BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- Carter Church’s heart may be in Bay St. Louis, but Carnival is in his blood. But then that’s to be expected of a man who’s reigned for nearly half a century as one of the pre-eminent costume makers for the courts of Mardi Gras Krewes.
“My family was always involved in Mardi Gras,” says the 62-year-old Church. “My grandfather was a member of Rex (an organization that helped create many of the traditions of New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration). "Mardi Gras runs in the family, but it tended to skip generations because my father wasn’t terribly interested in Mardi Gras but I got the bug as a kid.”
There are perhaps only a dozen costume makers in the same league as Church, those who design and make by hand the costumes of Mardi Gras royalty. It is a business, a passion that has consumed Church since he was a child watching the parades on St. Charles Street.
“It’s a business, but it’s not a business,” he says. “It’s seasonal, but you work all year ... (and) Christmas gets relegated to the back burner,” he says with a laugh.
But not this year. Katrina wiped out his business, but, as if making some kind of twisted Faustian bargain with him, gave him the first Christmas in more than 40 years when he hasn’t had to work.
During an average season, Church makes between 125 and 150 costumes for the celebration, which begins in late February. This year he is making just six. Though New Orleans has vowed to continue its 150-year old Mardi Gras tradition, holding parades and inviting partiers back into its streets, the surrounding pageantry and social depth of the season have been all but wiped out.
"A lot of (the Krewes) are going to parade but as far as having a ball and needing elaborate ball costumes they aren’t doing it this year,” Church says. “So basically I’m out of business for a year. And these costumes I’m doing, they’ve already paid me for them, (so) that means no income coming in for a while.”
A large man who comfortably fills a room with his presence, Church speaks in the slow, sing-song rhythm of his native New Orleans -- a timbre that is all Beignets and coffee -- and his conversational style twists and turns like a lazy tributary of the Mississippi River. He has a fast smile and a faster laugh, which showers a room like strings of beads being tossed out to Bourbon Street revelers.
Diverse sources of inspiration
His office is awash with a creative clutter one would expect of a person who draws inspiration from such diverse sources as Czarist Russia, fairy tales and Barbie debutante designer gowns. In his workshop hang constellations of rhinestones, lace, feather boas and materials of many hues.
Sitting behind his desk, Church describes a career that has spanned more than four decades, the seeds of which were planted when he was mere lad of 5.
“My sister got stuck with me and she was taking art lessons and dragged me along. After a while she stopped, but I was hooked," he says. "I kept pursuing art. I’ve always loved drawing.”
At age 15, he was helping a friend make some Carnival headpieces. The friend bolted to New York to accept a job and Church stepped in to finish the process. The Krewe captain asked him to repeat the process the next and a career was born. Now, 118 design awards and 47 years later, “I’m still at it,” he says.
Strewn before him on a broad desk are a dozen different full color sketches of gowns, headdresses and assorted costumes, each a work of art in its own right. And in recent years, the art world has come to recognize that fact as well. Collectors have begun snapping up his design sketches during gallery showings, a development that has both pleased and surprised him.
The work, by any standard, requires a brutal determination. The gowns and costumes are entirely handmade, and each rhinestone -- and they number into the thousands on some costumes -- must be individually glued on. The get-ups can weigh up to 120 pounds thanks to those rhinestones, heavy fabrics and wire infrastructure needed to hold elaborate headdresses in place.
And they don't come cheap. A King’s costume can set you back $5,000. One year he made a Queen’s costume that cost $9,000 because the owner wanted white mink instead of the more-subdued rabbit fur.
Church cherishes the transforming nature of his creations, which he says borders on magic. Mardi Gras is deeply entwined with the social scene and very much tied to the debutante season, so “you see these young girls come of age right before your eyes,” he says. “You’ll see these young college girls in their jeans and pony tails and the baseball caps and then for one night they turn into fairy tale princesses."
But the fairy tales don't always end happily for his creations. He winces when talking about how they are often just tossed aside, stored in attics and the like after being worn only once or twice. In one extreme case, some 37 years ago, he recalls how a woman wore a queen's gown he had made and then simply tossed it over the side of a trash can when the night’s festivities were over.
Thinking she had merely forgotten to retrieve it, Church called after her, saying, “You forgot your dress!” And she replied, “Oh, I don’t want it, I don’t need it anymore, I’ll never use it again.” That really stung, Church says, “because it really hit home the planned obsolescence of all this.”
Back to the Bay
Though he grew up in New Orleans, Church spent summers as kid in Bay St. Louis with his grandmother, coming over on the train. “So I always had a connection to the Coast,” he says.
He and his partner, Yancey, moved to Bay St. Louis nearly 18 years ago. They decided to make the move permanent when, after having bought a house and working on it most weekends, they found themselves spending more and more time in the town. “We were essentially commuting to New Orleans,” he says.
His home is 31 feet above sea level and Camille, the former heavyweight hurricane champ, never touched the place when it roared through in 1969, he says. Like so many others, he figured he was safe this time. “Needless to say, we got five feet of water in house,” he says.
He and Yancey are now living in a FEMA trailer outside the shop, which survived with nearly no outside damage, due to its solid steel frame construction, and took on only about a foot of water. More important, almost none of his inventory was lost.
“When we came back and saw the shop intact, I almost cried,” he says.
And while Katrina has put a damper on his livelihood for a year at least, she hasn't persuaded him to abandon his adopted town.
“I love it here; this is where I’m gonna stay, hurricane or no hurricane,” he says.
Trackbacks are links to weblogs that reference this post. Like comments, trackbacks do no appear until approved by us. The trackback URL for this post is: http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451b0aa69e200d834a343b669e2