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Costumes: Penn & Fletcher Inc.

Michael S. Eddy • June 2021Theater Maker: Costumes • May 25, 2021


This story can be read by clicking the image above, or reading below, or in our June 2021 digitial edition

Art embroidery is an old art that requires meticulous attention to detail, at which Penn & Fletcher has for 35 years excelled. The company was formed in 1986 by two designers, Andrew B. Marlay and Ernest A. Smith, built upon older embroidery studios. The studio, one of the few embroidery companies left in New York City, currently employs 13 workers and was thriving before the pandemic. In addition to costume arts, Penn & Fletcher also do a lot of embroidery work for the decorative arts—for interior designers and museums—that segment slowed but fortunately didn’t shutdown as theater did, so they have had some work coming in over the past year. Smith, formerly a scenic and costume designer for theater and opera, has this past year also been instrumental in supporting the Costume Industry Coalition (CIC). Working on the fund-raising side and with his longstanding work with an organization called the Artisans Guild of America (AGA), which he was part of founding in 2012. Smith graciously shared some of his time to speak about Penn & Fletcher and his work with the CIC. 

How did Penn & Fletcher get started?
We’ve been in business since 1986. We were an outgrowth of the now defunct Eaves-Brooks Costume Company’s embroidery department. In fact, we’re located on the fifth floor of the old Eaves-Brooks building. I had been a set & costume designer in the theater and had done a couple of Broadway shows and a lot of off-Broadway shows, operas, and musicals. For 20 years I both taught on a college level and designed professionally. I taught at SUNY Purchase, Penn State, and the University of Connecticut. I can’t tell you the thrill of hearing ‘half hour’, ‘conductor to the pit’ from the stage manager. It’s still there; it’s in my blood. But I came to a point in my career where I realized that I had risen as high as I was probably going to rise and I was beating myself up with the hours. I designed 20 shows my last year. Five of them were big, full-scale musicals. I decided I needed a career change. Embroidery became my passion. I consider it scenery and costumes wrapped up into one. 

Tell us about the type of embroidery work you do at Penn & Fletcher.
We do all kinds of period recreation embroideries, using vintage equipment as well as hand techniques and modern techniques that allow us to create anything from the golden age of machine embroidery, that started in the late 1880s, up to today. We’re willing to tackle almost anything that you can ask to be embroidered in any way if they’re willing to pay for it. We do a lot of museum work and we do a lot of historical reproduction. We did work for the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn and for the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. The Fox looked for 10 years to find someone who could reproduce that embroidery, and they finally found us. While we are well-known in the theater community in New York, we’re not a very well-known company outside the city, across the country. 

You have an extensive collection of embroidery machines.
Well, I am a machine junkie, and the novelty machines that we have that do different embroidery techniques are somewhat like an orchestra has musical instruments. So we have machines that do particular stitches. Stitches that you would identify on period garments from the Victorian age, up through the 1940s and ’50s as popular styles of embroidery. This was the heyday of hand-guided French-style machine embroidery. Most of the machines are still being used by us to recreate the period work. Our oldest working machine is 1878, and it’s still in use. That’s only 13 years after the Civil War. A little side fact, the Civil War was the first time some of the uniforms were machine made.

What are one or two costume creations that you’re particularly proud of creating?
Oh, there’s very little doubt there. The Will Rogers Follies was my favorite show because it was a parade of really hard work on stage. Willa [Kim, costume designer] had us do so many things. We did the chaps for the opening number. We did the Indian princesses. We did the beaded jewel number. It was just magnificent to watch. And it was a beautiful show. It moved along so wonderfully. A real Busby Berkeley kind of production. They really did a fantastic job with it. Stunning costumes.

What’s a unique, bizarre, perhaps challenging costume piece that stands out for you?
That’s a tough one to answer. The big bold stuff is kind of in our blood as theater people. But Sally Ann Parson from Parsons-Meares just recently brought up a patch for a state agency that is only the size of a quarter but has so much detail in it. And we’re going, “How in God’s name are we going to do this?” We’re going to use hair thread and super fine needles to make it work. It really is a challenge to do something in that minuscule an area. The largest piece we’ve done recently is a 15’ circular medallion for the ceiling of a private yacht. In theater, you would be surprised how big the bed cover is in Phantom [of the Opera]! And we quilt it as well. It’s challenges like those, that are fun, big or small, or very, very small. 

