The King’s Seamstress

On the surface, Eleanor Von Boetticher’s basement workshop in Nanaimo looks no different than any other home-based tailoring operation in Canada.

On the surface, Eleanor Von Boetticher’s basement workshop in Nanaimo looks no different than any other home-based tailoring operation in Canada.

The 4½-by-nine-metre section of a half-finished rumpus room is dominated by a huge plywood cutting table scattered with pincushions, button trays, oversized scissors and other tools of the tailoring trade. Three industrial-grade sewing machines and a Europro steam press occupy a low wall beneath the ground-level windows, opposite a collection of fashion and design books crammed into a bookshelf next to the door.

But a closer look reveals the 39-year-old stay-at-home mom is more than just your average suburban seamstress. A large zip-lock sack full of rhinestones sits at one end of the cutting table, while stowed in cardboard boxes underneath are more than five dozen varieties of nailheads and metal studs, in silver and gold. Next to that is a big bag of sapphire-blue and ruby-red cabochons – glass droplets the size of fingernails – along with a sack of golden rim sets used to clamp them in place. And there, stacked below one end of the plywood table, are a half-dozen bolts of polyester gabardine: ideal for reproducing the iconic costumes once worn by the King of rock ’n’ roll himself, and still worn by the thousands of dedicated entertainers who pay tribute to his memory.

A costumer by trade, Von Boetticher runs ProElvis Jumpsuits, one of a handful of North American companies that manufacture stage costumes for Elvis Presley impersonators. Although some of the original stud varieties are no longer available and the fabric is slightly different – the King preferred his gabardine with a touch of wool for flexibility – Von Boetticher says the designs are close to the originals. “There’s one large company in the U.S. that makes them and three or four that I know of that are about the same size as me. I’d say 95 per cent of my customers are professional Elvis tribute artists.”

About a year ago, after making Elvis costumes on the side for the better part of a decade, Von Boetticher decided she had enough business to make ProElvis Jumpsuits a full-time job. Just to be sure, she did some market research and discovered that there are an estimated 85,000 professional and amateur Elvis impersonators in the world, with more than 8,000 in North America alone. “I actually do believe there’s that many,” says Von Boetticher, who organizes her schedule around the needs of her two-year-old son, Theo. “Certainly the market is not limited when you start looking overseas.” While most of her customers are in North America, Von Boetticher is attracting growing interest from European-based Elvis tribute artists. In the past 12 months, she’s shipped jumpsuits to Germany, Holland, England and Ireland; there’s a large untapped market in Asia as well. “Next, I’m planning to translate my website into Japanese,” she says. “Elvis is really big over there.”

Born and raised in Ottawa, Von Boetticher showed early promise as a seamstress, a talent that her family fostered and encouraged. “My parents bought me an antique sewing machine when I was 10,” she recalls. “It was a hand-cranked model so I wouldn’t hurt myself on the electric kind.” Still, the idea of making a career out of making clothes didn’t occur to her until she arrived at Dalhousie University in the early ’90s.

After earning a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Toronto, she moved to Halifax with a full scholarship to pursue her master’s at Dalhousie. But shortly after arriving, Von Boetticher decided that Dalhousie’s costume studies certificate program sounded far more interesting. “The first month I was there, I thought I’d made a horrible mistake,” she recalls. “I realized political science wasn’t what I wanted to do.” She enrolled in the costume studies program for the following September, finishing her poli-sci coursework in the interim. The next year, Von Boetticher studied costume-making during the day and worked nights and weekends to complete her master’s thesis. However, the title of her treatise – “The Political Substance of Style: Fashion and Hegemony” – spoke volumes about her future career plans.

