Leila Breton is an original founder of The Sewcialists in 2013 and is the owner of Curvy Custom Bride. Much like the interview with founder Joost, there is ridiculousness and swearing… most edited out, but some still there for extra flavor. We talk a lot about being curvy, what it means to be curvy, boobs, some more boobs, boob cups… and keeping a safe space. Grab a cup of tea or coffee, it’s a long one. Enjoy.
Becky (B): We will start with a bit of background. When did you moved from Colombia to the United States? And, also… You’ve lived here in Portland, where I am, right? And then eventually Indianapolis…
Leila (L): I moved to the US from Columbia in 1992. And yes, I lived in Portland for 3 years!
B: Working in theatre, correct?
L:Yeah, I was working for, I don’t know if you know of Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre?
B:Yeah, funny enough, I do know them very well. I’ve gone to quite a few productions.
L: I worked and toured with them for a couple of years, then worked for Miracle Theatre, then I ended up moving so, yeah, I love Portland. I’ve lived in Northern California a bit and Chicago, working a lot in theatre.
B: Small world. We have gone to the Oregon Children’s Theatre to see Tears of Joy productions. They did a great production around the stories of Anansi. Their productions really draw you in — they’re so immersive.
L:Yes, they do Bunraku style, which is the gigantic head with a handle on the back it takes three people to manipulate one puppet, so the master puppeteer has the head and they do all of little things like turning the head, then the second does one arm, and then we’ll also assist the third who’s on feet.
What’s interesting to me is that all of that still affects how I how I function in the world now. When you’re on a puppet, especially when your face isn’t covered like the master puppeteer in Bunraku-style puppetry, you stare at the puppet the whole time. For example, the puppet looks down, the puppeteer still stares at the puppet so that when the audience looks at the puppeteer, they want to see what the puppeteer is looking at, and they get immersed in the action of the puppet. So, to this day, you may be interacting with me, and what I want is for you to interact with my work. That is how I built my business. I don’t want people to look at me; I want them look at this person in a custom garment who looks and feels amazing.
B:Oh, yes, that’s an excellent perspective. And you been sewing just about your whole life, and with your background in theatre, your Custom Curvy Sewing company was really a natural career pivot. How did you make that move?
L: Ha, it is a journey. Since I rebranded last fall…. It has been incredible. The title says it all. Custom Curvy Sewing says who I work with, who I WANT to work with, what I do, and it’s done. But it took a while. I had to keep getting a narrower focus on what I wanted to do, and keep refining, and narrowing more. Just by better narrowing my focus, and getting a clear brand, I increased my business 200%.
B:And your work with the theatre, and being a director in the theatre as well, helped with your business now?
L: Yes. As a director, I want to take it all in. I listen to all kinds of podcasts, business podcasts, and marketing podcasts… and I take them all in… and that’s the director in me. I take it all in and see all the perspectives. Then, I walk away, and decide whether or not it works for me. I have to then condense it all down for my business. Rebranding this last time, I really got it focused.
B:Well, then you turn and apply this to your client work, right? From a brand designer’s perspective, it is the job of a marketing team to take all of your personality, all your wants, desires, plans, dreams, and distill that down into a logo and website, with a marketing plan. With a good fit, they’ll come up with a brand name and logo that embodies the DNA of what you need to present. Same thing with a custom clothing client, right? They come in, and you use your expertise to help interpret the client. These folks come in with all of this “stuff they need”…
L:A lot of noise (laughs)
B:Yes! A lot of noise. A lot of hopes and dreams and insecurities. How do you listen to these folks, and then boil it down to give back to them something more condensed?
L:Clients usually repeat themselves without knowing it. So… they’ll say the same thing over and over again, and again I just absorb it. I just take it all in. I’m like a whale that just swallows it all.
I take in the feelings. The nuances between the breaths. The weird shit, like as they talk and I absorb, my thought process could be something like, “They really want a short dress, but they’re saying they want a long dress, but they keep talking about a short dress. Okay, they want a short dress… and they’re nervous to admit it. Okay. Nervous.”
It’s a lot of listening without wanting to respond. Sometimes there’s a lot of silence, and discomfort. They get to a point where they’ll start fumbling and then apologize for their ideas being “all over the place” or “I’m so scattered” and they’ll apologize for their bodies, and a lot of insecurities.
