Photo: Yepoka Yeebo / Business Insider
Ever wondered where to get the kind of dress that makes a barrel-chested, 6 ft 10” man look like a buxom 1950s-era movie star?Planet Pepper, a two-man company based in New York’s Garment District, makes the most whimsical costumes on display at drag shows across the city.
Take a look inside the studio >
Founded by Broadway costume designer Alex Bartlett and entrepreneur Vincent Cuccia, Planet Pepper is a study in turning a niche passion into a business.
Bartlett hand-makes the clothes — from $140 dresses to $2000 tuxedos — while Cuccia handles the business side. They’ve doubled revenue every year since they started out in 2009, taking in just under $100,000 in 2011.
“There are tricks to get the eyes seeing a waist and hips when they’re not there.”
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a drag queen, but some of them are quite heavy set,” Cuccia tells us. So Planet Pepper’s lavish costumes are feats of engineering: metal frames prop up improbable shapes and artful padding turns muscular men into curvy characters.
Bartlett, speaking in their studio on the 10th floor of a building on West 39th Street, explains how he creates the illusion: “There are tricks to get the eyes seeing a waist and hips when they’re not there,” he says. “You have to cheat some things and fake some things.”
Take a look inside the studio >
Bartlett was on a brief break: he was halfway through making 50 costumes for New York’s biggest drag ball, ‘Night Of A Thousand Gowns’. During one visit, one minute he was soldering together a metal frame for a collar, then he was fitting a flowy red organza jacket on a client. Even when the chaos died down, he’d still be busy: Bartlett also works as a wardrobe supervisor at the Lincoln centre, and his design skills made him a fixture on Bravo reality TV show ‘Mad Fashion.’
Photo: Yepoka Yeebo/Business Insider
“There’s virtually no research on drag queens and their buying habits.”Cuccia says that when he sat down to write a business plan, he realised the only other people making dresses for drag queens were little old ladies: “Or drag queens were going to JC Penney or Macy’s and sneaking into the dressing rooms to try on dresses. There’s virtually no research on drag queens and their buying habits. We’re lucky that Alex [Bartlett] does drag and knows a lot about drag queens.”
Cuccia, who also teaches business classes at Kingsborough Community College, says he always wanted to be an entrepreneur. “I have authority issues,” he deadpans. He found a $15,000 grant, and set about looking for a business to start.
At the time, he was dating Bartlett, who had been making dresses for drag queens as a side-hustle. He was working out of his tiny studio apartment, which was crammed with sewing equipment and clothes. There were dozens of huge, styled wigs lined up on top of the kitchen cabinets, and there’d usually be a sink full of dirty dishes and two roaming cats.
The set-up was minimal, but every time Cuccia would visit, customers would rave about Bartlett’s creations. He had inadvertently spent a decade building a loyal customer base with bare-bones costs: it was a strong starting point for a new company.
“Initially I thought in 20 years, we’ll be a household name.”
“The next phase is making lots of money,” said Bartlett. “We have to figure that part out.”
Cuccia said he slowly realised that’s the biggest conundrum: “Initially I thought in 20 years, we’ll be a household name,” he said, explaining that he planned to go big. But the more he learned about the fashion industry, the more realistic his plans got.
“It’s still a tough realisation,” said Cuccia. “We’re probably not going to be an IBM or a Prada,” he added. “We’re really just an answer to a niche market.”
Vincent Cuccia (left) takes care of the business side, while Alex Bartlett (right) designs and makes the costumes
When Cuccia sat down to write a business plan, he realised the only other people making dresses for drag queens were little old ladies
While they started by making dresses for drag queens, Planet Pepper has a diverse range of customers, male and female
Bartlett also works as a wardrobe supervisor at the Lincoln centre, and his design skills made him a fixture on Bravo reality TV show 'Mad Fashion'
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