WHILE most of us are busy trying not to think about Christmas until at least December, one Christchurch-based firm has been knee-deep in sequins and tulle since February.
Behind the doors of a simple industrial unit in Christchurch, Carry on Costumes is a small, family business – an Aladdin’s cave of costumes for some of the best-loved pantomimes and West End musicals.
Credits for the business include the outrageous Panto dame outfit for comedian Paul O’Grady as Window Twanky in Aladdin, alongside other show-stoppers such as Cinderella with Christopher Biggins and Return of Santa with Roy Barraclough at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre.
Another recent highlight was the stunning costumes for Bournemouth-based producer Michael Rose’s production of Elf at London’s Dominion Theatre, which saw Carry on Costumes make its West End debut.
Founder Sue Simmerling has over 40 years’ experience as a costumier.
Now 65, she went to fashion college straight from school, despite her maths teacher telling her she’d be ‘married by the time she was 17 so a career choice didn’t matter’.
“I studied for five years for a degree in Fashon and Design but the real apprenticeship begins when you start in a workroom, working from the bottom up by just picking up pins,” she said.
“I couldn’t afford to live in London – seamstress wages are not very good – so I started my own fashion clothing brand along with a fellow student.
“We sold into small, independent boutiques in Dorset and Hampshire, of which there were many at that time.”
A chance conversation with a neighbour led to Sue meeting the cruise director of P&O’s Canberra who wanted to launch on-board shows.
At 21, Sue packed her sewing machine and travelled with the ship, as one of the first ever cruise costumiers.
“I had no workroom,” she said. “I had to cut out cloth on the floor of my cabin, sometimes in a force 10 gale.”
The small-scale soiree of songs from My Fair Lady featured Sue’s beautiful Ascot gavotte costumes and was a palpable hit.
Sue found herself in great demand and the productions went from a few songs to full-scale shows across the P&O fleet.
Fast forward and 38 years later, back on dry land, Sue continues to make costumes for many cruise companies through Carry on Costumes.
Now, daughters Ellie and Carly work alongside her and long-time friend Kate Richards runs the admin side.
The business also works for TV, including BBC, ITV, Sky, Disney and music channels, making costumes for pop videos, game shows and adverts.
It also produces hire costumes for amateur theatre groups across the country, including the incredible outfits featured in Priscilla Queen of the Desert by BBLOC (Bournemouth and Boscombe Light Operatic).
And if that isn’t enough to keep them busy, this talented team run another business – the Glad Rags Production Company.
Launched in 2012, Glad Rags produces a Christmas Spectacular at Christchurch’s Regent Centre each year.
Aside from the script, everything from the choreography to the musical direction and of course the costumes are created by Sue and her daughters, who even appear in the show.
“We started these Spectaculars 10 years ago because we wanted to do a bespoke project that we have complete control over,” Sue said.
“We’re lucky enough to work for some glamorous shows with big stars but I am most proud of the Spectaculars which feature local performers.
“We get families coming year after year and it’s lovely that the Spectacular has become part of their festive traditions. It’s a crazy time but we love it and have so much fun.”