Audio: Costume pro has bazaar wear for Carnival covered

Just about everyone in New Orleans has a costume closet. It’s that kind of town. Recently, we talked to costume artist and designer Cree McCree about how to build your personal costume collection. Not only is Cree an accomplished thrift shop fashionista, but she also helps organize the annual NOLA Designer Costume Bazaar, a group show of carnival costume designers that began 28 years ago, and takes place this weekend.

So, tell us about this almost three-decades-old costume extravaganza that brings artists together from across the city.

Well, the costume bazaar dates all the way back to 1991, with three local designers. None of them were actually natives, but they were the kind of people who took to the culture right away. That was Tracy Thompson, pretty well known now for her potholders and hats. Oliver Manhattan, who’s one of the premier designers in town and has her own pop-ups all the time. And Ann Marie Popko, who did her little fancy fashionista fascinators. So Ann Marie and Tracy and Oliver got together on Frenchmen Street and just did a random pop-up in what used to be Cafe Brazil. And that was a very active vector for many years. By the time I moved to town in 2001, Frenchman Street was still pretty much of a local’s destination. It wasn’t what it is today. But it was a happening scene.

My very first Mardi Gras was in 2002 and I just happened to go into Tracy Thompson’s hat shop, Kabuki, and pick up a flier. It was $20 to participate, and I said, well, I’ve got stuff to sell. So I signed up. It was one of those really cold days, and because I was a newcomer, I was in the shady area. All the old-timers were up front in the sunshine. I remember Gail Kiefer had her beautiful bustiers and they were all sparkling in the sunshine. The next year, Tracy decided that she just wanted to concentrate on the shop. And somehow she saw that I had this organizational genius, so she asked me to take over the operation of the costume bazaar. So I started running it in 2003.

NOLA Designer Costume Bazaar director Cree McCree with event co-founder Oliver Manhattan, known for her festive millinery. (Photo: NOLA Designer Costume Bazaar)

So you were an avid adopter of New Orleans’ culture and costume ways.

I was. I did make my very first headpiece for my very first Mardi Gras and it was a whole bunch of dolls I got at a convent sale and made them anatomically correct with little pins in their little nips and I cut their hair off and gave them little bushes. I had like, five of them on top of my headpiece. And on the back of every one of them was like, a Virgin Mary or saint. So, yeah. I jumped right in.

How much has the costume bazaar grown over the years?

There are a number of people who have been there from the beginning. Tracy doesn’t actually do it anymore. She has such a successful business with her hats and potholders now. She does the water meter potholders specific to every neighborhood. And Ann Marie Popko has gone back to the East Coast. Oliver Manhattan, though, is still going strong. She’s especially known for her hats. She constructs everything from scratch. Some of them are just very pretty; some of them are really wild and crazy, with eyeballs. She does a lot for men, too, which is great because the men often are short shifted in this town. It’s harder to find really good costume pieces for men. Well, the definition of men is so loose in this town. We’ve got lots of great drag queen stuff. But you know, there is never as much for larger sizes.

Why are we so in love with costumes in this town?

My friend Jimmy McDonald from Lafayette told me, you’ve got to wear a mask on Mardi Gras so you can come as your true self. And I always thought that was a really well-said aphorism that sums it all up. That we get to be somebody else. And, of course, here, Carnival season is so long, we get to be all kinds of people. We can be sexy. We can be scary. We can be silly. We can be comfortable at all costs. And it just gives you an opportunity to play with other people and other people’s creativity. I love when I go in the streets and see somebody who bought a piece of mine a couple of years ago and they’ve adapted it and added to it or passed it on to somebody else. There’s a lot of that that goes on.

Are the best costumes timeless or timely?

I think the best costumes are timeless, because you can always take a timeless costume and add a little something to it to make it timely. But if it’s only timely and it’s some scandal that just happened that year, then that does make it really specific and you’ll probably only get to wear it that one time. But if you can add a little timely element to an otherwise classic look, I think that’s your best bet. I like to recycle my costumes in all kinds of different ways.

Kate McNee is a veteran bazaar purveyor. (Photo: NOLA Designer Costume Bazaar)

Tell us a little bit about the artists who are going to be in the bazaar this year.

The NOLA Designer Costume Bazaar brings together some 30 costume artists. Current director Cree McCree is pictured here with founders Tracy Thomson, AnnMarie Popko and Oliver Manhattan. (Photo: NOLA Designer Costume Bazaar)

We have an ever-growing group. We used to be between 15 and 20, but now it’s closer to 30. I actually don’t want it to get too big because I like to keep it totally costumes. I don’t have people selling other items. Only a couple of people who do vintage, but they are very tasked: You must bring costume vintage. I don’t want any office wear at the sale. This is strictly costume.

