Gail Be has a secret.
She keeps it concealed behind black velvet drapes inside a nondescript warehouse in an industrial park in Edina.
That’s where the 57-year-old master beader creates intricately designed dresses using glass and crystal beads she has collected from around the world.
“Nobody knows about us,” Be said. “We’ve been hibernating until I felt like we had something spectacular.”
After more than three years, 995,000 beads and the work of 23 women, Be is certain she has just that.
Be says she has made the largest beaded wedding dress in the world — weighing nearly 400 pounds, with a 20 ½-foot train.
Here’s the catch: The dress isn’t designed to be worn in a real wedding — maybe not worn at all. Be hopes this gown and others she has made will end up on Hollywood red carpets, in blockbuster movies and, eventually, in museums.
Over the past 25 years, Be has created a collection of 30 dresses, but she has yet to sell a single one. She’s never tried.
“My purpose for doing this has never been to get rich,” she said. “It was to make one of the great pieces of art for all the world to see.”
Now that her masterpiece is ready, Be has hired a Los Angeles PR agency to help make that happen. So far, she’s off to a good start: Lady Gaga is wearing one of Be’s bead designs in the cover art for a new single.
The few industry experts who know about Be say she blends the worlds of art, beading and fashion in a singular way.
“There’s nobody else doing what she’s dreamt up — and where it came from, I have no idea,” said Diana Friedberg, a Hollywood producer.
Be would say it came from divine inspiration and hard work. She has a team of beaders who work day and night constructing the glimmering dresses. When she’s in her warehouse, Be darts about the rooms with the same intensity as she beads. She wears a mouth guard to keep her from grinding her teeth as she threads wire through delicate glass pearls and Swarovski crystals. She speaks loudly, quickly and honestly, eager to share even the difficult moments of her life, which she believes led to the creation of the wedding dress. Struggles with physical and mental health have repeatedly derailed her momentum, but Be has never given up, not for long.
“I always come back to beading,” she said. “It’s my calling.”
The beads’ beginning
Inside Be’s warehouse, hundreds of dainty bracelets dangle on a wall. Enormous crystal necklaces line glass cases. The dresses, which are made entirely of beads and wire, hang on mannequins like wearable chandeliers. Thousands of beads are strewn about a large work table or nestled in plastic containers stacked floor to ceiling — organized by country of origin, style, year and color. The wedding dress has its own space in the back.
Nearly 30 years ago, Be took her first beading class at an American Indian memorabilia store on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. Born and raised in Forest Lake, Be attended the University of Minnesota with aspirations to open her own gym. She was training weight lifters when she decided she wanted to make her own jewelry.
“From the minute I started,” she said, “I beaded and beaded and beaded.” Just a year later, she won a blue ribbon in beading at the Minnesota State Fair.
Soon after, however, she was diagnosed with keratoconus, a rare degenerative eye disease that left her legally blind four years later. Be could make out the faces of her friends, but could no longer see well enough to thread wire through the pin-sized hole of a bead.
Unable to bead, she became a collector instead, traveling to countries such as China, Germany and Austria in search of rare and vintage beads. Swarovski crystals, many of them more than 80 years old, became her favorites. She began to appreciate beads not just for their ornate beauty, but for the stories they contained, where they came from, who made them.
Be’s stepson, Dan Lebewitz, 31, recalled a bead-buying expedition to China. “The stores were packed with so many beads and she dug for hours until she found what she liked,” he said. “She doesn’t just buy anything. It has to fit her vision.”
Desperate to see the delicate beads that she rolled between her fingers, Be got corneal transplants and Lasik surgery. Once her vision was restored, Be said she had a spiritual awakening — and visions of opulent necklaces. She began beading again, producing necklaces with strands of cascading beads, which earned her the position as the exclusive jewelry designer for some Twin Cities bridal shows.
“Why would God give a blind woman in the middle of Minnesota these beads?” she said. “Because I get what they are and I get what they mean and I get the people who made them.”
