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Ah, the tender torture of springtime's "wedding season."

Nothing throws a fashionable female into a tempest like planning her nuptial rig. But the antiquated, hyper-feminine options available in bridal boutiques or on the flimsy pages of Modern Bride magazine fall far short of satisfying any bride with vogue-ish vision. Luckily, our local alternative bridal vendors aren't just streetwise--they are also sensitive to the needs of women who will never wear a garter, dance the macarena or honeymoon in Cabo. In a peau de soie panic? Gone toxic on tulle? Call now--admitting you have a problem is always the first step.

THRILLS & FRILLS: Now in its third year, Kara Larson and Sarah Mansfield's Frill project (at Tumbleweed, 1804 NE Alberta St., 335-3100) has already produced 20 one-of-a-kind wedding dresses for this year. The gowns bring together the country sweetness of Tumbleweed with Mansfield's custom-sewing chops. Gone are the fussy details and arbitrary froufrou associated with bridal gowns. These are easy, breezy dresses that let a bride breathe--and, for a radical twist, thrive. Frill's low-key approach has been known to calm the discouraged and stop a dreaded "Bridezilla" in her well-manicured tracks.

"Girls show up here in tears after being bullied by traditional salons," says Larson. "We offer them a beer."

The Frill girls stress that a custom dress is another kettle of rose petals. The dresses are anything but average and carry a price tag of about $700. They are meant to be unique, meaning one--uno--gets made.

Mansfield has a custom-sewing business all her own to take care of more extensive alterations, often beginning a dress from scratch if fit is a challenge or the bride changes scads of details. Meanwhile, Larson selects trimmings and touches to bring in a bit of the bride's personality, often suggesting unusual pairings that Mansfield says she "would never think of in a million years." It's been a smooth creative partnership between the free spirit and the detail artist--they're Ernie and Bert of the bridal world. Asked to summarize their synergy, Larson quips, "She knows how to put in a zipper, and I don't."

NORAH WHO? One cruise of Michelle DeCourcy designs (at Gracie's Boutique, 8235 SE 13th St., Lake Oswego, 675-0072; Plenty, 108 3rd St., Hood River, 541-386-5000; and other locations--see www.michelledecourcy. com) will make that puffy-sleeved plaid taffeta number from the J.C. Penney catalog a sketchy memory for any bewildered bride. The Lake Oswego health-care accountant-turned-designer is known for her versatile, flattering dresses (she recently hit pay dirt when Norah Jones donned her simple black "Stella," now named "Norah," dress for the Grammy Awards). Though not exclusively a bridal designer, DeCourcy's chic frocks are distinguished enough for a formal event (owing to the refined fabrics, which she sources from New York and L.A.), but so wearable they won't peeve the bridesmaid instructed to buy one. "The reason I decided to add bridal to my contemporary line was because I got so many positive responses from women asking if I did weddings," says DeCourcy. The recent media hullabaloo has her fielding bridal requests from cities as far-flung as Chicago and Boston. Join the fray here at home!

THE BEDAZZLER: What strikes you instantly about Embellish by Terri Spaeth-Merrick (by appointment, 282-6228) bridal and bridesmaid gowns is that they're really well-made. No, really, really well-made--hers are the kind of dresses you put away in acid-free tissue paper to save for your granddaughter's granddaughter's wedding. A custom clothier who also teaches classes in sewing and pattern-making at Oregon College of Art and Craft, Spaeth-Merrick has never met a bias seam, bustier or bustle she couldn't tackle. She recently showcased designs from her collection at the Fashion Incubator's Spring Preview--a line of creamy charmeuse gowns, accompanied by crisp silk attendant dresses in shades of honeydew and cantaloupe.

THINK MINK:Kim Dunham's bridal hair jewelry and veils are less Grace Kelly tiara than they are Watson-and-Crick double helix. Her brand-new Southwest Portland studio, called MINK (1215 SW Alder St., 224-6465), has been stampeded by stylish wives-to-be bewitched by word of mouth. Imagine delicate wire armatures that suspend crystals, turquoise, coral, topaz, peridot and freshwater pearls in organic clusters that hover kinetically around the bride's head. From a single hairpin ending in a spray of seed pearls to a dramatic crystal starfish clinging asymmetrically to an updo, Dunham has a gift for the underexplored art of hair jewelry.