Q+A With Costume Designer Jess West

Photography by Polina Osherov

If you show up at the Elton John concert in Indy on April 1, don’t be fooled if you see his doppelganger roaming the halls. Jess West of Jess West Costumes lives up to her tagline — she really can make anything. It only made sense that when she decided to pay tribute to the eclectic artist, she went all-out. While Elton himself never wore this exact costume, it’s clear where the inspiration came from. The distinctly recognizable, fan-favorite costume West chose to recreate first appeared in Elton’s aptly-named biopic, “Rocketman.” From the jewel-encrusted horned headpiece to the sequined cape, no detail was spared in crafting this star-studded suit. 

West attributes her talents to a mix of hard work, determination, talent and faith, all of which allowed her to turn her hobby into a full-time design job. Of course, we needed to know all the details on her costume-making career, so we had her come into the PATTERN office for a quick Q + A sesh!

Katie Freeman: So, you made your first costume when you were in the sixth grade. What sparked that idea and how did you get to where you are now? 

Jess West: I really enjoyed Uma Thurman, who was Poison Ivy in the 90s Batman. I created that one by myself — I was 12 — and then I won the costume contest at school and was hooked after that. I always enjoyed making my own clothes. I wanted something that was amazing and as detailed as I would want it to be. I’m very into details. It mostly was just myself as an artist making costumes, and then gradually over time, people more and more frequently would ask me to make them something. Little by little, after doing that for barely any money, I built a costume business over the course of ten years. Now, I make high-end costumes for people across the country.

This costume was made entirely by hand by West and is modeled by her in this photo.

KF: What was the inspiration behind these incredible Elton John costumes and where will you debut them? 

JW: A friend of ours — it was his birthday. We got everyone tickets to a concert to see Elton John. I am always over the top about everything, and he is one of my top-favorite people for costumes and performance wear. So, I said it would be really fun if we could all make costumes and go as an entourage to the show!

KF: How does your creative process guide you throughout the making of a costume? 

JW: I mean, I’m a self-taught artist. I always know what to do. There is an element of trial and error, but since I’ve been making costumes as long as I have, I have this backpack of knowledge of things that I just pull out. I know how to guide myself to a finished product of what I see in my mind; a tangible item.

KF: How do people react when you go out in costumes you’ve made?

JW: It’s probably the closest thing that you could feel to being a celebrity in public, in my eyes. In regard to people admiring what you’re wearing and stopping you and wanting to take photographs, it’s really exciting!

The shoulders of this jacket were made by West. The studs and stones were hand sewn with assistance by Alicia Camarata. She is also modeling the jacket.

KF: You’ve made costumes for the New York Yankees, MTV, and Maxim Magazine. What was it like working on projects for such nationally-known organizations?

JW: They are fun. It’s a little bit of pressure, because of all the people that they could choose, they chose you to do it. But I work really well under pressure. I actually kind of enjoy that aspect of it; proving that I am qualified enough and making what they need to come to life. I really enjoy making stuff for private individuals, actually. I have some very interesting clients. My business model is “I can make anything,” and so often people will come to me when they can’t find something or are looking for something different, or eccentric.

KF: Do you have a favorite costume you’ve made?

JW: Oh my gosh, I’ve made so many costumes. My favorite style of costume is something called a ‘transition costume.’ For example, I built a 14-foot-tall werewolf and I’m inside. I operate his arms and legs. Then, I open up a door and I pop out as Little Red Riding Hood. I’ve had a lot of costumes that I enjoy, but that’s probably the largest-scale. Sometimes I do three in one. I built the worm from Beetlejuice, came out as Beetlejuice, and then turned into Lydia in her red wedding dress.

This entire dress was handmade by Becca Wittman. She has been working with West for six years and is modeling the piece.

KF: In terms of what you are able to create, it seems like the sky is the limit  — do you have a dream costume you want to make?

JW: Oh my goodness, I have so many. One costume that I’ve had in my mind for several years would require quite the budget. I want to make a costume from The Wizard of Oz. I would like to make a giant tornado and have all of the characters reaching out of it like they’ve been sucked in. It would have a fake Dorothy torso and I’d be on the inside of it. And I would open it up and be the wizard on the inside, but it would require a lot of lights. It would be really big. It would be almost a stage production at that point.

KF: Your business seems to be growing and growing — how do you manage to stay on top of all your orders and also stay sane?

JW: I have girls that come in and work with me. I’ve got my right-hand-girl Becca with me, she’s been working with me for six years. I just have people come in and help. I’m always looking for interns and people to come in and learn and exchange their time for some knowledge.

This costume was handmade by West. Ashley Perkins assisted in cutting and laying piano keys on the jacket. Perkins is modeling the costume. 

If you want to snag a costume or see more of West’s creations, check out her website or Instagram.

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