Talk about how the technology has changed over time, and how your shop balances the craft with newer technologies.
Well, nothing beats hand embroidery. The problem with hand embroidery is it’s done by hand and therefore it’s very labor intensive. In foreign countries, the perception of hand embroidery is that it’s cheap because the labor is so cheap. So, I’ve had young people come in here and ask to just do a needlepoint pillow. I tell them it takes 45-minutes to an hour to do a square inch. We don’t work on that wage scale. We’ll do it if this is what you want, but it’s a misconception as to the value of hand embroidery. It shouldn’t be undervalued, there is a lot of labor in that hand work.

As for the machine work, each of the hand guided embroidery machines, really takes an artist to play it. They can do extraordinary work. And then the computerized equipment that we have, which is 21st century, is wonderful but limited in its texture. It tends to be a very flat stitch. Whereas the hand-guided work is much more robust. It’s got dimension, variety. It is really wonderful to see an artist on a hand guided embroidery machine. It is like an accomplished musician playing an instrument.

How has your firm been doing through the pandemic?
Well, we were closed for ten weeks and then we gingerly reopened with all the restrictions. For nine months we managed to stay clear of the virus. Then at Christmas time, six of us came down with it after we had closed. How this happened, I do not know, but it happened. Five of us had very light cases and one had a serious case that she has since recovered from, but it was worrying for a while there.

It’s been somewhat devastating to lose the momentum that we had going from the year prior to then close for that long a period of time. But we were able to get work so that we came back to a reasonable level where we could keep ourselves afloat. That is not the case with my friends who are solely dependent on the Broadway costume scene, and out of town shows. I mean really, no one had in their business plan that they would be without work for 15 to 19 months. This has been something that you could not imagine was going to happen. Even when the shutdown started, two weeks, three weeks, okay, but then it’s four weeks, two months, and then six months, and hey, we are all really hurting. This now, over a year, unimaginable.

Tell me about your ongoing work with the Costume Industry Coalition (CIC).
Several years ago, in 2012, a group of us who also work in the decorative arts, started an organization called the Artisans Guild of America to promote the tradition of the artisan workroom in America. It’s a disappearing animal, that kind of workroom. There are still a lot of craftspeople, but truly artisan workrooms are getting rare. The old Tiffany workshops kind of places are disappearing. So, we formed this organization and have held various educational events and sponsored shows. We’ve had meetings and supported each other. 

So when this pandemic crisis came along, those of us also in the decorative arts were better off than the people only in the costume arts. We reached out to them and offered to be their fiscal sponsor to allow them to raise money through our 501(c)(3), because they are fellow artisans. It wasn’t until this time of chaos that the costume artisans really came together as a group. They realized their common plight and really Brian [Blythe] is the hero of bringing the Coalition together. He and John [Kristiansen] have been the backbone of this whole movement, and they’re to be lauded. I am glad that the Artisans Guild has been a part of this because we don’t want to lose any of these companies or their workrooms. Sadly, some have closed their workrooms or will probably need to move to new spaces.

How do you see things moving forward?
We probably will never reach the goal that we have of saving every company. We will hopefully make it possible for people to struggle on a subsistence level, long enough to be there for when theaters reopen, but there are going to be some casualties. That is the sad part, but there shouldn’t be. We are kind of the forgotten corner of the industry. People don’t understand the vertical nature of the theater industry. That we all rely on the person next up or down the chain. 

The producers are sitting on the top of this pyramid and it’s all worked so well for so many years. They don’t even know how it works. Hopefully when shows start coming back they don’t discover that there are no shops left to build their costumes in New York, because then they’re not going to be able to have fittings, there’s going to be delays, and their fabrics will not available… It would just be a nightmare without the New York costume arts industry.  

You can learn more about Penn & Fletcher at www.pennandfletcher.com 

 

 

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