Liz Blas has been there for many years and she’s a well-known mask maker. HowlPop and Calamity, who have been doing value-priced art fashion for years, and up-cycle at that, are favorites — they never pay for their booth because I always trade with them. They’re in the Alexander McQueen tradition of fashion and costuming. Lots of ripped-up stuff. Lana Guerra is a relative newcomer, incredibly talented and again, really wild. She does these things that are kind of like hoop skirts that you can see through, and she does all kinds of headpieces that are strange creatures. We also have Kate McNee. She’s head of the art department at Jazz Fest, but she’s an incredible headpiece designer and her pieces are just exquisitely beautiful. They’re all kinds of floral. She has a very unique style.

Engineering is hard for headpieces. I didn’t get it right away. I mean, that’s the trickiest thing. Anybody can do something pretty if they have a good eye, but getting something that will actually stay on somebody’s head and be comfortable isn’t as easy as you would think.

How much of a costume involves the creativity of the individual as well as the artist? Is it sort of a combination role?

The individual shopper has to bring his or her own creativity. Some people have very specific ideas and they’re looking for very specific things. Other people just come to browse. But the wonderful thing about the costume bazaar is mixing and matching. Always. Somebody might find one of my baby doll bustiers and pair it with a tutu over on somebody else’s rack. We have all kinds of accessories. You need bags. You need gloves. Really, the costume piece and even the headpiece is just the beginning.

You have called yourself an assemblage artist. What does that mean?

I’m an assemblage artist because that’s exactly what I do. I collect stuff all year long. I go to thrift stores and garage sales for my vintage, but I also go to their weird sections and just find things. Like sometimes those big wreaths that people hang on their doors for Christmas or other holidays; I turn them into big, giant Bourbon Street Mardi Gras day hats. Massive hats that a lot of the Bourbon Street Mardi Gras people like to sport. And then I also go to all of Michael’s sales, like at the end of Christmas when they’re closing out all their Christmas stuff. You can get all kinds of pretty sparkly stuff with glitter on it and flowers. So, I just keep my eyes open everywhere I go.

And I collect stuff. I had this giant sunflower and I never knew what to do with it. And then just this year, it came to me. I should put a baby head in the middle of it and I had this green visor the same color that I bought in Mexico. So, most of my pieces just make themselves. I throw all my stuff out, take a look and it’s like they magically assemble themselves. “I’m supposed to go here.”

You’re not only an artist and a costumer. You’ve written a book called Flea Market America, the Complete Guide to Flea Enterprise. How do you turn trash to treasure? Do we just look for things that speak to us?

Anything can go into a costume. At a vintage store, I personally look for things that are actually real vintage. But that is very hard to find these days. I mostly just find really good recycled clothing. I like colors. When I’m looking for costume stuff, my eye goes directly to sequins and sparkles, obviously. That’s sort of a no-brainer. But I always go to the men’s section and scan the suits to see if I see any satin lapels, because that means it’s going to be a tuxedo. And I snap up any tuxedoes if they’re in good condition. Same with white jackets. And I walk down the men’s aisle. My eyes just look down at the cuffs and if I see any cowboy snaps, it’s like, okay, cowboy shirt. So, they’re like little tricks I use when I’m shopping, to be efficient.

Fashion-forward designers HowlPop and Calamity are perennial bazaar favorites. (Photo: NOLA Designer Costume Bazaar)

What are the most popular costumes in New Orleans? What are people looking for?

I think in New Orleans, people really go the satiric route. We’re going to see so many referee voodoo dolls. That is going to be massively big this year. And there will certainly be a number of political costumes — I mean, the Sewerage and Water Board is just prime for the picking. In New Orleans, there’s never a lack of corruption scandals to choose from.

I love the way we do group costuming here, too. The Dancing Dalmatians were an icon of my childhood.

I’ve been in a few group costumes and one of my most favorite recent ones … let’s just say the theme was poo. For my husband, I made Montezuma’s Revenge and it had a fabulous kind of Aztec-looking headdress. All over the costume were those little plastic poos you can buy. There was one couple that was the runs and they just were wearing brown running jackets with the number 2 on the back. It was so silly, but it was really a lot of fun.

What are your two best pieces of advice for those of us who are trying to come up with a creative costume?

