LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Dangling button earrings sway with Suzanne Breaux as she flips through binders of costume sketches — full of bell skirts and corset tops, embellished sleeves and dramatic collars.
From floor to ceiling her shop is filled with sequins, yards of eccentric fabrics, hulking decorative tunics and bouffant-style skirts.
Breaux, also known as Madame Breaux costumer extraordinaire, is a rare commodity. She is one of a handful of designers making costumes for krewes in south Louisiana.
“Mardi Gras has always been a highly creative culture,” the 62-year-old said. “And I have to have a creative outlet.”
FROM BASKET WEAVING TO MILITARY TO MARDI GRAS
Breaux’s path to Mardi Gras costume design weaves throughout the world — from embedding in Belize for a year learning native arts and crafts to managing the textile department for Laura Ashley interior design in New Orleans.
But her roots are based in production design.
“I have to have a creative outlet,” she said.
Raised in Crowley, Breaux comes from a large, crafty family. As one of eight children, she would run to her grandmother’s house to get away from her siblings. There, her grandmother would be sewing vestments for the clergy.
“I’ve always been real creative with my hands, I picked that up from my grandmother,” Breaux said.
Before joining the Air National Guard in 1986 as a photojournalist Breaux spent a decade gathering more arts and crafts skills. She attended the University of the Americas in Cholula Mexico to study anthropology and native crafts and worked for MGM Costumes in New Orleans as a textile artist, costume designer and builder.
Breaux traveled often with the Air Force. For every country they visited, she would write papers to help her unit understand local customs or recommend places to go.
But in her free time, she would visit markets to explore fabrics, gather history on how other countries constructed costumes. And shop. She came back from Scandinavia with a pair of clogs.
“The whole time I was in the military, I would keep true to my craft,” Breaux said. “I was always making things and studying costumes and fabrics and just clothing. I was a fiber artist but also a journalist. It’s all about construction, same with stories.”
“I have to have a creative outlet,” she said.
After 24 years in the Air National Guard, Breaux retired in 2010 and started Madame Breaux Costume House.
Since creating her business, Breaux has worked for Krewe of Houmas, Lafayette Mardi Gras Association, Krewe of Versailles, Krewe of Victoria, Krewe Des Jeune Amis Lafayette, Krewe of Camelot and Krewe of Troubadours.
Her main krewes are Krewe of Hephaestus in Morgan City and Krewe of Contraband in Lake Charles. Both are mystic krewes, meaning they don’t reveal themes, costumes, ball production information to anyone. Except for Breaux.
Not even royalty is aware of who other royalties are. While Breaux is working with each krewe member individually on costumes, people in the krewe are blissfully unaware, waiting to be surprised. They don’t know what their own costume will be until the ball.
“When they come for fittings, it’s pure muslin,” she said. “They don’t know until the night of the ball what they (royalty position) are.”
‘I’VE ALWAYS KNOWN I WANTED TO DO THIS’
Breaux’s first Mardi Gras season, she made 10 costumes. By her fourth year, she constructed 120.
“There’s so much work out there,” she said. “And there’s not enough people doing it. There’s so much work, I refuse so many clients, every year.”
When she realized it was too much work for just herself, she started hiring people and taking on apprentices. But she made sure they were subcontracted so they could work on their time with their krewes costumes and eventually start their own practice.
“And there’s not that many of us,” she said. “Ever since I started this job my mission was to train people.”
Now with the help of others on constructing fitted pieces or hand-beading, Breaux makes about 60 costumes a year.
When it comes to costume construction, krewes will already have in mind what they want for the following year’s theme. Mid-March, krewes will start calling Breaux and tell her their theme so she can start sourcing materials.
She sources materials without ever seeing the participants (insider tip: she shops at A&A Sewing Center in Broussard). Around May, she sends krewes rough sketches of what costume direction they should go in and fabrics she suggests they use.
“You have to see the costumes to write a script because this is a production,” she said.
She gets design approval and talks budgets. By mid-July, Breaux’s favorite part finally starts — costume construction.
She orders all the supplies she needs – trims, beads, rhinestones – and then the last fitting before she can start decoration. September to Mardi Gras is dedicated to decorating, whether that’s hand-painting or applying sequins and beads.
But she doesn’t just make gowns or jackets, she creates trains, crowns, headpieces and collars.
She estimates it takes her 10 days — stretched across months of fittings and hand-beaded fabrics — to create a costume. Each piece varies in price, gowns can range from $100 to $100,000 depending on quality, detail and decadence.
Not every costume follows the same guidelines either. She’s used things like laundry baskets to create costume pieces.
What does a costume maker wear to a ball with her own designs? A tuxedo, of course.
“I don’t care what people think,” she said. “I’m working backstage. I’m the dresser.”