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and reserved it with hardly a second to spare. They had only one opening left in the entire year and we immediately jumped on it. And that was the extent of our planning for a while.
Honestly, we just enjoyed being engaged to each other. As much as I love to plan and be involved in things, it was so important for us to be in the moment. So we enjoyed our engagement for months. We went out to dinner. We went to the movies. We travelled. That was basically our life until we got to the point where our family and friends started to ask questions, “So…are you guys looking at dresses? When are the save the dates going out?” at that point we really had to focus on planning a wedding.
When we started to plan, I already had a good idea of what type of décor I wanted: something clean and elegant. I had this very chic vision. We asked our guest to wear all black. We wanted to give them the chance to dress up black tie because those opportunities aren’t so frequent nowadays. My grandmother and sisters, who were my maids of honor, wore ivory. My husband’s son wore an ivory J.Crew blazer. Initially I had picked out dresses for my bridesmaids, but then I thought it would be cooler if everyone had their own very stylish long, black dress. The style varied depending on what was flattering to their body. Everyone looked amazing, but in their own way.
It’s funny how people say the first wedding dress you try on is the one you go back to. One of the very first dresses I tried on was actually the one I ended up wearing for the ceremony. Vera Wang was one of the first places I visited. I knew exactly what I wanted, something sexy, but classic. I wanted to be able to look back at photos 20 years from now and still find the dress elegant. For my reception I changed into a black dress. It had style and personality… and honestly I could wear black everyday.
We tried to keep our aesthetic elegant, but also surprising. During the cocktail reception we had these big boards on easels with names of Brooklyn landmarks like Barclay Center, Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn Bridge, etc. This was how you knew what table you were at. As placeholders for seats, we used custom Coke bottles and peopled loved that. To make it extra personal we used nicknames instead of full names. Honestly, if there was one piece of advice I could give to another bride it would be to make your guests feel special, surprise them with something unique. People were so happy to Instagram a Coke bottle with their name on it—your guests will appreciate those little things.
Aside from the look of our wedding, we wanted it to feel a certain way too. My husband and I built our relationship off of having fun so we wanted the same for our wedding. I remember after my father-daughter dance, we sat down for our first course and I look up and everyone was on the dance floor. No one ate! It was a party from the second the reception started.
It was important to us that everyone (not just me) felt like they were living in the moment too. Obviously, I’m not Beyoncé so I couldn’t ask people to check in their phones or anything, but I wanted to ensure that photos of my husband and I were ours to share. Instead, everyone received a gold envelope with a card inside asking our guests to use the designated hashtag #BrooklynBrowns, but to respectfully not post photos of my husband and I. I wanted to control what was being put out there so we also encouraged people to take pictures in this amazing photo booth called Mirmir (yes, the one the Kardashian’s use at all their parties). We asked our guests to take pictures of the atmosphere rather than stressing to get the perfect selfie. And because of that, people were really into the ceremony. It was so special; everyone could feel the love in the room and our pastor could speak very closely to the growth he had seen in our relationship. It was such an intimate, emotional ceremony….and a completely turned up wedding. Everyone was dancing, young to old. We wanted a hip-hop wedding, so we found the best hip-hop DJ out there. Other than the song I walked out to and our first dance, there wasn’t a set playlist. We let the DJ do what he did best and decided to let him be the artist that he is.
I think one of the most important elements of wedding planning (as impossible as it may seem) is to not overstress it. Brides often start making wedding plans and trying on dresses the second they get engaged. That’s where they go wrong. Immediately they’re consumed and overwhelmed. This is supposed to be the happiest time in your life. You can’t let anyone take that joy from you. I’ve seen so many brides break down. I’ve seen brides fallout with their girlfriends. For me, when I planned my wedding, it was about making it as easy as possible. To do that, asking for help was essential. You can’t try and control every single thing, so invest in the help you need, otherwise it will be so time consuming.
Another key element of wedding planning I would say is being very selective with your guest list. You want people there who are actively in your life. Your parents might tell you to invite this person or that relative, but does your kindergarten teacher really need to be there? You’re going to have people who will try to make you feel bad for not inviting someone, but don’t feel bad. Invite who you want to be in that room.
When it comes to wedding expenses, it’s really for the best to try and narrow things down. But a videographer was one thing I was so happy I invested in. A video really helps you capture the wedding in real time. You can watch the videos forever and feel like you’re there again. It’s as close to reliving the moments as you can possibly get.
Remember: this will be the happiest time in your life. Enjoy being engaged, invite who you want to, make your guests feel special, invest in the help you need, and just be in the moment.