Under that, there’s an underlying concept for a dress, and when they’ve got it all out, you can draw their focus to start the dress. At that point, after exhausting all the thoughts and insecurities, they’ll usually just tell you what they want. Even if it’s just a concept, we can take that underlying concept and build on it.
For example, after all of that, they’re a bit exhausted and they may say something like, “I just want something simple, like just a strapless dress.” We can take a base of a strapless dress, and we built on top of it, like something that looks like it’s a flower coming out of like out of your waist, and of course pockets… (laughs) and so on.
It’s just really listeningand connecting with someone to a point where I can hear what they want. Sometimes, you know, I don’t get it. I did a skirt for somebody and the mockup didn’t go very well. It felt horrible because I was like, “WOW. I didn’t get it. I didn’t nail this…” So, you course-correct, and try to reconnect.
The first meeting is not just talking about the garment but really connecting on a personal level because that way, if we have any moments where we have to course-correct or I really just haven’t understood, we recognize it’s fixable, and the client will have faith in the fact that I re-direct the design. Your first meeting sets up the security so people can confide in you.
B: We need a lot of therapy to heal our connection to our bodies. You’re like a therapist… a fashion therapist… (at my bad jokes again, #sorrynotsorry)
L: Therapy for sure, yeah. It’s like fashion therapy but it’s not “fashion” because the thing is that once I recognized I’m not in it for the fashion, I’m not in it for the clothes or the wedding dress, or for any of that… Fashion is a means to an end.
B:That’s your medium.
L: Exactly. So, what I do is really hold space and listen, and we all breathe. People come in to a fitting and they may be running a little bit late and they’ve texted me, they’re flustered and nervous… so we just sit down. And we all breathe. It’s never about the clothes. Sure, they get something that they feel amazing in; that’s the mechanics of it. You know, they say, “Oh my God, this fits!”
B:(laughs) You kind of know what you’re doing.
L:Right! People will say, “Oh my God, this looks so good!” and I’m like, “I know, right?” (laughs)
You come in for a custom dress, you get what you want. A lot of times, you’ll get more than what you want, but that’s the whole idea.
Once I recognized it’s not about the clothes, it’s not about the fashion, that it’s kind of like this anti-fashion-fashion, THEN I could breathe. So now I can actually explain what I do. I don’t make clothes. I don’t make wedding dresses. I don’t make red carpet and gala gowns.
B:You’re still directing theatre!
L: Yeah, yeah! It’s about shifting perspective. That client with the skirt, we worked it out and she has this amazing skirt. She ended up telling me that that because of that one skirt, now she’s not stressed about going to weddings as a guest. That’s not about clothes.
B:How do you work with clients when they come with a lot of insecurities, and are having difficulty getting comfortable? And why is that?
L: Soooo I have a lot of theories… related, but first starting with the self-esteem: One of my theories is that there is so much low self-esteem is because of shopping. When you walk into a store and nothing fits you, don’t feel like you fit, you don’t feel like you belong, you’re not allowed to take up space in the world, because the world doesn’t accept you. So, I think that is where all of those apologies that people have, like, “Oh I’m so sorry, it’s just that I’m built funny” come from.
It’s funny that often, I have similar body types that come in. Usually I get bigger busted, kind-of “hourglass” people.
I think that people tend to think “curvy” means hourglassor that curvy means plus sizeor curvy means fator curvy means something other than nonstandard.
Curvy is a shortcut for “Oooh, nothing’s ever fit you before!”
I’ve had people call me before they come in say things like, “Oh yeah, I just got a wedding dress and I’m hoping you could alter it, but I don’t have boobs. Is that okay?”
It’s fascinating to me that somebody’s calling and asking me if it’s okay with me for me to alter a dress for somebody who doesn’t have, you know, bigger than an F-cup. They assume that’s what curvy means. I always tell them that’s totally fine; I work with all bodies.
I’ll get women who come in and ask if we can put bra cups in their dress… and I’ve actually stopped even buying bra cups because, as an example, I had a prom alteration that I did this year. She came in and she was really nervous because the dress didn’t fit, and she was wondering if we could add bra cups. So, we slowed down, and I said, “Okay let’s talk about this. If this is a trigger, by all means, let’s add bra cups, however you’re young enough and this is such a pivotal point in your life to go to prom. You’re going to show up and you want to start showing upthe way that you are. Can I recommend not doing bra cups?”
