POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 25, 2013:
Bringing skill and creativity to stage and everyday wear
Do you remember the pivotal part of Alice in Wonderland when our favorite heroine tumbles down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world? That's what it's like to enter the studio of Tulsa costume and fashion designer April Madden. The second story of her home houses a mannequin-filled room sporting headdresses and a Sherlock Holmes-esque ebony cape among racks of textures and prints.
Madden does it all, from ornate wedding gowns to everyday wear, with accessories and historical period costumes sandwiched in between.
How does she do it? Well, for one, her trusty Elna sewing machine has become an extra appendage to her.
"I've had my Elna for over ten years now. I can't use other people's machines," she said. "It's something I depend on."
Her mechanical reliance rendered her teary eyed during its recent breakdown while creating sixty costumes for Tulsa Ballet.
"I was begging and crying a little bit," Madden laughed as she recounted taking her sewing machine to the repair shop.
The artistry of sewing and creating is simply in Madden's blood. Her unbridled talent stems from a long line of "excellent seamstresses" who taught her sewing skills at the tender age of 12.
Her grandmothers on both sides often altered ready-made patterns. This concept undoubtedly prepared her when faced with tight funding during her community theater work as she breathed new life into worn-out garments.
"I really am good about working with people's budgets," she said. "I kind of had to find things and redo them, and just be really thrifty and smart about where I spent every last penny."
One local actor who knows firsthand about Madden's ability to do great things for the stage is Chad Oliverson, perhaps best known in Tulsa theater for his multiple turns in the thigh-highs of The Rocky Horror Show's Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
"She has a distinct eye," he said. "She can envision a project from start to finish and create a unique environment. She has a gift for doing that and making the costumes have their own life."
Working in theater, as well as a job at Cascia Hall, provided plenty of practice in fitting every physique. Shape doesn't bother her.
This knowledge definitely figures into the aesthetics of Madden's bridal wear, a large part of her clientele. The procedure unfolds after the bride-to-be supplies Madden with inspiration pieces, an initial rendering, and fabric selection.
"Until the last two fittings, the gown doesn't look that great," she said. "I'm just trying to get the fit correct, so it fits perfectly. It takes a special kind of bride."
But the end product is so worth it. Satin, belted bodices accompany shoulder straps highlighted by simple antique jewelry. But the main feature of Madden's wedding gowns comes in the form of tulle layers flecked by the occasional blossom. Best of all, the formal wear can be purchased at a fraction of the cost of many national fashion designer labels.
Madden does not feel content to rest on her laurels. She always seeks innovation, perhaps now more than ever. She's currently "concentrating more on clothing design rather than the costume side."
Development of her own clothing line has received favorable responses from the crowd so far. Colorful, vintage saris imported from various regions in India figure prominently in her new line that is selling very well.
She found a way for the awe-inspiring pieces to retain their ethnic, customary qualities in an undeniably wearable way. One can effortlessly pair these with leggings or skinny jeans, and taller women can wear the mini-saris as dresses. The demand of this apparel factored into her decision to create floor-length maxi dresses and art nouveau gowns similarly portrayed by Alphonse Mucha.
Of course, the fewer amounts of work and alterations she invests into apparel, the better.
"If I put a crazy amount of labor into it, then the price tag has to reflect that," Madden said. "So I try to keep these really simple. These I sell for $85."
And they do sell. People love her work.
"It's a joy to wear her creations, and they are creations," Oliverson said. But there's a responsibility on the part of the costumed.
"Never, ever, ever, eat or drink in them, or you will have the wrath of April Madden," Oliverson said, laughing a little but not joking at all. "That's true."
Whether it's Joseph's Dreamcoat, a wedding gown, or everyday wear, Madden is tailoring for all walks of life. And while her second-floor workspace is packed with all sorts of sartorial splendor, beauty comes from hard work.
Just ask her sewing machine.
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