Getting into Character

Life is no drag for costumer and reigning royalty Carl Mack.

Syndey Byrd

During Carnival, and especially on Mardi Gras day itself, thousands of New Orleanians and playful visitors alike are masked or otherwise adorned in costumes born of fancy and fantasy, history and humor. When it comes time to hit the streets, the effort and creativity put into an individual costume is multiplied many times over by the mingling mass of friends and strangers to transform the French Quarter and other parts of New Orleans into one giant outdoor costume party. Everyone is invited, costumes are the order of the day and the only rule is to respect other people and their property.

The spectacle and fun of scenes like this make local entertainment professional, parade master, talent agent and events guru Carl Mack very happy. This Carnival season marks a new chapter in his career and the future of his company, Carl Mack Presents, and it’s one that may well make his impact on the city’s most dazzling celebration much greater.

This month, Mack and his partner Ty Johnson have opened a new costume and fashion design center in the French Quarter, relocating from their Faubourg Marigny headquarters to a much larger space at 221 Dauphine St. In addition to obtaining far more room in which to operate, Carl Mack Presents is also greatly expanding its offerings for the public. In fact, Mack and Johnson hope their new venture will become a place where visitors and locals can embrace the glee and grandeur of masquerading and more fully take part in the city’s interactive costuming culture.

“People can come in and really experience Mardi Gras, to see behind the scenes and become part of the excitement,” says Mack.

Business offices and workshops will occupy part of the building, while its public centerpiece is a showroom displaying hundreds of costumes available for rent and as inspiration for those interested in crafting all new outfits. It is an inventory Mack has built up over the years of providing costumed characters and wardrobes for convention parties and adding entertainment to local festivals. The diversity of styles is enough to rival the back lot costume warehouse of an old-time Hollywood studio.

“Each piece has a history and a significance, these are not fabricated in China and just thrown on your back,” says Mack.

The new location is also be the home base for another new venture from Mack called Bourbon Street Parades, which will put on second-line-style parades in the French Quarter. Mack hopes to establish a weekly parade each Saturday afternoon, which the public can join for a fee, donning costumes from the shop’s inventory.

Entertaining the Possibilities
A native of New York, Mack moved to New Orleans in 1984 to play music at the World’s Fair. He soon made the city his home and became a mover in the local performing arts and entertainment scene. He was an impresario for Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré and has filled roles including clown and mime, juggler, magician, sketch artist and one-man-band at locations and events across the area. He began representing other artists and performers, and soon started making costumes for them as well. Today, Carl Mack Presents produces hundreds of events a year, including convention entertainment and parades as well as halftime shows at New Orleans Hornets games.

A second part of the operation is led by Johnson, whose fashion design house Okereda has also moved into the new French Quarter space. Johnson says the business acts as an artistic hub to connect clients with a wide range of talented locals, including designers, seamstresses, sculptors, papier mâché artists, glassblowers and metal workers. They turn out everything from costumes and wedding dresses to centerpieces, set pieces and wardrobes for film projects.

Johnson is a self-taught garment maker, but he also brings other skills honed in past careers to the table. For instance, he credits his background in corporate training with helping him bridge a sometimes-perilous divide between creative artists and craftspeople and their potential clients.

“We have such a huge artists community here, it’s really a lot more than musicians. But like a lot of musicians you see, these artists don’t always have the business sense you need to get established and keep work coming,” Johnson says. “I see this hub as an incubator to help preserve part of the culture of this city.”

The Serious Business of Fancy Dress
Mack was last year’s Queen of the Mystic Krewe of Satyricon, one of the city’s gay Carnival krewes. Satyricon’s annual ball sees some of the most elaborate and glittering costumes to ever grace the stage of a Mardi Gras gathering, some of which come from Mack and Johnson’s own workshops. Their work has also won top honors at the Bourbon Street Awards, a showcase and contest for inventive – and often risqué – costumes held each Mardi Gras day on St. Ann Street in the French Quarter. Costuming is serious business for Mack and Johnson.

And it’s their business to share this passion and see that locals and visitors can get extravagantly turned-out for Mardi Gras, or even just a memorable party. Working with concierges, Mack’s company frequently brings wardrobes of costumes to downtown hotels to allow guests to peruse the collection and rent the right duds for the day. While such arrangements will continue, the new location also gives people a destination to visit and see the vast array of costumes available or come up with ideas for new creations.

It also will function as a design house for those who want both street fashions and costumes made to order, where professionals will work with clients to create one-of-a-kind pieces.

Johnson says the art of costuming and design is about much more than measurements and color schemes. Designing truly unique costumes in synch with the bearer’s personality takes an intimate approach. He describes the start of the process as akin to an interview, from which the skilled designer gets to the essence of the look and the experience the client wants to achieve with a particular costume.
“It comes together from there like the ingredients of a recipe. After we’ve spent time with you, I can tell if you’re a cookie, a muffin or a cupcake,” he says.

There will be educational workshops inviting the public into the studio to take a hands-on role in the costume design and production process. While these costumes are typically not finished in a single session, the client can get closely involved from the beginning, while professionals assist, finish the job or even send the partially completed product to them to finish at home with decorations, feathers, stones and the like once the foundation is ready.

“We make dreams come true. It you can fantasize it, and you can articulate it, we can create it,” says Johnson.

While the focus for the newly relocated business is now on Mardi Gras, Mack and Johnson are hoping people will take up the mantle of the city’s costume culture year-round. Fortunately the city’s calendar of holidays and celebrations provides plenty of opportunities. There’s the all-ages playground of Halloween and the masquerade frenzy of New Year’s Eve. Southern Decadence has its own gay masking traditions each Labor Day weekend and costumes designed for a hot day under the Louisiana sun have begun to emerge at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival each spring. On a smaller scale, locals may dress up for Bastille Day parades, St. Patrick’s Day and Twelfth Night, the Jan. 6 holiday that marks the beginning of Carnival season each year.

“People here have a vision of themselves that they want to be in costume. They’re not stuck on a character or celebrity they want to imitate,” says Mack. “They get something that comes from themselves.”

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