Louise DiLenge: Want Cleavage? She Can Help

Louise DiLenge's small office at Teatro ZinZanni resembles a hobbit hole, if that hobbit were fond of European fashion magazines, costume sketches, iridescent beads, and peacock feathers. Shelves hold boxes of bridal veils and rhinestone tiaras. In the corner, from the branches of a potted tree, hang colorful hats and masks. The most unusual presence, however, comes in the form of the two rhinestone-collar-clad French bulldogs, Oli and Oona (the latter named after Charlie Chaplin's scandalously young fourth wife). They snore soundly under the desk, while a canary named Punkin chirps incessantly from his cage by the window. A comfortable workspace is key for TZZ's "Contessa DeLuxe," who spends more time here than she does at home, creating and overseeing the performers' unique costumes. For the company's ongoing new production, Radio Free Starlight, she has created a gorgeous line from a multitude of fabrics. Showing me a dominatrix-inspired ensemble, she explains it was important to find metallic leather "more yellow than gold" and that she used "navy instead of true blue, maroon instead of true red." Such seemingly frivolous issues are actually imperative, given the nontraditional nature of TZZ performances. The cast is always in close contact with the audience, performing acrobatics, comedy, and music amid the dining tables. Unlike most stage wardrobes, their garments are examined up close, as at a dinner party. "I put in as much detail as possible," DiLenge says. "I'm fixated on the buttons, the trims, the finished stitching. I'm always wondering if there's time to add another layer of lace or rhinestones." Making the process more difficult, most members of TZZ's international casts fly in a mere week before a show starts, giving DiLenge and her six to eight stitchers little time to do fittings and transform fanciful concepts into actual clothing. TZZ's chief costumer since its founding in 1998, DiLenge knows she's in an enviable position compared to the countless wannabe designers out there. The Wapato, Wash., native is self-taught, having dropped out of the University of Washington after only a quarter. "I am not the best example for young people," she admits. "But it was the Summer of Love [i.e., 1967]. I knew there had to be something outside the valley, and college wasn't offering it to me." DiLenge hitchhiked to California, and upon her return to Seattle moved into a Capitol Hill home with 15 drag queens. "They taught me all their tricks," she laughs. "That was my college education. I can put cleavage on a log. I can make smooth skin out of stubble. Men who try to look like women are masters when it comes to creating an illusion." Her greatest inspiration is the late David Xavier Harrigan, a former Catholic schoolboy better known as his alter ego Tomata du Plenty, who founded the Seattle counterculture troupe Ze Whiz Kidz and later became the singer for the synth-punk band the Screamers. "He was fearless," she recalls. "He really taught me to come out of my shell and go after what I wanted." What she wanted was to perform. So the small-town girl became a cabaret singer, performing in underground clubs like the defunct Submarine Room, often alongside Ze Whiz Kidz. It was during one of their performances that she met Norman Langill and was invited to help establish what would become one of the city's most esteemed nonprofit arts organizations, One Reel, in 1972. In the beginning, the operation was small, and she sang on a makeshift stage on the back of a Ford Model A pickup truck at county fairs and in public parks. From there, she developed an interest in working behind the scenes, and began to create costumes for the other performers. When One Reel devised TZZ, she became Contessa DeLuxe. It's hard to believe that DiLenge has been central to our city's arts scene for almost 40 years. "I started when I was 6," she jokes, but the truth is that she still has as much energy as her chatty canary. "I have more ideas than I do time," she says. "I will do this until I run out of gas or break." ehobart@seattleweekly.com

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