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Susan Weinrebe
United States
Chicago, IL

Tutus Divine: Interview with Paula Drake

by Susan Weinrebe
July 16, 2005
Chicago, IL

Tutus Divine: Interview with Paula Drake

Paula Drake Interview
Tutus Divine
(Tutus Divine Website)
4N065 Walt Whitman
St. Charles, Illinois 60175
Phone: 630.513.6321
Fax: 630.513.6327

Susan Weinrebe
July 16, 2005

Paula Drake is queen of all she surveys in the office/storage/design and sewing rooms of Tutus Divine. She revealed that creating custom-made dance costumes is far more than her business; it is her avocation and passion.

SW: How did you get started with costuming?

PD: I was at this competition (the Jackson International Ballet Competition) that's like the Olympics of ballet with my daughter and thought: four more years from now, you're going to compete. When Jen was accepted at Harid's Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, she was fifteen. Thinking that she was going to compete and picking the pieces she was going to do, I started looking for costumes. I found out there were different price points.

There were costumes that the studios use for recitals that sell for $150 to $300. Then were the next level of costumes running from $600 to $900 and they'd say, "You can have this costume in nine colors!" Then they had the costumes from $1,000 to $5,000 and more, but they wouldn't sell them to me!

When you go to compete, you have to be prepared to dance in all four rounds. Since Jen was going as an independent without a partner, she had to be ready to do four classical pieces and two contemporary pieces.

I talked with one man and said, "Let's suspend reality. Let's say I would pay you $5,000 each for her costumes and spend twenty grand and wanted four classical costumes. You mean you wouldn't sell them to me?" And he said, "Probably not! We sell to major companies." I asked, "Isn't my money as good as anyone else's?" He said they didn't sell to individuals.

I took a step back and thought: I can't be the only parent out there trying to find costumes for our daughter or son trying to go to the competition.

SW: A light bulb went off!

PD: A light bulb went off. I talked to a friend, Elizabeth Schiller, and said, "Elizabeth, you want to make some costumes together?" We had worked on Nutcracker costumes together. There's a lady who has seminars on making tutus. We bought her book, and then we got a costume from the company where my daughter danced, before she left to go to Harid's, and took it apart. And we taught ourselves how to make a bottom and started making costumes. That was about five years ago.

SW: So, it was because of your daughter and that your money wasn't any good out there! You knew there had to be people just like you who needed a costume.

PD: There was a company that had costumes that were up to $900. I thought that was a lot of money to see yourself "backstage," spending that kind of money, and taking the chance of someone else having the same costume.

SW: How important is it to have a unique appearance?

PD: I thought it was very important. The costume's not the star, but the psychological thing with a dancer is they have to feel good when they step on stage. My whole thing is, I never want the costume to overpower the dancer. I have to really talk tough to moms sometimes to talk them out of too much glitter and too much stuff on the tutu.

You want to be able to see the dancer. You don't want her to look like a birthday cake. She's got to be what they see, not the costume. I never want a dancer to step out on stage, particularly in a competition, and have a judge say, "What a pretty tutu!"

SW: What's your sewing background?

PD: I've always sewn. We've learned that this is more than just sewing, especially when we took one (tutu) apart and put it back together. We read the book 3, 4, 5 times. And then we just learned by doing.

Elizabeth's mother taught her to sew and Elizabeth is meticulous when she sews. If we had an emblem that represented our business, it would have an iron and a seam ripper on it. You can't make a mistake! Elizabeth is just a genius when it comes to design.

SW: How did you meet Elizabeth?

PD: Our daughters danced at the same studio.

SW: What are some of the challenges you've had with the business?

PD: I want to be friends with everybody. I like my customers! These (the costumes) are like my babies when they go out. I have little pins that are angels and I put them on the straps.

SW: I was really impressed with the language on your website (reading from printout), " If you will fall for a less expensive, mass produced tutu, then you should consult another company."

PD: I didn't have that for a while, and people kept trying to get me to sell my costumes for less. They kept trying to get me to go down on my prices. And I can't go down on my prices, without going down on my quality. I refuse to do that. I won't use plastic. I use Swarovrski crystals. (Swarovski Crystal Website) I hate the plastic, rhinestoney things. I'm not going to use those. If I'm going to spend $200 on crystals, then it's going to show the quality of the work we do. The tutu's going to be different than anybody else's that they can get anyplace else.