I told her I would do little side bust-darts, and the side bust-darts will look like they were intentional, and it will fit her. I encouraged her to try that first. When she came in, she thought I took it in all over because it looked so good. All I just did was that one alteration. What was so exciting was to watch her try on the dress and to watch her as she looked at herself and started to realize how beautiful she wasand realize she has a beautiful body the way it is.
The lesson is, you don’t want to look back on this on this photo of a prom or a wedding photo and see these big, broad cups in a dress, you should see YOU. That’s what custom clothing and alterations should do: make you see more YOU, not the clothing.
I build in time for people, so they can focus on themselves, not the dress. They worry about gaining or losing weight before the event, and really stress out and get in a panic over it. They’ll come for their pick-up and it won’t zip-up. When I tell them it’s ok, we’ll just adjust the dress…that’s whythe pick-up times are an hour. I have them hang out in a robe, and their whole body relaxes when they know I got this. I take it in or let it out, and I get back, zip it up and even though they knew I was altering it, they’re still surprised. This goes BACK to when you go into a store and nothing fits.
This is especially true for nonbinary and tran folks. You walk into a store, and you don’t belong. This affects society so much, and it’s a bigger issue. It’s not about stores, it’s not about shopping, it’s not about fashion, but it’s making a really awful impact on society and on future generations.
If we could get back to making our own clothes, then we can stop that damage.
B: And we see it carry over into making clothes. The sewing skillset isn’t “passed down” or taught anymore, so when people first learn to sew and find they don’t fit a pattern out of the box either, it can get really frustrating and defeating. The ease and cheapness of ready-to-wear has forced us to wear these blocks that we don’t fit. Then we go buy the blocks and enter into a brand-new learning curve. I want to tell people, “It’s OK! You will get there!”
L:It IS ok. When I was first learning to really fit clothes, I felt really jealous because I would see some people and they really could just CUT, SEW, FITS. I have to spend all of my time fitting, and I didn’t work on my finishing techniques for a long time because I just want it to FIT.
B:I want to get into that more with you, actually! In 2011, you wrote a guest piece called How To Adjust For The Bust. It’s such a great post. You even talked about how looking back from even that point in 2011, that a 34DD was not the right fit, and as you go into proper fit, you talk about how almost 8 years ago there wasn’t a lot of information available about bust-fitting. Now we are here in 2019, and you’re a professional tailor, tell me about the journey and where it is at now for you. Are you still on this journey and path?
L:Totally! It’s the same journey! It’s the same thing, but because I’ve worked with fitting boobs for so long, especially any bust size that is very drastic, or a more drastic waist-to-hip ratio… that’s exactly the journey.
I remember thinking, “Wow. Why doesn’t anything fit my boobs?!”
Even when I was grading for a bigger circumference, I didn’t understand when I was first starting that all I really needed was in the front, so now it’s interesting because I kind of like swung on the pendulum, where at one point I was doing a different sized back compared to the front, and then grading the armholes to match. That kind ofworks. This is a constant journey. I feel like anytime I go into working with somebody new I wonder, “What I’m gonna do with this one?” Because it’s never the same. What’s interesting is that every single client that I have, every person that comes in that’s new that I haven’t worked with, I learned something from working with them.
To stick with the examples of busts, and the prom dress or anything like that… what I was trying to do was make room for the boobs so that you could still see the person’s frame. If your dress or whatever goes straight from the fullest part of your chest down to your waist, you can’t see your body. I’ll see wedding dresses that have been altered and that air hasn’t been dealt with; they went around the boobs but left in air everywhere else. The bigger the difference between the full chest measurement and your body, the more you need to get rid of that air.
I tell my clients we need to get rid of the air and then we can actually see you,which is the whole point of you being here. We want to see you in your photos, not the air from your dress.
B:On your site’s “Experience” page, there’s this sentence that I love:
“Body shaming, food shaming, and gender shaming, among others, are not permitted in my studio. Curvy is not a size.”
Tell me about your inclusive business. You work on same-sex marriages, non-binary garments, all sizes, and you’re very upfront about the direction of your business.
