It’s late Monday morning and the phone doesn’t stop ringing. If I had expected to find a quiet atelier with a designer absorbed in creative work, I was completely mistaken. Linda Ayre runs her own small business as a designer for custom dance costumes — and she is thus a multi-tasker. While we are talking, she is by turns dealing with an important client overseas, the building manager who insists on changing the locks that same afternoon, and some annoying internet issues — obstacles that everyone who runs their own operation has to deal with. Our conversation is frequently interrupted because of some urgent business or another, but every time she zooms right back to where we left off.
“I have to wear many different hats,” she says with a laugh when I ask her how she manages to stay on top of it all. “It’s the nature of what I do!” This applies not only to the way she runs her daily multifaceted business, but also to the nature of her profession. Her clients — Argentine tango teachers and performers, as well as Latin ballroom dancers — usually come to her with certain ideas. For example, they may need a costume for a showcase and the piece has to portray a certain feeling. Linda loves working with such special requirements, and she asks to hear the music. Only then — being a dancer herself — can she envision what the costume has to express and how it needs to flow. She likes women to look elegantly seductive, but not sleazy, and she likes styles that to seem to be showing more skin. “I prefer designing dresses that show legs and I always emphasize the importance of showing movement,” she says.
Despite having her own preferences, her main priority remains what the client wants. “I don’t need to have my stamp on the pieces that I make, it has to work for my clients, as long as it remains sensual,” she explains. To achieve a design, she first drapes it on the stand. Before the advent of the Internet she had to send a sketch and fabric swatches to her customers by mail. Now she can do that part of the process online. She also shops online for fabrics, but despite the growing vast array of online fabric stores, finding good quality fabric has become more and more difficult. And when the client then orders a piece, she drapes it according to their body measurements. Throughout the making, as details are completed, she photographs and sends it to the client.
“That’s the advantage of custom design,” she proudly says. “The client gets the perfect size.” The value of a skilled designer is the ability to emphasize someone’s assets and minimize any shortcomings. When many of Linda’s clients come to her for the first time, they always complain about their imperfections. Other items they have ordered online arrive ill fitting, and so they eventually go to a custom designer. Instead of dwelling on what doesn’t work, Linda concentrates on their assets, such as a nicely shaped back or bust, and makes that the focus of the dress.
Of course, such precise handmade work comes with a certain price tag. It is a long way from the first moment a client approaches her with a particular idea to a finished design. There is the choice of the right fabric, the STYLING, and then the HAND finishing. Not everybody is ready to pay between $700 and $1000 for a custom-made piece, and many people often end up buying a used costume. “The problem with used dresses, which have become more and more popular, is the size,” Linda says. “Or perhaps the dress has an unexpected issue,” I add and tell her how I once witnessed a costume malfunction on stage during a performance of a high-profile tango couple in Buenos Aires. The strap on the woman’s dress tore and she had to finish her performance with one hand holding her dress in place. “I always tell my clients to rehearse in the costumes I’ve made for them,” Linda says. “That way we know if it really works comfortably”.
In the colorful world of dance Linda Ayre has found a niche, especially with Argentine tango. It’s a niche, which her set of skills fill perfectly. “Many dance-costume designers come from a background of being a seamstress,” she explains. “However, my background is fashion design.” I ask her how someone can tell the difference between a custom-made dress and one that is manufactured. “Usually you can just look at the hem line, for example,” she suggests. “A lot of dresses that are sold as ‘custom designed’ don’t even have a properly sewn hem line. It’s easy for anybody to detect that.”
She herself is an old-school designer who studied fashion design in England and worked in London’s fast paced fashion design industry for many years before moving to California. “About 5 or 6 years after I moved here, I started dancing Argentine tango. For several years I was a total addict,” she admits. Sure enough, soon after becoming involved with the dance world as a serious ‘tanguera’, she became interested in designing exclusively tango fashion. Then gradually more dances were included, but tango is still her primary emphasis.
Like everything else, fashions in tango change, and Linda is excited to see how in recent years hem lines and details change and evolve. She remarks how in the world of fashion you have to be open to everything. She likes to experiment, and would especially like to do more ‘nuevo-tango’ dresses, but given how ‘nuevo-tango’ is itself a particular niche within a niche, it is difficult to sell and at the end of the day she needs to make a living.
Before I leave she gives me a tour of her studio. She points out some of her costumes, explaining what is special and what was particularly challenging about this or that piece. I still don’t understand how she finds the time and quiet to focus on the creative part of her job and how she has created such a beautiful body of work. Maybe when she returns to her studio after seven o’clock this evening, I think to myself, maybe after the phone stops ringing and the business manager has gone home….
More information about Linda Ayre’s designs and her studio can be found at her website at www.dancedress.com.
Photo on top: Linda Ayre in her studio.
Center photo left: During a photo shoot with Chelsea Eng.
Center photo right: Photoshoot on location in Benicia 2014 with model Barbara and singer/model/dance teacher Lynn.
Photographer: Diane Pedersen