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RicRACK: Friends still sewing with repurposed materials

April Clark and Alison Parker measure samples for their leather handbag design class.

April Clark and Alison Parker measure samples for their upcoming leather handbag design class.

Alison Parker and April Clark were best friends more than 30 years ago in high school in Virginia where they shared common interests in clothes and fashion. As teenagers, they would shop in thrift stores to find awesome vintage clothing and accessories. (Alison wore a 1950s, off-the-shoulder wedding dress to her senior prom.)

All these many years later - after April’s New York career in technical handbag design for Coach and Kate Spade, and Alison’s stint managing elaborate costumes for Cirque du Soleil performers and movie stars - they are together on St. Claude Avenue, teaming up to turn New Orleans into the costume-making capital of the universe.

The girlfriends stayed in touch and did volunteer work together over several New Year’s - at an orphanage in Aruba, an animal shelter in Puerto Rico, a foster home in Grand Cayman and a Spider monkey refuge in Mexico.

“Volunteerism is something we feel lucky to be a part of and many of our friends and professional contacts donated toys and art supplies,” April said.

Closer to home, when Alison noticed kids in the Irish Channel trick or treating on Halloween without costumes, she decided to remedy the situation.

“In this town, there is absolutely no reason for being unable to invent a costume. There are so many places to find recycled materials that can easily be repurposed with very basic sewing skills,” Alison said.

In 2012, Alison founded RicRACK (Repurposed and Altered Costumes for Kids) to teach children how to become competitive and advanced costume-makers, and it has given away more than 2,000 Halloween costumes. Her St. Roch nonprofit holds sewing classes, using items donated by entertainment industry professionals across the country. RicRACK has held summer camp classes at the Ogden Museum, Mini-Art Center, YMCA and the Jewish Community Center where kids repurpose dress shirts, T-shirts, jeans, skirts and visors, transforming them into fantastic things to wear.

“New Orleans is a city where costuming is a huge tradition - it’s as important to the culture as jazz and fine dining,” Alison said. “Since 1699 - the first local Mardi Gras - citizens of New Orleans have created and gotten decked out in elaborate disguises.”

April often visited Alison over Halloween and Mardi Gras to volunteer with RicRACK, but ultimately made the decision to move to New Orleans and teach leather handbag classes.

"New Orleans has been a place for inspiration, imagination and creative freedom.  I look forward to exploring this beautiful city and once again working with my dear friend for a great cause,” April said.

RicRACK’s biggest event of the year is its annual fundraiser, Hollywood Thrift Sale. Wardrobe items are frequently sent by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., HBO, “American Horror Story,” many theater companies and costume rental houses. Funds raised from selling donated items have helped purchase sewing machines, supplies and pay studio overhead.

Beyond helping kids make their own clothes and costumes, sewing has added benefits.

“Sewing is a life skill. While making a garment, children learn how to be creative and resourceful and think outside the box, which helps in other areas of their lives,” Alison commented.

RicRACK will be holding an open house at its new studio, Saturday, September 17, 4-7 p.m. to showcase its shared maker space and present fall class schedule for kids and adults.

Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at [email protected]