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Joy suits for costume season

New Orleans is a city that inspires artists and individuals to reinvent themselves, often in magical ways -- like New Orleans fashion designer Alicia Zenobia, who works from her home studio making sparkly bodysuits for joyous people, shiny second skins that may, in a way, be about reinventing ourselves. With Halloween just around the corner, we thought it a good time to talk about Alicia’s work, and how it transforms us.

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Designs by Alicia Zenobia (Photos: Jason Kruppa)


It all started, I understand, in a Carnival warehouse in mid city, at an event sponsored by NolaVie. Tell us a little bit about that.

It did. It was a warehouse called Studio Three … there were these beautiful pieces of Mardi Gras floats in there that were super inspiring and a huge stage surrounded by giant moons and big women with beautiful dresses on, and I thought, "I have to put ten of my friends in sparkly bodysuits and sunglasses and just have them dance up there and just be the life of the party." So that's what I did over there. Because that event was such a huge success, and there was such a great response to those bodysuits, it was really infectious. It really did add such an element of energy to this event that I realize this is more than just this event. This is a thing. This is, like, a very empowering thing for the people that are wearing it and a very joyously infectious thing for the people that are viewing it. So I started an Etsy store, and they started selling like crazy, especially for costuming events, like Halloween, Mardi Gras, and Burning Man. They're very, very popular for that kind of thing. But they're also great just to go out in and see what happens.

Is this street wear or is this costume closet attire?

I think, for the most part, people relegate it to the costume closet, but I do know quite a few people that wear these on a regular basis, just going out on the town or doing yoga in them or going running in them, running marathons in them, skiing in them, surfing in them. I mean, there's so many different things that you can do. They just add this extra element of alien bliss.

For those who have not seen your suits, describe them for us.

They are skintight Spandex, which is a little intimidating to some people, but they are covered in this beautiful, sparkly, holographic foil that just dazzles the eye, and it really – it seems counter intuitive, but it really makes everyone look really amazing. It has a sort of like full-body Spanx quality to it to begin with, so it's keeping everything nice and tight to the body. And the patterns that happen when you move around and light hits you -- it's just beautiful. It's like you're an exploding star.

It has a foil that's printed onto it that has kind of like a holographic shimmer to it. And I do have some just printed ones, too. I have, like, a black and white, very geometric shaped one with triangles on it and some snake prints and things like that, too, if people want to go for more of like an animalistic thing. They're good really bases for costumes, too, so sometimes people will be like, "I really need a cow print! I want to be a cow, but I want to accessorize it in the way that I want it to be," so they get the basic bodysuit in whatever print is appropriate, and then they add to it ears, tails, fur, whatever they like.

You describe your fashion wear as being joyous. Expand on that. What color is joy?

The color of joy is the rainbow, for sure. It is every color. It is as many colors as the eye can see and beyond. Joy is – let's see, it's an expression of your most authentic self, I think? I think it's an expression of maybe your highest self. It's like the word "yes" in action. It's so many things. It's something that not only makes the individual feel lifted, but it makes everyone else feel lifted around them. Joy is something to aspire to every day.

And you feel like we can find that in our clothing?

I think so. I think we can find it in so many facets of our life, but I find that, especially with regards to costumes, I think that it helps people that maybe are a little more shy or a little bit more stuck in a routine to sort of get out of that mindset and just project themselves just for a moment into a different way of thinking and being and moving and existing in this world. And I think it helps give our minds that so often get stuck in a rut – it helps give them an alternative to the norm.

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Designs by Alicia Zenobia (Photos: Jason Kruppa)

One of the things you've said about your clothing is that you're trying to solve conundrums of modern clothing and fashion

Well, I think specifically with that comment, I was referring to my swimwear, which I also offer. I think I speak for many women – it is incredibly difficult to find a bathing suit that fits right in all the right places and also makes me feel empowered, and so I spent a really, really long time developing this bikini bottom. That's a high-waisted bikini bottom with sort of a low cut in the back. It's kind of a vintage cut actually, and I spen months tweaking this pattern and trying it on different body shapes and sizes, and I think I really found a fit that flatters everyone. It's really uncanny. I think that's kind of a goal with most of the things that I make. I want them to be universally flattering and empowering for whoever wears them.

If you have solved the bathing suit dilemma for women, you have solved the world's worst problem. You can take on world peace next.

I'm up for the task. World peace next.

Talk a little bit about being an entrepreneur.

Sure. I think that New Orleans is such a magical city. I've never encountered a city where you literally can make any of your dreams come true with the right amount of effort. You know, everything good comes with a little bit of effort, but the beauty of the city is that it is so loving and it is so generous and it can carry you through difficult times so smoothly. And there's such a wealth of a community that wants to share and collaborate, as opposed to compete, which is quite often the case in bigger cities. So building a small business in New Orleans is a totally feasible thing. I've seen many of my friends do it very successfully alongside myself.

