CARNIE COUTURE IS THE UNDERGROUND

December 13, 2012

CARNIE COUTURE IS THE UNDERGROUND
By: Ari Lynn

I sat down and talked with one of Portland’s finest fashion designers, Jaime Leona of Carnie Couture, who may be better known to some of you as the producer of Fire Entertainer of the Year, the elite fire performer and a staple of Dante’s Sinferno, Ivizia.  She filled me in on her latest fashion collection, the story beyond her various stage names, and a sneak-peek into a new stage act she’s devising.

Carnie Couture

Jaime Leona

CARNIE COUTURE:When I decided that I was going to make clothing as income, I chose Invisible Designs as the name, and there’s even a further backstory. Invisible used to be my alias when I was a traveling kid. And the name came from an acid trip. I kept running around saying, “I’m invisible, I’m invisible!” Then the name stuck. When I started doing clothing, it was like, well this makes sense since it was a name that had significant meaning previously, so I chose Invisible Designs. It wasn’t until 2007 that I did the Dirty Circus fashion show, and that was also the same time that I discovered that that was what I really liked to do with clothing.

The Burro: And that’s the circus and costume type of stuff?

CC:Yeah, you can see how many stripes and polka dots and lacy stuff that I use.  So, after the Dirty Circus fashion show is when I sat down and brainstormed to come up with the name Carnie Couture.  Which was basically me sitting down and—I actually have the piece of paper from where the name came from.  I sat down and did some research of all different names and words that had to do with circus, carnival, vaudeville, whatever. And then I took all these words that had to do with fashion, and then I combined two of these words, and Carnie Couture is what came out of that.

Now that it’s 2012, I want to do another one in 2013.  I was talking with Tiare [Nagasita] about this. My idea is to actually use all the Wanderlust performers as models, and actually create a collection for all the performers that’s cohesive.

Carnie Couture Circus Fashion ClothingB: That’s a great idea.

CC: And if I had the budget and the time to do it, I’d love to do a black and white circus.  I’d go as far as painting people to look black and white. The only reason why I probably won’t do that is because after I do the show, I want the clothing to be sellable, and if I do this whole black and white thing, I don’t think people will buy individual pieces.

B: It’s got limited appeal. There would still be appeal. People would still get it, but you’ve already niched yourself to a point.

CC: It’s kind of like, “Do you want to buy everything all at once?”

B: So, that’s a show coming up this winter?

CC: No, I’m probably going to do that in April or May, because if we get the fire permit back at Dante’s, then Fire Entertainer of the year would be in May.

 

B: Where are we at with fire?

CC: We are eventually going to get it back at Dante’s. It will happen. Frank has been talking with one of his buddies who is at the Portland Fire Marshall’s.  He’s filled me in on some information that I’m not allowed to share, but it will happen. At Devil’s Point, we just don’t know.

Carnie Couture - Women's Clothing

B: What other venues would that open that up for again, because there’s tons of places?  I can remember doing 

CC: I’ve done fire at over thirty different venues, strip clubs, and regular bars combined here in Portland over the years.fire at the Someday Lounge.

B: How many years is that?

CC: That I’ve been doing fire?

B: Yeah.

B: What’s the biggest thing you’ve seen change in those thirteen years?

CC: I’ve been performing for thirteen…that’s a long time! I’ve worked for Frank for ten years. I’ve worked at Devil’s Point for ten years. I don’t tell people that.  They’re like, “How old are you?” “I’m 21!” Whoa, lady!

CC: Well, with myself, I was a really awkward person to watch in the early days because I was really technical, but had no stage presence, and would make no eye contact, and if I did, I’d get really nervous and stick my tongue out at people. So for me, being able to perform on a regular basis. Weekly, sometimes, there was a time when I was working five-nights-a-week doing shows. Being able to perform that often helped me find my strengths as an entertainer, and helped me discover who I am on stage.  And what you see now, with my acts, I’m a bit of a goof, and I like to do some really lighthearted comical performances, but at the same time I have a few really dark and morbid acts, and some them people don’t like, like the Jesus stuff that I do, some people don’t like that.

Carnie Couture Custom ClothingB: It’s a little too much?

CC: It’s a little too much.

B: See, because when I think of performers that have great stage presence, that could just get up there with three random props, and pull off an act, you’re one of those people, because you’d be able to do it on presence alone. You could take three props and just improvise an act.

CC: Well, when I was a kid I was a total show-off. I was in gymnastics.  I was really hyper, so my parents had to give me some sort of physical activity. So, if we had people over, I was always doing cartwheels in the house to show off, but then as an adult when you put me on stage when I first started performing I was really, really shy and nervous, but once I came out of that shell…Basically, what you see on stage is an amplified version of what I am in real life. On a day-to-day basis I am essentially the same person on stage as I am off stage.

