Photo by Joseph Tran

Real Housewives of Potomac’s Karen Huger renewed her vows in 2021 in a gown that featured hand-beaded Swarovski crystals, cascading ruffles and a bodice that fit like a glove. The designer of her $10,000 dress is also based in Montgomery County. She’s Vivien Agbakoba, 53, who opened Anya by Vivien, a bridal and evening wear shop, at Bethesda’s Westfield Montgomery mall in November.

While growing up in Nigeria with her father, a university professor, and her mother, an entrepreneur, Agbakoba was drawn to her mom’s sewing machine. “It was magical, and I felt I had a gift,” Agbakoba says. 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 worked at the National Institutes of Health as a protocol manager in clinical research while also making dresses for friends and family, and trying to learn as much as she could about sourcing, materials and skills that would be needed for opening a boutique.

Agbakoba left 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 her line “Anya,” after her maiden name, part of which means “vision” in her native language of Igbo, and added “by Vivien” when she moved her business to Westfield Montgomery mall.

“Social media has had an enormous impact on brides. Everyone is trying to outdo each other,” Agbakoba says. She believes this has shifted her business model from her original focus on ready-to-wear dresses to selling more than 60% custom gowns. “Regular is not enough; brides come up with all kinds of ideas, and I do all I can to bring that to life.”

Agbakoba often spends an hour or two of one-on-one time with a bride, discussing ideas, fabrics and embellishments, and sketching during the session. “I ask plenty of questions and pay close attention to the body in front of me,” she says. “I want each woman to shine.”

In 2019, Agbakoba started Felicia’s Fund, a nonprofit named for her mother that focuses on the education and empowerment of young people with an interest in fashion. The group runs school supply programs in Nigeria, and Agbakoba is currently building after-school fashion education initiatives in D.C. and Montgomery County. She recently held a fundraiser in her store in partnership with the Tigerlily Foundation, a nonprofit focused on breast cancer and the empowerment of girls and young women. The evening included a fashion show and reception that was filmed for Love & Marriage: D.C., a series slated to begin airing on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, in May.

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Agbakoba’s designs—from colorful ball gowns to statement wedding dresses—are getting more visibility at the mall than what was possible at her warehouse spot. “Last week a bride came into the boutique after seeing an off-the-rack gown in my window. She already had her wedding gown—still, she purchased mine and intended to sell the one she already had,” Agbakoba says. “It is quite a time.”

Anya by Vivien, 7101 Democracy Blvd., #2504, Bethesda, 301-469-4839, anyabyvivien.com

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Julia Beck

Julia Beck is a strategist and writer who lives in Chevy Chase with her husband, two dogs and empty nest.