We redid my website about a year ago and my husband did a lot of the wording. When he asked what I wanted to say, I told him, "This is the price because I'm not going to downgrade what we make."

SW: The message comes through really clear. You have a level of quality, and you're not going to compromise on it.

PD: I don't want to do recital costumes that are just thrown together, even though those people make a lot of money.

SW: You'd make a costume for competition but not a recital?

PD: With these competitions, like the Youth America Grand Prix, (Read about YAGP) the judges are from the Royal Ballet, the Paris Opera, the Stuttgart Ballet, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and the kids can walk out of there with scholarships. For the senior dancers, the main prize is an apprenticeship with ABT (Read about American Ballet Theatre). They can walk out of there with a job with one of the top companies in the United States.

SW: You talked about the confidence a quality costume gives a dancer. But can you tell from the outside, as a judge or audience member, the quality that goes in?

PD: I can. When we went to the Grand Prix, I could tell when the lace would flop up or they weren't tacked down.

SW: Do you carry an emergency sewing kit?

PD: I took a sewing kit with me for everybody that I knew that was going, so if there was anything that needed to be fixed, I'd be there to fix it.

SW: This was just a service you took on yourself?

PD: Uh huh.

SW: Why do you go to these competitions?

PD: I wanted to see and meet the kids I'd made costumes for and see my costumes dance on the girls I'd made them for. When I put one in a box and send it, I say, "Dance well."

SW: And you pin an angel on the strap.

PD: One of the little girls came up and still had the angel pinned on. I said, "Oh Sweetie, you don't have to wear that." She said, "But I've done well in the competition because of this." I told her, "Oh, no. I've seen you dance. You're a beautiful little dancer." She said, "I'll keep it on."

SW: That must be very gratifying for you. What else satisfies you about what you do?

PD: I don't think I'm ever going to be a huge company because I don't think I could ever let go of them (costumes) and not see them as a piece of art. It allows that part of me to be expressed, and I don't want to give that part away to an assembly line.

Even when we've done corps stuff, each one of them has been made to stand out. When they get these costumes, I want there to be a WOW! factor when they open these boxes.

The best compliment we got was when we made the costumes for Harid's. Jen was going to be doing the Sugar Plum. We made four pinkish, plumish costumes and brought them down to see if they'd approve of them. The teacher is a lady who's Russian. She looked at them and said, "I do not understand the Americans. Why they always have to use these pink and plum colors. In Russia, I see they are royal. I see they are gold." That's when we came home and made the gold one and the jacket (see photo below) and sent it to them. When she opened the box she said, "It feels like I'm back in the Mariinsky, where the Kirov Ballet dances!" (Kirov Ballet Website).

SW: So you listened to her. You didn't get all huffy: What do you mean the Sugar Plum Fairy isn't plum! Where do you get your inspiration?

PD: I have books that tell the stories of the ballets. I read those to learn the original character or what the individual fairies were like in the ballet. I have a huge tape library. I watch different ballets to get inspiration. I subscribe to every magazine I can that has any kind of dance in it. I look at costume books.

I just got one that has Worth in it. If you ever read romance novels, everybody's dressed in Worth. This book has these amazing costumes! My husband says, "Paula, you can have more fun with a book." I say, "Lorin, look at these things. Someone made this stuff by hand! Some little person was sitting in a back room making these with real gold and real silver they used to do this embroidery."

I've got an amazing husband. He'll go with me, and we'll look at fabrics. Sometimes I'll just pull out my fabrics and play with them. It was a lot of fun when Elizabeth and I worked together, and we'd get an idea for a costume. We'd start, one with one idea, and we'd start pulling out all of our different fabrics and putting them together.

That's what I do now. I'll start pulling things out, and if I've got someone locally, I'll have three or four different things to show them. If I have to send something off to somebody, I'll put together swatches that I've got and give them different price points.

SW: You have suppliers and materials you order as far away as Russia…

PD: I get my bases from a lady in Russia. That contact came from a girl who was at Harid's with Jennifer. She had a costume her mom had made for her. When we were all leaving, I bought her costume and took it apart and that was the base for our first Don Quixote that we did. I emailed her and asked if I could get other bottoms from her. The first three years I got bottoms from the lady I was very pleased, but then we started making a lot of our own because we wanted different colors and color combinations.

SW: Have you seen any progression in styles, or the way you create things, or what's in demand?

