So you wanna be a corset maker?
I get so many emails and students who say that they want to be a full time corset maker and whilst I can really really understand why - after all I used to be that person - I also have the benefit of knowing just how hard it is to get to a place where you can actually earn a living from corsetry and corset making. You need dedication and passion by the bucket load, and financial support - either a day job, or an understanding partner or parent.
|image credit: Roger Askew|
At this point I should make a disclaimer: There are certain influencers in the corsetry and costume online community who make it sound easy, who tell tales of their remarkable success as an "artist", or who hold others up as a shining beacon of success, but you should look very closely at what these people are actually selling - how they make a living. You'll find that they may well be an artist of sorts, but what they are selling is content. Nothing else. And the shining beacons of success - what are they selling and how do they really do it? Never judge a book by it's cover. Many of these shining beacons of success live or work in rent free or highly subsidised spaces or have other jobs they don't talk about.
It IS possible to make a living from corsetry - and a good living at that, and I know several who do so very successfully but they are far too busy making corsets to be boasting about how successfull they are. So if you want to go down this path, making and selling your corsets and costumes successfully, then read on.
These little waspies had a breif show at Coco-de-Mer
image credit: Threnody in Velvet, photographer and model
I had an email last week from someone expressing their wish to make a business who's front product was corsetry but they wanted to know, having been unable to find an 'expert' to help them, if it was really necessary to learn how to make a corset - thereby removing all 'joy' from the proposed enterprise, and if not, then would it be possible to find a 'seamstress' to do the work - a seamstress who could not only cut the specific designs in this person's head, but make them up too. At a low cost.
I asked this person to ask themselves the following questions:
- Why do you want to start a business selling something you know nothing about and have (apparently) no passion for or experience in?
- If it is simply to make money, why do you think you cannot find any skilled 'experts' or 'seamstresses' to help you?
- If you are not willing to spend the time learning about corsetry, how can you expect to make a viable business with corsets as your main product?
Lets first start with the definition of what a corset is. This question came up during a small get together in the Fellows Room at The Oxford Conference of Corsetry in 2015. At the table were several professional corsetieres including me, Autumn Adamme, the Godmother of Modern Corsetry, and Mr Pearl himself. Yes THAT Mr Pearl.
Mr Pearl watches Immodesty Blaize perform at OCOC15
Image credit: Julia Bremble
The conversation was very short because we were all in agreement about what a corset is. It is a garment designed to modify the body into a particular shape, by application of gradual pressure. You cannot have a corset without two vital components, that is the busk at the front, and the lacing at the back. Those two things alone, create the pressure and the support needed to reduce the waist by more than 2 inches and up to 10 (or more in some cases!). If this isn't the sort of garment you want to make a living by, then you can probably skip to the end.
Lacing is a vital part of corsetry, it's what enables
It's not all about the lacing though. In order to acheive the desired shape from wearing a corset, the pattern must be good. The more extreme the shape of the corset, the better the pattern must be. There are so many variables that are beyond the scope of this blog post. Suffice to say that it takes an extraordinary amount of skill and study to become a corsetiere who can create amazing shapes. It's a life's work. The more you know about corsetry, the more there IS to know.
Corset patterns are complicated because you
The next question is, What is the difference between a corset maker and a corsetiere? I have been quite militant about this for years, and most corsetieres agree, but I was heartened a couple of years ago to hear the very same definition from iconic corset model Bex Paul when she visited my studio during a fitting with our mutual friend and collegue, Immodesty Blaize. Bex was the muse and model for Velda Lauder, another trail blazer for modern corsetry and the inspiration of many a modern maker. Bex said that "A corset maker is a person who can make a corset from a pattern. A corsetiere, is someone who can make the pattern." Which brings me to my next statement which is: A corsetiere can be a seamstress, but it is rare to find a seamstress who is also a corsetiere.
Model Bex Paul in an antique pattern corset by me.
image credit: Julia Bremble
In other words, a corsetiere is a highly skilled artisan who has spent years learning their craft; No matter how different their work or style is, they all, without exception, have one thing in common and that is that they are all driven by their own obsessional passion for corsetry. Passion = joy. If you cannot see joy in this work before you have even started it, then this journey is not for you.
To be successful in business, you must first have passion. You can’t simply go on a beginners corsetry course and then expect to find your fortune immediately. It doesn’t work like that however, there's an extra ingredient, Talent, which counts toward the final product. Talent comes in where you can see that amount of experience doesn't define how good you are or can be. There are corsetiere's who have been working for 20 years or more who are not producing work as good as some who are newer to the craft.
Most modern corsetieres - infact I would go so far as to say ALL of the corsetieres working today, including Mr Pearl, are self taught. There was simply no industry to learn from after the early 1980's and if you think you're going to learn corsetry at college, you've got another thing coming. The last professional corsetiere from 'back in the day' in the UK, was Iris Norris. Long deceased. Educational institutions don't have the specialist knowledge required to teach proper corsetry because of all the bad press corsets received after they went out of fashion. "Corsets kill you", "Corsets squeeze your organs" etc., etc., etc., Costume corsetry is corsetry which is designed to LOOK authentic. It doesn't have to work. I've had countless frustrated contour, costume and fashion students through my doors telling me that their teachers just don't 'get it'.
