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Las Vegas designers' fashions transform on the Circus Couture runway

By Janna Karel

When Dustin Isom steps out on stage, he’s dressed in an expensive, well-tailored suit. He looks handsome, professional. He may even be the host of the show. He sharply yanks on his necktie, and his coat falls away from his shoulders. With a twirl, his suit transforms into an iridescent open-torsoed evening gown. Shimmery lace and glittering crystals flow down his body in an ombre of pastels as he continues down the catwalk. The transforming garment he wears is one of 10 created by local designers for this year’s Circus Couture fundraising event.

The annual fashion and circus show features the talents of several aerialists, artists, fashion designers and technicians who work for shows on the Las Vegas Strip. Ten local designers are volunteering their time, efforts and resources to create one-of-a-kind looks to fit the theme of “Metamorphose.” “This year, they all need to be reveal garments,” Circus Couture co-artistic director Ross Gibson says. “It’s the appearance of one, then there’s a quick release and it turns into another garment. They’re quite breathtaking.” The event benefits Cure 4 The Kids, a local childhood cancer treatment center that helps families of children who are uninsured, underinsured or unable to pay for treatment. It was held Thursday night at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel. Zachary Paugh first became inspired by costume design as a kid when he watched “Star Wars.”

“I was inspired by Queen Amidala,” he says. “ And so my goal through costumes and being involved with this is having that kid look at something that someone has designed and be like, ‘Wow, I really can wear whatever I want to wear, I can be inspired by whatever I want to be.’ ” In his fourth year with Circus Couture, Paugh volunteers as fashion director, tasked with facilitating the creativity of the 10 collaborative designers. “My goal is to give young artists the space to create something, something wearable, something avant-garde, something couture.” For three months, these five designers have been planning, designing and constructing their quick-change garments.

Levi Miles

Levi Miles, a costume staffer for “Criss Angel Mindfreak,” was inspired to create a dress for a man after seeing Billy Porter in a tuxedo dress at this year’s Emmys. “I really like how Billy Porter is a masculine man, but he’s wearing these clothes that are traditionally feminine,” Miles says. “And then when I met Dustin I was like, ‘He’s perfect.’ He has that masculine side and that feminine side.”

Miles’ design largely came together through small coincidences. He lucked into meeting Isom weeks before needing a model and connected with a friend who had an excess of leftover Swarovski crystals. “We all know each other,” Miles says. “Literally all of Zach’s ‘Ka’ friends are involved in this and if you need help, they can help you. We all support each other.”

Jeffrey deBarathy

For Jeffrey deBarathy, a bright and cloudy day always has a chance of rain — and it’s up to you how you weather the storm. His garment, which he calls “Partly Cloudy With a Chance of Rain,” starts as a sky blue Cinderella-style ball gown. A printed fabric of a cloudy sky is shaped into pleated layers and puffy sleeves. As deBarathy’s model moves down the runway, the storm emerges and she activates the dress, triggering 10 umbrellas that open around the dress — transforming the dreamy silhouette into armor. “I wanted the shape to be kind of whimsical and fun and kind of resembled clouds to me,” deBarathy says. “And then it ties in with the pleating and ruffles on the umbrellas.”

deBarathy, a dance captain for “Zombie Burlesque,” has designed costumes with his design partner Georgia Richardson for events and stage productions for over 15 years. They have previously created looks for Circus Couture inspired by dream catchers and the months of the year. “Especially with what these kids are going through, it’s important to remember that you can weather the storm.”

Cherese Dawson

When Cherese Dawson first learned of this year’s theme, she first meditated on the word’s meaning. “With ‘metamorphosis,’ a lot of people tend to think it’s about building to something,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean something bigger and better. Sometimes it’s something subtle, like peeling the layers away.” Dawson chose to explore the idea of deconstruction in her transformative look.

In her first year designing for the event, Dawson, who works in wardrobe for “Ka,” fitted her bodysuit within a millimeter of her model’s body. Her model first steps out in a high-fashion white and red gown with a stylized hat. After she whips off the hat, the sleeves come down to reveal a mesh second skin with skeleton bone appliques and an LED glowing heart. “Basically when it comes down to it, we all human beingsword missing here?, we will have hearts, we will have souls, and this is basically just a projection of that,” she says.

Tawney B

By now, Tawney B’s intricately-knitted gown is decomposing. She makes her fashions with balloons — the same balloons a clown might contort into a dog or rocket ship at a child’s birthday party. And so, the meticulously woven white overcoat she spent 12 hours on is now deflated and shrunken.

“It’s sort of like you’re birthing it and then you’re there for the entire span of its life,” the designer says. “And I think there’s something really beautiful about temporary art. It feels so alive.” Dancers emerge with helium balloons as her look floats down the runway, first as a monochromatic overcoat of white. When the model sheds the outer layer, a structure of bright, bulbous balloons comprises the reveal garment. “At first I was terrified because I have to make two dresses,” she says. “But I like the challenge of it.”

Katie Wicker

When Katie Wicker and her design partner Rain Bidleras began, they first figured out how the transformation would work. “We wanted a transformation that wasn’t going to just be a reveal, we didn’t want something that just came off and fell to the floor,” Wicker says. “We wanted it to transform into something else.” They started with the idea of a skirt that unfastens and changes into a feathered cape. From there, they devised a magnetized bodice that unwraps to reveal a new print.

“We thought ‘What’s related to feathers?’ And we thought of the Ugly Duckling changing into a swan,” Wicker says. “And then we thought that if she has a cape, what if she’s a queen? Like a warrior queen?” Their design begins as an all-grey ensemble made with a pre-crinkled silk they found in L.A.’s fashion district. In one motion, their model unfastens the skirt, inverts? is this the right word? it behind her back and dramatically swirls the cream and gold cape over her shoulders to transform from a princess to a warrior.

Las Vegas designers’ fashions transform on the Circus Couture runway

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