After living for a couple of years in the Toronto suburb of Georgetown, Von Boetticher and husband Timothy decided to pull up stakes and move west to Calgary. There was no shortage of work there in the late ’90s – Tim built sets for film productions, and Eleanor kept busy making costumes for movies, theatre and TV commercials ­– and it was through Von Boetticher’s work in the entertainment industry that she fell into her regal line of work. She met Will Reeb, a well-known Elvis tribute artist who had started a sideline supplying replica jumpsuits and studded belts to his fellow Elvises. In 1999, when Reeb asked her to help with the cutting and sewing work, Von Boetticher agreed – mostly out of curiosity. “I really had no idea what I was getting into. I just thought it sounded interesting,” she recalls. “I always had a steady job and I would just fit the work in on nights and weekends.”


elvis costume

For several years, the two maintained a casual business arrangement, with Reeb running the business, decorating the costumes and making the belts, and Von Boetticher making one or two costumes a month on contract. “Within the first year of meeting up with Will, I knew it had the potential to be a good business,” she says. “I just didn’t think I had it in me to build it up.” But the work kept coming and the inventory of clients kept growing.

In 2003 Von Boetticher moved to Vancouver, where she worked on such movies as I, Robot; X-Men: The Last Stand and the Halle Berry remake of Catwoman, all the while making Elvis suits for Reeb on the side.

When she relocated to Nanaimo in 2005, Von Boetticher decided it was time to break out on her own. In retrospect, she admits she could have taken the plunge sooner. “When I started out, I think I was very conservative about using the patterns and marketing the product line that Will had,” she says. Since going solo last spring, Von Boetticher has tripled her output and hired two part-time contractors to help out. “When I started out, I was doing . . . maybe one [outfit] a month,” she says. “I’m now doing about three a month. I got five out just in December; I’ve got five more on the books right now – and that’s about my capacity.” Each suit takes between 20 and 50 hours to make, depending on the intricacy of the design.

All of Von Boetticher’s patterns were developed by Reeb and based on photographs of Elvis in concert, taken from various angles. Basic models include the Stone Flame, King of Spades, Owl Star, Black Butterfly, the Starburst – and, of course, the Aloha suit from his legendary 1973 live concert, Aloha From Hawaii. “Some people think that’s the only Elvis suit there is, but he actually had over 80 costumes,” explains Reeb, who still makes the belts for Von Boetticher but is no longer involved in the business side of the operation. “It’s hard to say when and where he wore them. Some he wore a lot and some he only wore two or three times.”

The studded-jumpsuit phase of Elvis’s career spanned roughly five years, starting in 1969 with his record-breaking stint at Kirk Kerkorian’s International Hotel in Las Vegas. “Up to about 1974, his costumes were mostly studded,” Reeb says. “After that they got more elaborate and had a lot of embroidery.” All of Von Boetticher’s jumpsuits have the added option of a matching cape and studded leather belt, essential features of any Elvis costume.

At $900, macramé belt included, the Concho and the Fringe Suit are the lowest-priced models, while mid-level options range from $1,400 to $2,100 with matching cape and belt. At the top end are the $2,700 Aloha (Von Boetticher’s top-seller), including a $950 belt emblazoned with red-white-and-blue American eagles, and the $3,100 King of Spades, the most elaborate design of any ProElvis product. By popular demand, Von Boetticher has also added Elvis’s two-piece black leather ’68 Comeback Special suit to her catalogue.

While other small business owners build their contacts by attending deadly dull conventions and industry trade shows, Von Boetticher networks at Elvis festivals in Penticton and Collingwood, Ont., every summer. Unlike the performers she caters to, though, the seamstress isn’t motivated by any reverence for Elvis’s memory. Although she watched Elvis movies growing up, Von Boetticher rarely listened to his music and only recently acquired her first Elvis CDs – a box set she received as a Christmas gift. “I know the music, but I don’t listen to a lot of it,” she says. “I listen to it a little more now.”

Instead, Von Boetticher’s drive is a professional dedication to the performers she dresses – part of the show-must-go-on ethic she learned in costuming school. “Costumers are trained to meet the needs of the person on stage,” she says. “They have to go out on that stage every night, whether they feel like it or not. I have immense respect for that.”

As for the future, Von Boetticher is confident that she can continue to grow her business by ensuring that her customers remain King. “I want to maintain my reputation for being available to Elvis impersonators when they need me,” she says. “As long as Elvis stays popular, I’ll be in business.”