 

Carnie Couture Portland Oregon

 

B: How’s the adjustment been without fire?

CC: Well, I spent about a month crying. It was really, really difficult. Even now, I’m already starting to well up, [it’s true she does…] because it really sucks to not be able to do something that I’m really good at, that I’m safe at.  So, it’s literally like having someone rip my fucking heart out. I think one of my lessons for this year is adaptability.  If you’re not able to adapt, you’re not going to survive. So, when fire was taken away, I knew that I just had to go with the flow, I had to suck it up, not focus all my energy on complaining, but focus that energy on adapting and developing new skills and new tricks of the trade, which is why I adopted roller skates. I have to have something that defines me separately from the other performers. If I don’t, and I feel like I was just boring and just blended in, I probably wouldn’t strip.

B: You’re a performer, you’re not a stripper. You perform naked…

CC: Right, I just happen to do it naked.

IVIZIA, MISS STEAK, AND LILLY LICKABOTTOM: THE MANY PSEUDONYMS OF JAIME LEONA

Ivizia was my original name, and that was actually derived from Invisible. I explained to you that Invisible was my alias, and Ivizia was given to me by a friend of mine who, when I met him, I was like, “I’m Invisible,” and he was like, “No, you’re not.” We were at a festival, and when I saw him later that night, he was like, “You’re Ivizia.” Well, we became really good friends, and we left one festival, and went to another, which was the Phoenix Fest, and when we got there he started introducing me to people as Ivizia, and so the name kind of latched on. So, when I started dancing, it was really easy for me to use that name because it had been given to me, it had meaning behind it. No one else was going to use the name. That’s Ivizia.

Miss Steak came in 2007. Miss Steak was a counterpart to Sir Loin when Mason and I were engaged.  He’s a performer, too. We started to bounce ideas off of each other called Miss Steak and Sir Loin. And they were the Carnies, and the show we were writing was called the Los Hobos show, and my character was Miss Steak.  She was kind of the personality that always wanted to stuff perfectly, but could never get anything right. She just failed at everything she tried. So, I went by that name for about two years, and then I went back to Ivizia. I wasn’t with Mason anymore and I kind of wanted to retire all of that energy that was once in my life.

Lilly Lickabottom is actually a name that’s older than both of those names. Lilly is sort of this alter-ego that I have, and I used to do this little girl voice. I’ll do the voice for you. I haven’t done it in a really long time. “I’m Lilly Lickabottom, and I like it in the butt.” So, anyway, she would just go off, and I would talk in this voice, and she was kind of evil. Lilly was something that I developed way before I started performing, this was in 1997 or 1998, and so when I started doing burlesque shows, I decided Lilly was kind of a cute name to use.  A lot of burlesque performers have a first and last name.

So, now, when I work, it’s pretty much Ivizia, but when Voi de Vire Society hires me to do a show they always hire me as Miss Steak, because that’s how they knew me, and that’s a name that works with Circus Stuff, and when Rocket and Nik Sin book me, they always use Miss Steak.  If I do other shows where Lilly Lickabottom is appropriate for the show, I’ll use that name.

Carnie Couture Custom FashionB: So, what brought you to performing? Was there something that happened or somebody that suggested it?

CC: The first time I saw a girl spinning fire poi I was at a Rainbow Gathering in Montana, and I remember watching her, and she had this huge crowd around her and they were cheering so loud, and she was just out there rocking it.  And I looked at her and I said to myself, “I can do that.” So the next day, I got my first pair of practice poi, and I practiced for about a year before I ever came across a pair of fire poi that I could actually light on fire, because at the time, you had to make it yourself, and you couldn’t just go to a website and purchase a pair.  So, I practiced for about a year, and had gotten really good, and finally lit up. Thirteen years ago there weren’t many fire dancers in town. So, when I started working at Dante’s the two girls that worked there were Ajne and Sapphire, and I remember the first time went to Dante’s to Sinferno to look at them, I watched them on stage, and, granted, both of them are good friends of mine, but I looked at them and I thought, “I’m technically better than both of these girls combined.” So, it gave me a boost of confidence that I would be able to do that. 

B: In such a short amount of time, fire performance went from being completely underground to being part of  the festival culture, the performance art culture, and the whole cirque nouveau movements.

