Places & Faces
First Person with John Chavanne
2/4/2019 12:26:21 PM
First Person

Some people set out from an early age with a specific career track in mind and pursue it with determination until they land that first job. Others seem to stumble almost unexpectedly into an occupation that is utterly perfect for them. John Chavanne fits into the latter category. 

After a brief stint as a pre-med major at McNeese State University, one of Chavanne’s earliest jobs was selling men’s suits on commission in an area department store. He learned to fit and alter garments from the seamstresses there – a key step on his serendipitous journey to becoming one of the Lake Area’s premier costume designers. His mother and grandmother were also skilled seamstresses who made most of the clothes for him and his siblings when they were young, which influenced Chavanne, as well. 

Nearly 30 years ago, through his work with the department store and menswear, Chavanne became involved with local Mardi Gras krewes. One was the Krewe of Illusions. They were known for big extravagant costumes and "pushing the envelope,” as Chavanne says. "Being involved with that krewe first gave me the idea that this sewing thing could be creative.” The following year, he displayed his Mardi Gras costumes in the department store, garnering more attention. His career as a costume designer grew and flourished from there, all through word of mouth from his satisfied clients. Chavanne currently works with thirteen krewes who continue to "enable his sequin fetish.”

Thrive magazine recently sat down with Chavanne in his studio, where he talked about Carnival, costume-making, and the source of his creativity.

You currently live in a home a mere three blocks from where you were raised. What’s it been like, living in the same community your whole life?
There’s a sense of security about it. It’s not that I didn’t want to move from home. I like this place! Even with all its fickleness and idiosyncrasies, it’s home. 

Where do you find inspiration when designing your costumes? 
You name it. But I don’t want to be inspired by something someone else has already done. I want to be inspired by my clients’ ideas, by what they want. So I begin by asking them a lot of questions to get a feel for their vision of the costume. My costumes are truly custom-made from the ground up. 

What is your favorite costume embellishment? 
Feathers. I will strip them, sculpt them, curl them, dye them – in three different colors. Finding a new way to use an old feather just tickles me.

What is the cost of an average Mardi Gras costume? 
Too much and I don’t charge enough! Over in New Orleans or Biloxi, people might spend $10,000 - $15,000 or more per costume. And there are similarities between their costumes. Lake Charles is known for doing things their own way. They’ll take the traditional hard-core Mardi Gras from New Orleans, bring it to Lake Charles and interpret it into their own way of doing things and every krewe is different. I rarely make the same costume twice.

Are any of your costumes in the Mardi Gras Museum? 
Yes, a bunch. I also donated an old antique sewing machine to the museum. 

Tell us about one of your most memorable commissions.
I was awarded a sweet costume contract from Bacardi several years ago. They wanted to introduce their Torched Cherry flavor rum and threw a party in New Orleans called Bacardi Gras. Right in the middle of my busiest time of year. But with help from my mom and a cousin, I pulled it off.

Do you make costumes for events other than Mardi Gras?
Absolutely. I’m busy year around. Halloween, renaissance festivals . . . and pirates!

What do you love most about your profession? 
Everyone who leaves my studio is smiling. I love to make people smile. Someone comes to me because they have a big event and they want to have fun. I help them do that. And because I don’t advertise, I don’t want people to stop talking about me.
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