L:It’s all very personal. I started working with people that had curves because I’m curvy. I got pissed off because I was dismissed when I didn’t like the lack of shaping on my wedding dress. They made me feel stupid.I was dismissed and I was told it’s fine. I’ve obviously held on to that and I feel like it’s fuel to my fire. I use that fire for my company.
It keeps happening. (laughs) I think I’m going through like a midlife crisis. (laughs)
B:No! I love it! We’re at the age where we’re mature enough to use it!
L: Right. Exactly. That’s the thing. I’m not just getting mad, I like to use it as fuel. I’ll stay up all night and work on something because I’m not gonna waste my feelings. For example, I’ve made a ton of dresses for myself and I did like a certain aesthetic for myself, but now I don’t. So, I woke up one morning deciding I want to wear men’s pants and jackets, and I don’t want to wear a dress. I understand the client that doesn’t feel seen, they may not want to wear what is expected of them, such as a dress for a wedding. I understand being dismissed. So I am started to get recognized as an inclusive designer. I’ve had clients call and ask in a very timid voice, “So I’m marrying my partner… and my partner is a woman too…” When my response is only, “Do want to come in for measurements & design together, or does one of you want to wait?” the relief in their voice is incredible. Once it’s known, and the word is out that you’re inclusive, word of mouth brings people in. They know I’m a safe space. I’ve recently added “inclusive fashion designer” to my Instagram and website too.
B: Oh, that’s so good. Instead of clients having to steel themselves — I can’t imagine having to go in for a wedding cake or a custom garment, or even that person-who-shall-not-be-named that refused wedding licenses! Saying upfront that you’re inclusive helps relieve the client of some trauma-prep.
L: Right, that’s the thing, the trauma is normalized. What if you don’t want to be masculine or feminine… what if you want to wear something that’s sort of wiggly, in the middle, with elements of both? Where do you go?
The people that I want to work withcome with a lot of baggage and have a lot of trauma because it makes me happy to watch people, in my mirror, say, “Wow. I look really good.”
I’ll never tell the client what I think of how they look. They’ll even ask me, but I refuse to tell them. I’ll tell them: It does not matter. It only matters that YOU are happy. My opinionof how you lookis none of your business. What’s important to me is how you feel. There are some people that really need to have that validation. There’s a lot of love language there; they need to knowhowtheyfeel.
I’ll make my clients work pretty hard, you know, if they come in and ask ME what I think they should wear. I remind them: I don’t get to tell you. I’ll design something based on what your likes and dislikes are, and I’ll design something that I think after talking to you for an hour that you might really enjoy wearing, but I’m not going to tell you what you’re wearing. I can’t do that to you.
B:That makes total sense. I feel a lot of the maturity on the journey of self-love comes from realizing no one is ever going to be you. They’ll never have to live being you, only you get to be you, therefore any opinion of you is irrelevant.
L:Yes! On my old Three Dresses blog, maybe like five or six years ago, I did a fake “Before & After” photo comparison to prove weight loss photos are staged. One of them was this lime green circle skirt that I should have never made for myself with a t-shirt and a wide belt. NOT a good look for Leila! I have a very short torso and I looked like boobs and shoes. Then I wore a dress that was a Star Trek uniform that I made for myself and put it side-by-side of a photo of me at the same weight to illustrate why before-and-after pictures are crock. But the point is, in the before photo, there were people who said I looked good. In my head, I’m thinking, “WOW. It doesn’t look good on me. You’re obviously lying or you’re incredibly out of touch.” (laughs) But see, that’s not the reason, is it? We put so much value on what other people think when we dress when ultimately, you don’t even know. You haven’t even asked yourself, “How am I feeling about this?”
What I’m trying to do is skew people to forget what others think. Stop asking, “Does this make my boobs look good?” or “Does this make my butt look fat?” Especially when buying something like a wedding dress — it tends to bring people together. Which is wonderful… but sometimes what ends up happening is the Maid of Honor or the mother will say, lovingly, “That looks so good on you…” but later, you’ve got it on, and you don’t feel like it looks good on you. You’re just so trained to listen to other people.