CC: I think that started to happen in 2005. Maybe a little bit before that.  2004 is when I think I noticed the boom in fire dancers, because it became so enticing. I think they appreciated the underground aspect of it, and I think that’s when people started getting interested. I think that’s when poi spinning changed. In 2004-2005, you had these people that started spinning and using poi and staff and getting really technical with it. I’ve been going to festivals since 1997, and so I remember going and being the only fire dancer, and after a while you’d have a fire circle, and there’d be fifteen people waiting there to jump in.

Carnie Couture - Jaime Leona

B: That’s sort of like what happens with any craft, right? We always want to improve. It’s like this group 

CC: Michael Price actually told me that when he saw me perform at Dante’s that’s when he decided he wanted to be a fire dancer, because he saw me on stage.  And he got really good. He’s amazing!! A lot of fire tricks are really difficult, and the only people that are going to appreciate the level of difficulty are other fire performers. There are some really difficult things that they do that another fire performer will think, “That’s really cool, because I know how hard that was to do.”evolution. It’s not like anyone is outwardly saying it, but that’s what we do, right, as a species, whatever you want to do, you want to do it better, you don’t just want to maintain status quo.

B: Tell me more about Carnie Couture…Do you do all your own work?

CC:  I’ve hand-stitched everything that you see there.  It’s one of the things that I’m actually really proud of. How many festivals have you been to, where you see all this great clothing that’s all made overseas.

B: Totally, it’s all made in Indonesia or China, because somebody’s got pattern, and they’ve sold five, and they say, “Shit, I’m gonna make a bunch of these.”

CC: I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, but a lot of these people don’t actually have any sewing skills whatsoever.

Carnie Couture - Jaime LeonaB: They can design and have business savvy.

CC:Yeah, which is good.  I went over to Asia in 2008 to kind of see what was going on over there. To see if that’s what I wanted to do. Some of it was cool. There was definitely a lot of things that I could have just jumped on and invested in and got all this product made, but the one thing that makes my business from all these other businesses is that I actually hand-make everything, and for that matter, you’re usually going to get a one-of-a-kind piece, so I close to never duplicate the same pattern and fabric combo. So, that’s also one of the draws to my clothing. Going back to these people that have all of their clothing manufactured overseas, it’s absolutely possible to have all of your clothing manufactured in the U.S., and still charge the price that they do for it.  They’d be making slightly less profit, but these are the kind of people that are bitching about the economy, and they can bring jobs to their own country.

B: It’s part of a business ethic, right, and it becomes part of you business model to produce your goods local, right?

CC: Yeah! It’s unnecessary to ship overseas. As it is right now, all the fabrics are being produced overseas.

B: Right, all the textiles are produced overseas.

CC: Yeah, they have some textiles that are produced in the U.S., but not much. 

Carnie Couture Circus Fashion B: It’s the nature of the global economy where the manufacturing sector has been outsourced, and moved out of the U.S., and out of developed nations.

CC: There’s actually a really great movie that’s been out for a few years called “Rags to Riches to Rags”, and it’s a documentary on how big designers taking all of their manufacturing overseas has destroyed the industry in the United States, and it happened in a really short amount of time.  In the early ‘80s it started, and by the year 2000—basically in 1985 nearly 100% of American-designed clothing was made in the U.S., and by the year 2000 less than 3%.

B: Tell me about your designs.

CC: Nearly all of it is women’s clothing.  The only thing I do for men are pants and vests.  The majority of clothing I do for women are dresses, and I’ve recently been interested in designing jackets. I say about every two years I find a new interest in which direction I want to go, so my interests right now are jackets and lingerie. I’m a little hesitant for lingerie because unless you are a really well-known designer—I don’t know I guess I don’t know if I can have a really successful business doing it.


Carnie Couture Circus FashionB:
Just because there’s so much competition in the market?

CC: There is competition, and if I do lingerie, I want to do really cool stuff that’s gonna be expensive that I could probably sell to a few boutiques, but I don’t see that being the direction I take the rest of my business. I intentionally freed myself up this winter, so I can do the stuff that I want to do.  I’m doing the fashion show at the Strippies on December 4, and then as I’m getting prepared for this fashion show, I’m thinking about doing my own in the springtime, and if you look at my rack, that’s a fashion show right there.  I could send all of that stuff down the runway, and a lot of people haven’t seen it. You can look at my clothing rack, and they’re for people that like to dress up and like playful clothes.

B: There’s not a lot of plaids…

CC: No.

B: Or tweeds…

CC: Not really.  There’s no khaki in there!

Carnie Couture will be featured in the January 2013 issue of Inked Fashion. If you’d like more information about her work, or to see more, visit the website at www.carniecouture.com. And you’ll just have to find her performing at a nearby venue or club to see that new act she’s working on…

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