Two days in the Beyhive
I’ve been meaning to write about working for Beyonce but life’s been hectic. Normally, when you play seamstress for an artist, you’re on hand to make simple alterations, reinstall zippers, and shuffle clothes around as needed. You’re usually the backup.. meaning, you may sew- you may not. You're a glorified insurance policy that's rarely cashed in on, but regardless, you learn new skills and meet great people. To be clear, I was not an insurance policy this time around.
We came in on Saturday knowing the Nashville concert was Sunday night. After Mrs. Sue gave us a rundown on how we were going to recreate a ton of pieces, we set to work at several key outfits in the show, so they’d be ready first. I was tasked with a Roberto Cavalli chiffon piece. I was told to cut it down the middle and add a zipper. I immediately started sweating because:
a. I’m still at that sewing stage where zippers don’t thrill me, & everyone wants their zippers done differently
b. Chiffon never plays nice with zippers
c. Chiffon doesn’t forgive (if your needle is a hair too big, you’ve got permanent holes in this thing)
d. This was the only piece. There is no backup. There is no dress rehearsal. There is you and a 23″ long zipper that starts far below the waist and travels up across 2 totally different types of fabric. Different fabrics require different stitches, needles, and tensions.
After 6 hours on the same piece, I hung it up and moved on to the dancers’ leotards. We pinned, we chalked, we pinned again, we ironed, we sewed, we repeated the process around 140 more times. We created an assembly line so that one person could handle the shoulders, the next could handle the sleeves, the next could hem each leg and arm hole, and no one missed a beat. Learning how to sew in an assembly line- such as factory construction, will give you an entirely new appreciation for a good team. If the person at the beginning of the assembly line couldn’t get their seam allowance right, then every single seamstress who touches the piece after will struggle to do their part, stretching and tucking every step of the way. This wasn’t the case because I was on a team of total ballers who understood this.
We built a process for making Beyonce’s clothes. The success of that process hinged on how well everyone understood their part, and perfected their tools. If someone is struggling with their tools just a little, they create mass confusion. They’re going to be wreckless. They’re going to endanger the end product. If you don’t trust the person next to you to get the tension right, then the whole thing crumbles as you stop to check their work before starting your own. If you can’t trust that their seam allowances are correct in step 1, then when station 4 gets to install a zipper, there won’t be enough fabric left. Then you have to pull the whole piece apart and redo it. If you try to stretch one side of the product in one step, you’ll screw over the next person who needs the other side to pull the other way.
I also got to know a personal hero. Arturo Padilla, the tailor on tour- not only is he wonderful to work next to- but this guy had amazing advice. Arturo was Prince’s tailor, among many, many others. And he was brilliantly sweet. And he brings his family on tour with him to make these beautiful pieces. He had my back when it came to hacking my machine, flying through alterations, fixing seams, and sneaking in zippers. Where Arturo was skilled at constructing pieces, Sue, the tour seamstress, had an immaculate eye for detail and has been the go-to seamstress for every major tour you can think of.. for good reason. Sue could look at something quietly for 2 seconds and know exactly how to approach the job, what tools you’ll need, and a trick to improve the final product.
Beyonce quite clearly took her time in assembling the right group of people to get the job done- they knew their tools better than a Janome rep on a good day, and could practically fling a razor blade through two pieces of chiffon from 5 feet away without any casualties. For the Formation World Tour, the process we created in clothing production becomes more important than the product itself. It helps when planning future tours, and when creating patterns for future pieces. By reviewing the process after the fact, the strategy gets improved for the future. Some tools get kicked to the curb, others get ordered in bulk.
The day of the show, Beyonce came in to approve/ shut down what we’d been working on. Her objective eye was sharp – she noticed things others didn’t, and did a better job at communicating issues than some CEOs I’ve worked with. When your team has looked at dashiki for 20 hours, all they see is dashiki. They might not notice the stitching isn’t loose enough for someone swinging inside a lyra 40 feet in the air. Your team might not have a clue that their tight stitching endangers a dancer’s life, if she can’t bend in it properly. Beyonce is the pro at moving from room to room – at seeing the whole picture. That kind of foresight can save a life, and definitely ensure her empire is safe. After hot gluing, sewing, pressing, and pinning until we each had a blood blister on all the important fingers, the work was done. We even got to watch the show, and later came back to sew a little more and pack them up for New York. The Beyonce show was the perfect example of coming in 30 hrs before a show and starting completely fresh. Most tours spend 2 months planning and 2 weeks sewing – we did it all in 2 days to replace pieces and make things magical.
It also taught me SO MUCH about my craft, as well as how much tougher it is to do your job under the gun and in a time crunch – I ABSOLUTELY gained a new respect for the skilled people who do this while living on the road, and live under this type of pressure every day. As soon as I got home (well, actually after about a 12-hour nap), I bought some extra tools, and practiced a few stitches for next time. New tools:
- Fray Check
- Black (wax) tailor’s chalk (discovered this stuff at Beyonce – it feels like a crayon and goes on easier)
- 120″ tape measure (because truly fabulous projects require lonnggggg measurements)
- Skin colored zippers of all lengths. Sometimes, concerts are on Sundays and fabric/habberdashery shops are closed. Having an extra on hand can save a tour seamstress’s butt!