Real Housewives at Potomac’s Karen Huger renewed her vows in 2021 in a dress featuring hand-beaded Swarovski crystals, flowing ruffles, and a glove-fitting bodice. The designer of her $10,000 dress is also based in Montgomery County. It’s Vivien Agbakoba, 53, who opened Anya by Vivien, a bridal and evening wear store, at the Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda in November.
While growing up in Nigeria with his father, a university professor, and his mother, a businessman, Agbakoba became interested in his mother’s sewing machine. “It was magical, and I felt like I had a gift,” Agbakoba said. After earning a bachelor’s degree in information studies and nursing, and a master’s degree in information technology, she moved to Rockville in 2012 with her husband and three children. She works at the National Institutes of Health as a protocol manager in clinical research while also making dresses for friends and family, and tries to learn as much as she can about the resources, materials, and skills that will be needed to open a boutique.
Agbakoba left the NIH in 2017 to open a small warehouse space in Sterling, Virginia, to create and sell bridal, evening, and ready-to-wear designs. She named the line “Anya,” after her maiden name, which in part means “vision” in her native Igbo language, and was added “by Vivien” when she moved her business to the Westfield Montgomery mall.
“Social media has a huge impact on brides. Everyone is trying to beat each other,” Agbakoba said. She believes this has changed her business model from its initial focus on ready-to-wear dresses to selling over 60% of custom dresses. “Ordinary is not enough; brides came up with all kinds of ideas, and I did everything I could to make them happen.”
Agbakoba often spends an hour or two of private time with the bride, discussing ideas, materials and embellishments, and sketching during the session. “I ask a lot of questions and pay attention to the body in front of me,” he said. “I want every woman to shine.”
In 2019, Agbakoba started Felicia’s Fund, a nonprofit named after her mother that focuses on the education and empowerment of young people with an interest in fashion. The group runs a school supplies program in Nigeria, and Agbakoba is currently building after-school fashion education initiatives in DC and Montgomery County. She recently hosted a fundraiser at her store in partnership with the Tigerlily Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on breast cancer and the empowerment of girls and young women. The evening included a fashion show and a reception which was filmed for Love & Marriage: DC, a series slated to begin airing on OWN’s Oprah Winfrey Network in May.
Agbakoba’s designs—from colorful ball gowns to lavish wedding gowns—are gaining more visibility in malls than they might in warehouses. “Last week a bride came into the boutique after seeing an off-the-rack dress in my window. She already has her wedding dress—still, she bought mine and intends to sell the one she already has,” Agbakoba said. “This is quite a long time.”
Anya by Vivien7101 Democracy Blvd., #2504, Bethesda, 301-469-4839, anyabyvivien.com