I want people that historically haven’t felt good in clothes to come into my studio work with me so that I could possibly give them a chance to feel good. I want them to walk down the street, chest is out, skies are blue, nothing can go wrong because when you’re not fidgeting and you actually feel very comfortable in your clothes, you get to show up. You get to actually speak and not fidget because the fidgeting is going to be read subconsciously as “I’m not comfortable” and that’ll make other people uncomfortable. When you feel good, you can actually have interactions with other people that are sincere.
B:Does it fuel your desire to keep working when you’re the front lines, retraining people to feel good? Maybe they don’t fit into a “standard size” but they need some sort of permission, they need your help to realize they do look good as themselves.
L:Yes! I’ve been reading this book called “Building a Story Brand” and what it talks about is that when you build a company, and I didn’t know this until after I rebranded and it’s basically validation for everything I’ve done so far, but what they talk about is that every company is a story that’s being told. And like any good story, you have a hero and the hero goes along and the hero has some kind of conflict, something that they need help with, and then along comes a guide. That guide helps the hero along the path so that the hero can actually have that success they’ve been working towards. In terms of business, the hero of the story is your client, your company’s work, or your work is as the guide.
As the guide, I remind the hero they sought ME out. They went through the trouble, maybe it was spending more money or maybe more time than they thought they normally would have, because they felt it was important for their journey. I’m just the guide.
Ultimately, they’re doing all the work. I can make them something, but they’re seeking me out, they’re sending me the message, they’re saying “I want to work with you.”
People that contact me and immediately ask “how much,” they’re not usually my clients. Sometimes they are, but a lot of times they’ll talk themselves into paying the price that I charge because they realize they would have spent more money on a ready-made plus alterations.
B:You know, I looked at your prices and I really didn’t think that they were all that high. I mean if you go to a boutique bridal shop, your prices are going to be the base price for a dress. Maybe that’s because of where I live, but I thought your prices are pretty low… I guess if someone goes to a mall bridal shop, it would be less, but there’s a catch with those too… so?
L: I mean, a bride will probably spend between $2000 and $2500 on a custom dress, including fabric. I can’t say that it will stay that cheap forever, but for now…
B:Wow. You heard it here first Indianapolis! Get in while you can!
Let’s move on to a more fun and fluffy subject, shall we? What is a bridal jumpsuit? I really want one. I’m not ever getting married (again), but I see this offering on your site, and I really need it. I’ll wear it grocery shopping.
L:On one hand, it’s kind of like wearing a dress, but better because basically you put one thing on you’re done. I love bridal jumpsuits because you can do whatever you want with the top, you’ve got pants connected and BAM! The only problem with the bridal jumpsuit is that to go to the bathroom you have to get completely naked, so if you’re not cool with that, don’t get a bridal jumpsuit, but I just love the idea of having something that’s an all-in-one piece.
I also like doing separates. I’m doing separates for a bride in September and she’s getting a corset top, a separate skirt, and a separate over-skirt. She wants to be able to wear them again, so that’s the way to do it, to just have everything disconnected. And I think everyone should have detachable trains. Who would want to dance with a bustle? So it should all be detachable. That way you can make the train as extra as you want, but then detach it for the reception and boogie away in your dress or jumpsuit.
B:I love that! It’s saving money really, because then you’re not dealing with the separate reception dress. It’s modular. The photos of the jumpsuit are amazing.
L: I did the gold jumpsuit at the beginning of last year and used it in the first the first bridal shoot that I had ever done, it was for this online publication kind of thing, and I reached out to the photographer to say thank you so much because they let me just design whatever I wanted for the for the shoot. I told her it was the first bridal photo shoot I’d ever done, and she told me it was fantastic and she was amazed it was my first. That validation was so great.
B: Good photographers are gold. I’ve worked with photographers before, mostly being a hand and PhotoShop production. I had this one woman come back to me after a boudoir shoot. Before she bought anything, she’s really wanted to see the original photo “before any PhotoShop was done to it.” She didn’t believe she really looked as good as she did in the photo. I pulled up the RAW file and proved to her I didn’t change anything about her. I removed a bit of gaffers tape that held this piece of tulle in place as she sat in a chair, and there was a smudge on the floor I took out, but I didn’t change anything on her body. She was just beaming when she was forced to see she was really as gorgeous as the photo.
L: I had a bride this year that I did alterations for her and she looked in the mirror, then she turned to me, and she said, “Now that it’s altered, and the dress is mine, when I’m looking in the mirror, I actually see the person that my fiancé sees.