PD: When we first started, the very flat Russian tutus were really in demand. I like to make them, with the bodice and the basque; I think they fit better. They are made specifically to the measurements of the dancers. Everything's custom made to the measurements that we get. We ask for all sorts of intricate measurements.

We ask, "Please, please, measure, then measure again." We'll do a seam, press and then measure; then we press, then we measure. We did a costume for a little girl who picked the most expensive fabric, so before we cut into it we realized something was not right with the measurements. The girl was a tiny thing, weighed about 96 pounds. Then we checked her bra size, and she was a 32 D. Ah ha! That was it. We remade the bodice and sent her a muslin bodice so they could fit it on her perfectly. Then, we found fabric with shading to camouflage her and boned it differently so she would have a lot more support than we would have for someone else who was very tiny.

Right now, all the dancers want this "all-in-one" look. It's a Russian design that looks very good on a very thin dancer. A lot of them of them like it all in Lycra without any boning in it. They say it interferes with the way they move. They practice in Lycra leotard, and it's like dancing with nothing on. So when you put the dancers in boning, like a corset, they think it impedes their movement. But through the centuries, who ever has asked a dancer what feels good? Whoever invented pointe shoes sure didn't ask them!

But using the boning and the good fabrics, and making them with a bodice and basque that fit, I guarantee they'll last a long time. A well-engineered tutu should last 30 years. Companies expect them to last; they're spending a lot of money and their budgets are always tight. And the Lycra doesn't last. If they want it, I'll make it, but I can't guarantee it. You can line it with itself or with other stretch type fabric. You can't put boning in it and you have to be extremely thin to look good in it because, if you have any shape at all, it's going to show. But it's going to break down. It's not going to last more than 2 or 3 years.

SW: Anyone who's ever had a bathing suit knows that.

PD: It's expensive, about $35 a yard. It costs more than a lot of the brocades or laces that we use. It moves weird, especially if they're partnering. With the basque, we quilt the back on the machine. You can't decorate anything from the bustline to below the hips. When he's moving her, all that part has to be free. The boning helps him to support her and partner her correctly, but not if the fabric is slipping on her.

SW: What are some tricks and illusions that you use?

PD: The deep, plunging necklines are done with a nude piece. I used to think they were done just with an inset, and some of the cheaper costumes do that, but then the top of the tutu moves around. We take the nude fabric and adhere it to another piece of material and use that so the fabric doesn't wobble underneath.

SW: Do you ever do any styles besides the romantic, classic look?

PD: We like doing the classic and romantic styles, but we have done some contemporary things. Elizabeth did something ingenious. She took an all-in-one unitard, cut out the front, dyed it gray, serged it to make it smaller, outlined to make it look like a suit, cut little spats, painted stripes, cut out the front, and used an actual tuxedo shirt in front. It turned out really cute.

SW: How do you get a dancer in and out of a costume for a quick change?

PD: They have dressers backstage, and dancers can have no modesty. They change right when they step offstage. Last year when I did the tutu seminar, I met a girl who works for the New York City Ballet in the costume department who asked if I wanted to see the department. She took me down where all the old Karinska costumes are and let me see the beautiful old costumes. In the back of the costumes they put boning on either side of the back seam because it's easier to get the dancers out. It gives the dressers something to hold onto.

One girl we did costumes for loses weight when she dances. She's a little girl, so we put three rows of hooks that we painted to match the fabric, into the back of her costume so she could lose weight while she danced. She said that before, they'd had to sew her into her costume!

SW: You really have to be innovative.

PD: There's no one way to make a costume.

Jennifer Drake (Cincinnati Ballet) in Firebird Costume by Tutus Divine
Photo courtesy of Jeff Corcoran

Paula Drake & Flower Festival Costume from Youth America Grand Prix
Photo courtesy of Susan Weinrebe

Paula Drake's Flower Festival Costume
Photo courtesy of Susan Weinrebe

Paula Drake Making Ruffles
Photo courtesy of Susan Weinrebe

Paula Drake In Her Workroom
Photo courtesy of Susan Weinrebe

Paula Drake's Work Area
Photo courtesy of Susan Weinrebe

Paula Drake and Nutcracker Man's Tunic
Photo courtesy of Susan Weinrebe

Paula Drake In Her Supply Room
Photo courtesy of Susan Weinrebe

Paula Drake With Several Tutus
Photo courtesy of Susan Weinrebe

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