Visions of dresses
Be doesn’t sketch, or do calculations. “I make it up as I go. I don’t know how to read beading patterns, which is unheard of,” Be said. “I do everything on faith and believe it’s going to come out the way it should.”
Her style is a mix of 1920s art deco and ancient fantasy. (Imagine something out of an episode of “Game of Thrones.”)
While she can’t explain her design process, she adamantly believes that her struggles with mental illness and other challenges have made each dress possible.
“I’m completely not normal,” Be said. “If I was normal, I couldn’t do what I’m doing.”
She works at night — all night — needing to bead alone. It’s not unusual for her to bead for 12 hours straight amid the company of crime and forensic TV shows. Three designers and an assistant take over Be’s work during the day.
“Her train of thought goes from one thing to the next, and she changes her mind at the last minute,” said Mai-Yer Xiong, Be’s operations manager. “She uses a lot of ‘F’ words, too, but she’s a creative genius and I understand her vision.”
Fantasy becomes a reality
Friedberg learned of Be during the making of her docuseries, “World on a String,” a history of the world seen through beads.
“[Be] has made connections to the deep spiritual side of the bead and uses that to guide her in ways that I haven’t seen many people do before,” Friedberg said.
In 2011, Be decided that it was time to get her name out — and that a wedding dress would be the vehicle.
Without researching the current record for the world’s largest beaded wedding dress, she started beading together pearls and crystals. Today, the wedding dress has taken over her Edina warehouse — and her life.
The dress (which Be calls “Fantasy”) has grown so large it fills an entire room. The only place left to walk is on top of the train.
“When she ran out of room, that finally reined her in,” said Leigh Fisco, Be’s friend and the official bead counter of Fantasy.
With almost 1 million beads, the dress dwarfs the current Guinness World Record for “Most Crystals on a Wedding Dress.” That dress has 45,024 beads, and was sewn in Turkey in five days in 2011.
Fantasy isn’t eligible for a world record because Guinness requires an official to document the entire process. Still, Be knows she has something special, so much so she sometimes addresses the gown as a person, as in “I want Hollywood to take her and make her famous in a movie.”
But Be knows that size alone isn’t what matters. “Is it gorgeous? Is it beautiful? Is it amazing? That’s what makes it spectacular.”
When pressed on how an actress could possibly walk while wearing it, Be retorted, “My spiritual calling was to build this dress, and that’s what I did. How it’s going to move is none of my business.”
Two women have modeled the dress for Be.
“It hurt and I couldn’t move, but I felt like a fairy-tale princess. It’s truly like a fantasy,” said Jessica Collette, a model with Arquette and Associates in Minneapolis.
Falling back on fabric
The fashion-focused public relations agency Look Los Angeles took Be on as a client only after seeing Fantasy in person. “My jaw dropped when I saw it,” said Karen Ahaesy, senior fashion director.
Last summer, the agency connected Be with Lady Gaga, who was in search of something special to wear on the jacket for “Anything Goes,” the lead song off her duet album with Tony Bennett.
“Of all the fashion houses in the world, she could’ve chosen Armani, Prada, anybody,” Be said. “Why would she pick some woman in the middle of Minnesota that nobody’s ever heard of?”
Gaga chose “Erotic Ice,” a headpiece valued at $7,500, and a matching top priced at $40,000. Be lent the pieces to the singer, a common practice to get high-end pieces worn by the entertainment industry’s elite.
While Be declined to give a dollar amount for the value of her entire collection, she said her company is in the red every year. Household money keeps the doors open, but with a recent separation from her husband, Be said it’s finally time to get compensated for her art.
The see-through nature of a fabric-free beaded dress isn’t ideal for most celebrities who walk the red carpet. So Be is adding fabric to her designs.
“Fabric was a dirty word to me because I spent all these years not doing fabric,” she said.
As for the secret in her warehouse, Be is confident that she will wow the design world when Fantasy debuts. If that never happens? She’ll just keep beading.
“Even if everything went down in the whole world, I would bead for the rest of my life,” she said. “I want to die with a bead in my hand.”