The transition from dressing a galaxy of stars for stage productions to creating styles in Stilbaai has come easily to William Mills, former resident tailor for the SABC.
Happily, it was her affinity for anything with a dramatic flair that prompted couturier Donna Calitz, owner of a boutique in Stilbaai, to invite Mills to join her in designing clothes she wants women to love wearing for the self-confidence, authority, style and elegance the garments are crafted to impart.
“When I heard about William and his theatre background, I knew that his craftsmanship would enhance garments we make to fulfil every person’s need to look and feel good,” says Calitz.
The partnership that began a year ago enables them to combine their years of designing, cutting and sewing with finding fabrics they insist must be the best in quality and appearance, and which Calitz and Wills devote countless hours to hunting for in their mutual passion for excellence.
“We buy material to suit a garment we have been asked to design, or simply because the fabric is fabulous and its distinctiveness suggests a design. We also discover treasure troves of authentic materials no longer available, forgotten in old storehouses and in unexpected places everywhere.”
A truly useful skill for creating garments that satisfy wide-ranging tastes is the ability to innovate, to adapt and redo quickly, which Mills learnt well in the volatile theatrical world where the immediate need for the show to go on is paramount. He has a lifetime of stories and pictures to illustrate how the adroit thinking and skilled fingers of the costumiers behind the scenes helped to make stage performances not just possible but also a success.
He started his career as an assistant cutter for PACT (the former Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal), and later joined the SABC’s stage productions where he advanced to resident tailor.
“It was wonderful as a young man fresh out of fashion school to plunge into theatre, working with the most incredible textiles and combination of colours and people. I think that absolute energy of creativity was a big part of why I enjoyed it so much.”
He well recalls how, as a newly-hired assistant at the SABC, he was part of a small feverish group that had to spring into united action to avert immediately what loomed as a major catastrophe.
“It was the afternoon of the opening night of Shakespeare’s play, King John, and someone suddenly realised that the main character’s full-length cape had not been cut and we had no fabric left.
“Diane, a lady who worked in theatre in London for many years, told us to just put on the floor all the bits of loose fabric we had left, and she began to pin it as we scrambled around after whatever pieces we could find, trying to make something out of nothing and doing our best to keep calm because it was three hours before the opening.
“It was wonderful to see her sew it all together into what emerged as the most stunning pattern of hand-dyed wool and mohair in shades of deep blues, maroons and darker hues. That was the exciting part of working with a person like that, or people like that who were able to make something from nothing in such a short time and not run around shrieking their heads off.
“I will always remember how something beautiful emerged, seemingly miraculously, that just draped faultlessly without a specific pattern. It goes to show what can be done in a pinch.”
For her part Calitz, a fine art graduate, has learnt to coax cloth into patterns that enhance the body shape, using for instance vertical instead of horizontal lines for the large frame, and vice versa.
“It is all about line, because as one’s eye moves up or down you have to elongate and make someone large look slender, for argument’s sake, or taller. You really have to work around the figure itself. That is the most important element, that you compliment the figure so that its owner feels good.
“The purpose of garments in my shop is to dress people beautifully in attire that elevates the wearer’s mood and wraps an invisible cloak of inner poise around her. When women and even men look good they feel good and have self-confidence and a sense of value.
“Sometimes people say they have nowhere to go wearing clothes like this. I tell them that I dress every day as if I am going somewhere special because I know how important a good appearance is, and that people notice you and you can be an inspiration to them.
“You cannot buy good taste or style, so our economic climate is not the barrier some imagine it to be in the quest for a good appearance. You can still own something special that promotes your well-being and makes you a head turner without having to spend everything you have.
“We like helping people to look good with what we can give and with what they have. We try to design around their shape, their circumstances, their lifestyles.
“Our designs do not follow fashion trends. Our garments are timeless in style, never dating, because we factor into every design the understanding that it takes at least five years to perfect a wardrobe that suits individual style and taste. We cater for individuality and timelessness.”
She will never tire of the hunt for fabrics that will satisfy her desire to produce the best, says Calitz.
“This morning I was in Mossel Bay sourcing material for a customer. Fabrics are one of my passions, and I look with my fingers and also my eyes. Texture is very important.”
Both say one of their most prized rewards in their quest for excellence is the confidence clients place in them.
“Customers say, ‘you know what I want, I’ll leave it to you’,” says Mills. “That spurs us on, because we do know what will make people look good, and their confidence in us allows us to achieve the best for them.”