“How’d You Get That Job?” is a new series we’re kicking off at Indy Maven where we chat with women who have some of the most unique and fascinating jobs you’ve ever heard of.
This month, we want to be Jess West when we grow up. She gets paid to use her imagination (and technical skills) to create some of the most memorable costumes you’ll ever see, anywhere. Like a 7-foot, 6-inch Chewbacca covered in more than 850 feet of Black Essence hair extensions. And the robes that Aaron Judge fans wear in the “Judge’s Chambers” section at Yankee Stadium.
Back when she was working to “gain experience,” she charged $30 a costume. This Halloween, she’s creating her most expensive costume to date: a $7,000 Black Mage-inspired get-up from “Final Fantasy,” complete with lights, fog machine, and sound system. Working out of her Garfield Park studio, West sells 15 to 25 costumes each Halloween, with prices now starting at $500. Her roster of clients includes exotic dancers, the New York Yankees, Gen-Con attendees, and Maxim. She even makes wedding dresses.
“Honestly, sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind myself this is real,” she said.
You made your first costume in sixth grade for Halloween. What was it?
I made the most accurate version of Poison Ivy (from Batman) that a 12-year-old could. I put together a green bodysuit decorated with ivy leaves from a dollar store, custom-made foam mask that covered my eyes, and even colored my hair red. I won the costume contest. I was HOOKED!
What moment or experience gave you the biggest confidence boost, where you thought, “Yeah, I got this”?
The look on customers’ faces as they gaze into the mirror for the first time, wearing one of my creations. Also, having a cover story in the IndyStar was my first big media boost. When MTV and the New York Yankees called, I was shocked and honored simultaneously.
One of your teachers at fashion merchandising school criticized your work as “too elaborate.” Was that useful criticism or not?
I still laugh at the thought of my teacher’s words. I will forever believe the bigger and louder, the better. That’s why people come to me. My motto is, “I Can Make Anything.”
“My motto is, ‘I Can Make Anything.'”
Was there a time where you struggled in this career and wondered if you were good enough, or if you were doing the right thing?
I’ve always felt that I have room for improvement but never doubted my skills. I have known since I was a child, that this is what I was born to do. I am a maker, creator, and artist to my core.
Of course there were times when money was tight. I used this as a motivator to push harder when my back was against the wall. Take more orders, learn more skills, push the “I Can Make Anything” motto until I succeed.
What kind of schooling would you recommend to people interested in costume design?
I know it might sound crazy, but I don’t feel you need a degree. I decided to gain a degree to learn about the business side of the fashion industry. I would suggest taking an internship or apprenticeship under an established designer. Hands-on experience is the most powerful learning tool.
Most frustrating part of your job?
Sourcing materials quickly. I am able to find tons of items locally after years of learning “who has what.” But what I wouldn’t give to live down the street from the Garment District in New York!
Have you or your customers ever had a serious wardrobe malfunction?
No wardrobe malfunctions! I create the highest-quality items that I possibly can. I can think of a funny time when I was climbing the stage at the Murat for a costume contest, wearing a 14-foot werewolf costume, and almost took a fall. The crowd gasped and I almost lost it. I walked out of the wolf as Little Red Riding Hood. The crowd went crazy! I have a special thing I do called transition costumes—starting as one character and transforming into another on stage.
What costume are you most proud of?
I’m proud of ALL my costumes. However, I hold a special place in my heart for a costume from last Halloween, titled “Seven Years of Bad Luck.” I made a half-man/woman constructed of thousands of broken mirrors with holographic faces behind them. It looks as if there are souls trapped behind the broken mirrors. It is my version of a classic superstition. Also, love my Chewy as he put me on the map in Indianapolis.
If I want to be you when I grow up, what’s the best advice you’d give me?
Don’t be afraid to take the path less traveled and do something outside the box, because it will always pay off the way it was intended to.
Images provided by Jess West. For more information on Jess West visit www.jesswestcostumes.com.