I’m not sure I answered the question….
B: Um…what was the question? Oh, back to fluff & fun. Yes. (We get terribly distracted in our interviews — we get SUCH GREAT PEOPLE)
To continue from the jumpsuit, do you find that people are coming with you for alternative colors and that people want nontraditional things? Once they realize that not only do you fit “nonstandard” but you can do anything…
L: Yes! I love it. People ask all kinds of “Can you….” Like can you put dark grey underneath, can you put in pockets, can you make this part thinner, can you dip-dye… The other thing about our fast fashion world is that people sometimes don’t know to ask for something if they haven’t seen it, or if I don’t post it on social media, sometimes they don’t think I can do it. They always seem a bit shocked… “You can do that?” (laughs)
B:Ooooh, I love that dip-dyed dress….
L:She came to me and said she was having a backyard wedding, and she said she didn’t know what she wanted but she wanted to wear white, but she wanted some hot pink, “maybe on the hem.” Then she saw a photo of some other piece that I had worked on and asked “Can you…”
Because it was a gradual hi-lo hem, I ended up putting it on a dress form and actually dyeing it on the form… just going around, putting it on the hem, so it would like set. (laughs)
B: Oh, to get the dye even. Yeah. That’s incredible. Painful, and incredible! To come up with that method… you’ve got a lot of years of experience in life and theater and all of that combined to be able to come up with that kind of problem solving.
L:I think that’s the funnest part!
B:What is your big dream here? Where do you want to go next? What’s the 1 year and the 5 year plan?
L:I have this inner feeling that this company is at some point once I get it to a certain point it’ll be taken over by somebody else who still believes in the same values that I have but that they’re going to be the people that take it to that next point where it needs to be to reach more people. Right now, I put down all of the groundwork. I like to start shit. This is my newest shit. So I started, like in Portland, with the Miracle Theatre, I started the branch that did all theater in Spanish because they didn’t have that and that’s still going. I started a baby-wearing group in Vermont, I helped start Sewcialists, and I feel this company is going to outgrow me, or I hope transcend me, you know?
B:That is your is that your pie-in-the sky-dream? For it to scale so that it will become an entity of its own?
L:Yes, because if this company can’t run without me then I haven’t built it correctly. The company has to speak for itself, it has to generate itself. That’s part of why I run it the way I do. My clients end up being my friends and we’ll text each other every single holiday and I get cards from clients as friends, not as previous clients. I run this business from my heart. I want people to say to their friends, “You have to go to Curvy Custom” like it is transcending the individual, me, into a methodology.
I feel very vulnerable saying this out loud because I’ve only said it once, but what I want to do is get into doing speaking engagements. I want to get into talking about fashion not being fashion, talking about the things that I talk about with my clients, maybe consult with other bridal shops or other custom shops.
Maybe if I say it out-loud more, it will come true. Manifest what I want for Curvy Custom and myself. I don’t want my clients to settle, and I don’t want that for myself. I want to keep reaching. I’ve worked hard to create this positive space for myself and my clients. I’ve worked hard to shut down negativity. I’ve shut down moms, best friends, aunts in my studio – I’ve told them they don’t get to talk negatively to my clients. I’ve made this space for them, myself, and I want it to be more.
I think there needs to be more spaces. I want to help change and up-root the wedding industry. I might piss some people off along the way!
B:Do it. Start a revolution. Change the industry.
And, lastly, as you were a founder, how do you feel about the Sewcialists as it is now?
L: I like to start shit and I like to see it take off! I’m so proud of it. I think if Gillian hadn’t stepped in and rebuilt it, it would not be what it is today. I remember, she said she wanted to restart it, and she said it so casually… I love it. I threw out that word, years ago, and look at what it’s become. I love it when things go beyond anything that I could have imagined because that’s when it’s a true collaboration. That’s when it has a life of its own.
The Sewcialist Interviews are a chance to hear more from some of the leaders in our sewing community. We will search out pattern makers, fabric designers, teachers, designers, and all-around awesome people that embody the Sewcialist spirit, and bring you interviews to help inspire your sewing journey.
(All images property and courtesy of Leila Breton and Curvy Custom Bride)
Author Bio: Becky Jo Johnson is a blur in various places, but Instagram is usually a safe bet.