Where do your customers come from?

The customers come from all over the world, and that's another huge benefit of having Internet sales. I think primarily they're in the U.S. I get a lot of people from L.A., San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans, and I also have a huge following in Australia. They love Spandex in Australia. But I've had people from Turkey and Japan and Egypt and just everywhere. It's really nice to feel like these happy little joy suits are bouncing around all over the planet. It's really cool.

And where are you going from here? Where is this artistic journey going to take you?

I'm not entirely sure, but I'm entirely sure at the same time. I think that the same impetus behind the joy suit is taking me into maybe not such visual but definitely expressionistic pathways of healing, I think? I think the joy suit is a very healing tool, and I really want to go in a direction of incorporating other elements of healing, healing for myself, healing for others, into whatever the next manifestation of creativity is that I do. I'm not really sure what that's going to look like yet, but I think it's going to be probably equally as sparkly and fun.

Do you feel like you're exporting a little bit of New Orleans when you send your joy suits out into the world?

Oh, I know I am! I know I am, because I get so many emails back from customers being like, "What's happening in New Orleans? It's just churning out this magic everywhere." And I know I've had people come visit me from other cities that have bought these items and come – they want to see the studio. They get intrigued about the color and vibrancy of New Orleans. I mean, it already has such a mystique around it, but when they get an item from here, I think they feel the magic of New Orleans in the package itself.

And we're big into costuming. Is that part of the city that's inherent in what you do?

Absolutely. I think that this is such an amazing city because you can reinvent yourself every single day. And I think that costuming is a huge part of that, and it's not seen as hiding from yourself. It's seen as expressing yourself. And I love that about this place. And I do have quite a large local following, too, of people that come to me when they're desperate to start a costume or they want to pick my brain for ideas on where to go with their costume and how they're going to express this golden dragon that they're becoming or this amazing giant fish that they're going to become. There're so many permutations of costumes going on, and it's always exciting for me to see what people are doing and where they're taking this basic bodysuit, too.

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Designs by Alicia Zenobia (Photos: Jason Kruppa)

I would guess that your business is somewhat seasonal, with Halloween and with Mardi Gras, but in New Orleans, I tend to see people in costume every day.

That's very, very true. It's not unusual to see someone walking down the street in a bunny suit on a Tuesday morning. it's very typical to see people costuming all the time. Plus, there are so many social and cultural events that people costume for. It's almost like every event invitation almost has, like, a costume theme to it. I just recently had the 610 Stompers come in and purchase a whole bunch of what I call mankinis. They're very tight little European-style bathing suits, and they wanted me to put an applique of the number 610 on their butts, and they wore them for a cruise, and they just wowed everyone on the cruise and had a great time, you know? So that kind of thing happens all the time. It's great.

Can you tell us about some of the women who've worn your suits and what they have said about them?

I've had quite a few customers come to me pretty much trembling, being like, "I really, really, really want to wear something like this, but I just don't think that my body is going to work for this," and I really have to hold their hand and be like, "You know what? It's okay. I've got you. It's going to be fine." And I have people that think they're too heavy. Or their proportions are not correct. Or they've just had a baby, and they're adjusting to their new body. And all of them come back, and they say, "I really had a hard time believing that this was going to work out. I was fully expecting to return this item, but it is magnificent, and I feel so beautiful and confident," and part of that is the design. I pay a lot of attention to making sure that these designs are going to make people feel good about themselves, not bad. Who wants to wear something that makes them feel bad about themselves, you know? I have a lot of people that are post maternity looking for a bathing suit, and they're so self conscious about stretch marks and body shape. I feel like these – especially the bathing suits -- empower women so much. I hear a lot, "I never thought I would wear a bikini again, but I will wear your bikini because it makes me feel so beautiful and comfortable, and it makes me feel like I can show my body without showing more than I want to." "It makes me feel in control of my body," which I think is what most women are looking for, you know? To find some peace with their body. Because we do have so much negative input all the time, especially about women's bodies.

You have men, too.

Men have different challenges because men culturally are expected to wear one of five things. Their options are limited in a way that they often feel very uncomfortable wearing loud colors or something that is shiny or sparkly. So my work with men's clothing is an effort to allow them to feel comfortable in something that isn't just a button down shirt or a T-shirt or jeans or khakis. Because that's really the uniform that men are "allowed" to wear. It's really unfortunate because they have really interesting bodies, too, and they have things that they want to express as well.

It takes a confidence that a lot of us don't have.

Yeah. Just throw on a joy suit. It'll give you confidence. It will give it to you right there.

 

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at renee@nolavie.com.