The real nitty gritty of making corsets for a living, is the business side of things. Being a business person is a very tough job and it isn't for everyone. There are moments of intense joy and satisfaction, but those moments come at a price, and that price is a sometimes unbearable amount of strain caused by blood, sweat, and many many tears of frustration and angst! I remember the nights and nights of anguish where after my day job, and after all the household chores were done and dusted, and my young son was in bed, I would pore over my patterns long into the night, my already tired brain aching with confusion, tears coming from frustration, and the fear that I would never ever be able to make a corset pattern, let alone understand how the damn things work!! But I kept at it. And I practiced and practiced and practiced. Then I started Sew Curvy armed with a tiny amount of knowledge that I wanted to pass on to others who were finding it hard to find help - because there was so little in those days. Then I wrote a book which went a long way towards my understanding of corsetry, but still I did not call myself a corsetiere. It wasn't until I started teaching corsetry that I began to understand it so fully. I learned more than I taught and slowly I found it all slotting into place.
From zero to stage with icons in little over 10 years.
images from Instagram
Great! I got there in the end. I can whip up a fantasticly complex corset pattern in less than half an hour these days and I have a very select list of 'VIP' clients. But knowing how to do something, and doing it well, is not the same as succeding in business with that thing. Yes, the joy can be removed but it isn't the corset making that causes the lack of joy. It's the marketing, the constant hustling, the social media, the disappointments of not making the sale, the balancing of the books, the admin, the sample making, the model wrangling, the photographer finding, the financial outlay - all the grinding daily tasks and that's not even counting the fact that once you've got so far that your work is 'out there', people start copying your designs and that in itself leads to a whole other level of joyless hell :/
So here is my comprehensive check list for prospective professional corset makers and corsetieres
1) Know your subject. Unless you have a bottomless Kardashian style fountain of money, nobody is going to do this for you. Invest in learning - you'll need time and patience - it's possible to teach yourself but it takes dedication, passion, and obsession with details. If you can go on a course to start you off, do so. See my blog post about picking the right corsetry course HERE. Remember, you can't be a Formula One driver without first learning how to drive.
2) Professional corset making is what it says on the tin - it should look like it's been made in a factory! Ridiculous comparison I know, but it's what most people measure a professional standard by. Your corset must look simple and flawless in design even if it's the most complex thing you've ever made in your life.
3) Get good at marketing and branding. The most successful corsetieres aren't necessarily the best or most talented corset makers, but they are the best at social media and marketing their brand. They also have a healthy respect for their worth and their products' worth. ie: They charge properly. Be prepared to wear all the hats you can think of; Pattern cutter, Seamstress, Stylist, Creative Director, Professional Liaison officer (organising photoshoots), Venue Scout, Talent Scout, Social Media Expert, Branding Expert, Sales and Marketing Manager, Customer Services Manager, etc., etc., etc.,
4) Don't under sell yourself, even if you think your work isn't quite as good as the next corsetiere. It helps nobody - least of all yourself - if you sell your goods for cheap outside of your friends circle. What this leads to is stagnation. If you don't make enough from each sale, you can't afford better fabrics and materials or the time to make more samples and practice to get yourself better. Not only that, you make it harder for other makers who are trying to make a living. If you don't charge enough for your work, the work becomes a chore. If you don't value your own work, nobody else will. And you'll be undercutting other indepentant businesses for no reason other than exploiting yourself!
5) Don't oversell yourself either. Designer prices need a designer reputation to go with them. Look at your competition, study what they are doing. Don't copy, but take notes. If they are busy, there's a reason. They're doing something right. Pricing is part of that.
6) Don't feel ashamed about having a 'day job' at least to begin with. Infact keep your job until you start losing money by being employed by someone else! There's nothing more crushing to creativity than worrying about how you're going to pay the bills with only one etsy sale a month.
7) Invest in yourself and your business. If there are professionals selling courses, or information, select which would be best for your business, and invest - there's lots of information out there mostly on Patreon these days. Invest in good materials, invest in quality trims, invest in fancy lace. Don't see these expenses as frivoloties. You are investing in your now and future business. You are building a brand.
8) Make your shape and style - this is your brand and your USP. Its what will draw your customers to you. The best corsetieres' work is identifyable immediately without a caption. That's what you're aiming for.
9) Never. But NEVER, ask a corsetiere to be your low paid seamstress so that you can build a brand on their back. It's just not going to happen and it's extremely insulting.
10) Never copy another designer. Be inspired yes. But take that inspiration, and make your own version. Community is important in any industry and disresepecting your collegues is a recipie for disaster.
11) Finally ask yourself the question: What do you actually want from running your own corsetry business? It better not be money! I've noticed, especially in the digital age that as soon as anybody finds enjoyment in a hobby or is good at something, their friends, family, collegues all say the same thing "You should make a business doing that" ... Honestly WHY? Running a business can be a joyful wonderful thing but it isn't for everyone. It can give you the highest most exhilerating highs but also the stressiest most debilitating of lows too ... Do you want to ruin your beloved hobby by monetising it? Or would you rather do a job where you dont have to manifest money from literally nothing but your own wits and skill, have paid leave and sick time, and make your hobby a release from the day job ? Sometimes I myself wonder and i've been at it for a long time now. Having said that, those thoughts only pass fleetingly through my mind once in a while. Despite the difficulties I can honestly say that I was made to be self employed. It's been the most rewarding and successful part of my life and I wouldn't go back for anything.
Sew Curvy HQ!