First of all, you should do a little soul searching. Who do I want to be? It doesn’t mean you have to be a specific person, but what feeling do I want? Do I want to be pretty? Do I want to be funny? Do I want to be silly? And when you figure out the kind of general tone you want to set, I think it’s important to go for colors that you want. Like, perhaps you want to be some kind of sea creature; then you’re going to get down to the turquoise and the blues and the sea foams. And then just let your imagination run wild. You don’t have to be that creative when you go to the costume bazaar, because everybody has done it for you already. You will see things that will jump off the rack at you. We do the creativity for you, and all you have to do is put it on.

You also handle the Piety Street Market. We’re a street-market-rich community here.

We are a very street-art-rich community. Pop-ups are everywhere. I started my first flea market at the Mermaid Lounge. You remember the Mermaid Lounge? And then I started doing the Piety Street Market, which started in the old iron works. It’s now Piety Market in exile at the New Orleans Healing Center, because we no longer have access to that building. But the Healing Center is a wonderful location and it’s also where we do the costume bazaar.

The costume bazaar itself has as colorful a history as the costumes that you sell there.

It does have a very colorful history. It lost its long-time home when Cafe Brazil closed, but Jesse Page at Blue Nile just took as right in and we made that jump very nicely. We had several successful costume bazaars there.

This one particular year, 2011, everyone had just gotten set up, for maybe like 45 minutes, and all of the sudden there was a {police} team. I think they were looking for Carnival vendors who were illegally on the street, but we were sitting ducks, apparently. They told us that we had to shut the whole bazaar down. And everybody was like, really? But we followed the orders and everybody packed up and went home. But there were a lot of journalists and press people at that event as shoppers. And so very quickly it blew into a big story in the Times-Picayune about the costume bust. And I was really scared. I saw City Hall come up on my caller ID and thought, okay. This is it. They’re going to tell me I’ve got to go to jail. And it was Scott Hutchinson, who is the Cultural Ambassador. He said, this is Scott Hutchinson in the Mayor’s office and I just want to say this never should have happened. We want to apologize. And that ran as the next headline: City apologizes for costume bust. The Times-Picayune did a year-end roundup of the most significant hundred events in that year. And the “city apologizes for costume bust” made the list. I thought that was kind of a feather in my cap. It was a real David and Goliath story.

For those of us who have costume closets, what four or five things should be in there?

First of all, multiple pairs of fishnets. I personally think a few wigs come in handy. Wigs cover a multitude of sins. Also, sometimes it’s easier to fit a headpiece on a wig. I would say basic bodysuits. Not the kind that you can’t go to the bathroom in, but basic bodysuits because we never know whether it’s going to be hot or cold. You have to dress in layers. I would also say jackets and tunics. Gloves. Gloves are really important. I used to always cut the fingers off my gloves because it made everything easier. Now you have to cut the fingers off your gloves because of your phones.

And shoes. I just go for comfort. I wear a pair of black cowboy boots, even if it doesn’t go with the rest of my costume. A lot of people like to decorate their combat boots for each costume. But you have comfortable shoes or comfortable boots or something you can actually walk on for many miles.

It’s interesting what you said about costuming being difficult for men, because women can always put on a tutu or a glittery top. What do men do?

Well, a lot of men put on tutus of course, too. In New Orleans, men in tutus is no big deal. I do get a lot of the vintage men’s krewe costumes. It’s a good base for a man; having a couple of those in your closet is a good place, because you can always start with that.

Have tutus gotten a little too mass appeal? Or will they never go out of style?

Tutus are ubiquitous and I guess they do have mass appeal, but I don’t think they will ever go out of style. A tutu is a tutu and you feel like, tutu. Tracy Thompson used to make her own tutus and she called them TOO–TOO. Her tutus, they were always very special.

Anything else about the costume bazaar we should know?

You will go crazy when you see what’s available there. It’s a feast for the eyes. If something really speaks to you, of course you should try that on right away. But I would say go around. Circulate. It’s going to be the whole main floor and into the back of the Healing Center. It’s a lovely space. And it’s going to be filled. I try to really balance it out so that all the different vendors have really different unique things. You’re not going to see a lot of the same stuff. Anybody will be able to walk out with the most stylish and classiest and coolest Mardi Gras costumes in town. I expect that most of the people who are shopping on the 23rd, at our bazaar, are starting to enter Mardi Gras Day panic zone. Do not despair. Nothing to wear? Don’t panic. We’ve got you covered.

Or semi covered, as the case may be.

The NOLA Creative Costume Bazaar will take place on Saturday, February 23, from 11 AM to 5 PM at the New Orleans Healing Center on Saint Claude Avenue. It promises to be fun and frivolous and entertaining.



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