Cathy Hay interviews Melanie Talkington, owner of Lace Embrace Atelier Inc., and corsetiere to Dita von Teese and Cathie Jung
First, briefly introduce yourself and tell us something about your interests apart from corset making.
My name is Melanie Talkington owner of Lace Embrace Atelier Inc. My first passion is the history of corsetry and anything antique corset related. I am also an avid tango dancer and enjoy riding my 50's cruiser on the beach with my Chihuahua in the basket.
What sparked your interest in corsetry, and what made you take the plunge and start your own business?
I first became interested in corsetry when my grandmother made me a life size saloon girl doll for Christmas. She wore bloomers and corset cover, I always felt something was missing from her outfit - the corset ... I then became a fan of Dolly Parton and realized she was not shaped like average women, when I asked my family, i was told she wore corsets.
The quest for corsets began; I entered college to study fashion design and made corsets and historic costume for my final collection. Yet, I wanted to see an original antique corset. I finally found my first antique corset in 1996 – an 1860's red wool corset, completely moth eaten. I took a pattern from it, so that I could try on the reproduction and see what it felt like to wear an authentic corset. At the time I was making custom bridal and prom dresses, soon of my clients were asking to try my corsets and wear them with their gowns. My hobby business grew by word of mouth which was in addition to my full time job as a buyer/ sourcing manager in the garment industry.
Do you sew yourself, or do you lead a team of seamstresses?
Yes, I sew, but not as much these days. I have a great team of seamstresses who assist with sewing.
Does your typical client come in for measurements and fittings, or is it all done remotely?
We have a retail shop, so we see many clients in our store. Some fly to Vancouver, BC for their vacations and have corsets made up while visiting. Others have an initial consultation/ fitting then we mail the completed corset to them. As well, we sell our corsets on-line.
What's the most ambitious project you've tackled yet?
There have been quite a few ambitious projects... the first one was flossing the first corset I ever made. Then making corsets for Cathie Jung who holds the Guinness record for the smallest waist measure – 15". And most recently the corset cloak from the movie Sucker Punch in leather. It looks simple, but drafting to get the hood to sit correctly was time consuming. Now we are working on some extreme hip panniers that are attached to a corset in a very unusual shape for a local designer... they always seem to keep coming!
What skill do you feel is most invaluable for corset making?
Perfect sewing, perfect top stitching, attention to detail.
Your literature explains the importance of a bespoke fit. We emphasize the importance of mock-ups (toiles) at Foundations, recommending at least one, although some people use more; some are said to need many mock-ups before they are happy with the fit. How many mock-ups do you usually use with a bespoke client?
It all depends on the client. For Cathie Jung, many mock ups were needed to get the fit correct as her figure is not common. We tend to do one mock up/ fitting after the consultation and then a final fitting. We have been making corsets since 1996 and have seen a wide range of figures, so we tend to have the knowledge for making a proper garment from the start.
What layers do you use in your corsets? Do you use steels, spirals or a combination of the two?
We generally use a lining and face fabric (unless the facing needs stabilizing). Corsets do not need to be super thick and heavy, they only add bulk. We use spring steels imported from France from a factory that has been making steel for corsets since 1888!
You've had some famous clients in your time, including Cathie Jung and Dita von Teese. How did these orders come about, and what were these ladies like to work with?
Yes, we are very excited to work with such illustrious clients!
Many years ago, one of my clients was a member of Dita's fan page and sent her an email through her fan letter. He sent her photos of his antique corset and the reproduction corset we made for his wife. He wasn't sure if she would get the email, but it turned out she did read her fan mail and emailed him a thank you for telling her about our corsets. Shortly after, Dita called me on the telephone and raved about how fabulous our corsets were and ordered some corsets for herself. Dita is a very smart business woman, she has built a great empire on her look and revived the burlesque scene to what it is today. She is a pioneering woman who is very quiet and mild. She is quite tiny and you feel very protective when you are around her because she is so dainty and feminine.
Cathie Jung had called us and asked us to make corsets for her. They flew to Vancouver for a fitting and attended a corset soiree we held in her honor. When they were approached to do the Tyra Banks show (video clip of Melanie and Cathie on the Tyra Banks show), they suggested I come on the show with them. Cathie is a wonderful woman, very pleasant and sweet, she loves to meet new people.
We have also been very fortunate to work on the Warner Brothers movie Sucker Punch. We made all of the corsets in the movie. The buyers were visiting our shop to buy stock for the movie as it had a number of burlesque style dance scenes. Soon after I was called in to meet the designer and fit the actresses for corsets. I worked closely with Carla Gugino, Jamie Chung and Abby Cornish. We were also excited to see our corset made it to the movie poster.
Your website shows an impressive quantity and variety of press attention, from numerousprint and radio appearances to national television, including the Tyra Banks Show and the L Word. What advice would you give to young corset makers who are anxious to get noticed, achieve this kind of high-profile attention and make a name for themselves?
I think it's been helpful that our business is located in 'Hollywood North'. Lots of TV and films are shot here, so the buyers are always out shopping for items for each show. Word begins to spread through the industry and soon they call you in to do work for them. Years ago I received a telephone call when they were making King Kong. They wanted us to provide lingerie for a shop window. The movie was being shot in Australia. I asked them how they heard about us, and he found us on the internet. Therefore, it's very important to have a website that shows your work, because the buyers are constantly looking on line for the right products for their movie. I know that Sucker Punch bought a lot of items on line and even purchased items from shops I referred.
If you want to get local press, it's good to be involved with the community – fashion, burlesque, fetish, etc. We are often asked to be involved with fashion shows that are fundraisers for Cancer, Aids, etc. Usually being involved with these events is an easy way to get publicity. With the use of Face book, Twitter, Yelp, YouTube, etc, your publicity/ images spread quickly – immediately!
What are you working on now?
So many things.... Boring stuff like taxes, books. And fun stuff! right now I am building what I refer to as, 'The Three Graces'. They are Lady Grace dolls – life-size porcelain dolls for our upcoming antique corset exhibition on June 19, 2011. These Victorian ladies will be a lovely addition to display my vast collection of antique corsets. Many clients have been asking to see my collection and I have been lucky enough to get some real treasures lately. We are creating an event at my dream house – a 1911 mansion.
I am also working on a reproduction of one of my antique corsets. It's an electric blue silk corset c. 1860-70 completely flossed in ivory. This corset has the most flossing I have ever seen on a corset... it's taken me over 20 hours in flossing and I'm still not done... my fingers are pretty sore. I need to learn how to master the thimble...
What techniques or materials do you want to experiment with in the future?
I have been enjoying working with Swarovski crystals for our Chandelier collection. I would like to do more crystal work. As well I would like to work on some more elaborate leather corsets. Sadly, there are not enough hours in the day....
Some of Melanie's corsets from Vancouver Fashion Week, 2011
Melanie, Some of these were very cheeky questions, and I hope you'll forgive me if any of them asked more than you were expecting to reveal! Many of our readers are struggling to start their own businesses and get to grips with the art of self-promotion, whilst also struggling with the common online misconception that there is a "right" and a "wrong" way to make a good corset, so we aim to show them behind the scenes and de-mystify the process somewhat - both that of corset making and that of making a living from your art. I hope you enjoyed answering them, and thank you very much for your time!