Strictly Come Dancing's costume designers

One of the most popular TV shows of all time, Strictly Come Dancing has become a Saturday night institution – but did you know that Surrey has its very own starring role in the series? The stunning costumes are created by two local companies

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine December 2009

One of the most popular TV shows of all time, Strictly Come Dancing has become a Saturday night institution – but did you know that Surrey has its very own starring role in the series? The stunning costumes are created by not just one but two local companies. Debbie Ward finds out more

It could be heading for handbags at dawn in Croydon where a five-way tug-of-love has developed over the sale of a certain black, fringed catsuit... This is no ordinary festive outfit however; this one shimmied across our screens on actress Laila Rouass in the hit BBC show Strictly Come Dancing.

“Some people just like to own a Strictly costume,” explains the catsuit’s designer Vicky Barkess. “One wants it for a Christmas party, one for a performance… it’s on a first-come, first-served basis so if it doesn’t fit the first lady, the next can get a chance. I keep well out of it!”

The fact this sequinned showdown is being played out in Surrey is no coincidence because one of the lesser-known pairings for Strictly is of two major dance costume producers, both of which are based in the county.

The staff of DanceSport International (DSI) in Croydon and Chrisanne in Mitcham are up to their elbows in sequins for the fourth Strictly series running. Each company works on a freelance basis, producing all the stunning dresses for the show’s female celebrities and professional dancers between them, co-ordinated by the BBC’s chief costume designer for the show, Su Judd.

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“We meet with the celebrities in August,” explains Nicola Atkinson, designer for Chrisanne. “We have a lot of Latin and ballroom dresses on a rail, so they can get a feel for the styles, and see what colours and styles suit them.”  

While costumes are prepared in advance for the early stages of the show, as the elimination process hots up, everything must be done week to week – with dresses turned around in as little as two days and last minute adjustments made to hem and strap lengths at rehearsals on Fridays. “It is hectic. I was dreaming about collars last night in my sleep!” laughs Nicola.

“The staff work really hard to make it happen,” adds Vicky, whose Godstone-based company Vicky Barkess joins forces with DSI for the project. “Each costume has probably five different elements; design, cut, sewing, decorative work and finishing. Five different people and their skills will touch it but everybody works as a team.”

I get to peek at the process when I visit DSI’s premises. In the showroom, the coveted catsuit is on display along with several other, now famous, spangly costumes.

A couple of rooms away, heads are bent over sewing machines, scissors and beads. Two machinists are discussing whether a dress with a white skirt and gold sequinned bodice needs more elastic. It turns out it’s the outfit in which Zoe Lucker will perform the American smooth the next evening.

Meanwhile, pattern-maker Teresa is turning Vicky’s sketches for the next week’s dresses into paper templates according to each dancer’s size and shape. “I like maths and it’s a maths thing,” she laughs.

Then I meet Ash, the man responsible for beading. He is using super-strong glue to attach stones and dangles to a mother-of-the-bride outfit for a hush-hush celebrity wedding. It’s a painstaking process that will take him some 60 hours, then he’ll do it all again on the next batch of Strictly costumes. “I make a sample up and check the density I’ll need,” he explains.

There are certainly plenty of spangles per inch on the Latin costume worn by Natalie Cassidy, which I get to hold. I can’t believe the weight of it, but I’m assured it’s a lot lighter on.

Costume dramaBoth Vicky and Chrisanne’s Nicola enjoy designing for their respective sets of celebrities and bringing modern twists to traditional dance styles.

Vicky, who has also designed tour costumes for Kylie, Britney and Girls Aloud, says: “I’m very fashion-orientated but I have to design things so people can actually sing or move or have a quick change. We try to keep it really on-trend so people can have the red carpet function flavour; we want them to put it on and feel like a million dollars.”

Nicola, who, with her colleagues at Chrisanne, has also created costumes for Dancing on Ice and Britain’s Got Talent, says: “I loved doing Jo Wood’s. She’s such fun, such a lovely girl. We could do the rock chick thing that she’s known for but then when she did the foxtrot we decided to make her soft and elegant.” She adds: “We’ve got a really good bunch of people this time. They’re all really nice.”

The celebrities’ evolving figures present another challenge for the costume teams. “They work hard so they do lose weight and tone up,” says Nicola. “Their shapes change because obviously they’re using muscles they haven’t used before.”

As to the hot topic of whether Strictly’s costumes are skimpier this year, Nicola doesn’t think so. “The professionals’ have always been quite skimpy really,” she says. “They have good bodies and that’s how it is in the dance industry.”

For the celebrities, however, the designers tone it down, particularly in the early weeks. “They need to feel confident and secure,” says Nicola. In fact, she reveals, designers have further tricks to help boost the celebrities’ performances. “The frills and fringes help make them look as if they are moving. The hot pants and blouse outfit worn by Flavia, for instance, we’d give that kind of thing to the professional. Someone who has learnt the jive in four days, we would give them the fringes.”

Glitz and glamourProfessional dancer Ola Jordan is particularly known for her brief outfits, leading Bruce Forsyth to joke one week that with the fabric at �60 a metre, her dress had cost just �1.75 to make. “It’s just sort of evolved,” says Vicky, who has designed Ola’s outfits for years. “She’s got a fantastic figure and quite a siren look so she can get away with it. A lot of the time it’s not quite as brief as people imagine though – it’s tan net or body stocking – you’ve got to make sure nothing’s going to fall out!”

So how key are knock-out costumes to the success of the show? 

“I think it’s really important. That’s why people watch the show; for the glitz and the glamour,” says Nicola. Vicky adds: “A lot people I know in fashion get quite excited about the show and tickets are like gold dust.”

Those anticipating a sparkly hole in their lives when Strictly ends can always plan a trip to Harrods where Vicky and DSI have created seven costumes with a ballroom slant for this year’s Wizard of Oz-themed Christmas window displays. “I’m really excited about Dorothy; that’s a labour of love,” says Vicky.

As to what the costumes will be like for the Strictly final on December 19, it depends on which couples get through. Vicky for one is not keen to influence the outcome. “I always watch Strictly. I sit at home with my little boy and we say what  we like,” she says, “but if I’m honest I don’t vote. I don’t think that would be fair!”

Fancy owning a Strictly dress yourself or giving some lucky lady a dazzling Christmas present? Both DSI and Chrisanne put the professionals’ and celebrities’ dresses up for sale after they’ve appeared on the show. For more information about buying one, see www.dancesport-international.com and www.chrisanne.com.   Strictly Surrey Connections

When it comes to Strictly Come Dancing, it’s more a case of who doesn’t have a Surrey connection than who does...

Brucie lives in Virginia Water, where he is a regular on the Wentworth golf course. Surrey cricket heartthrob Mark Ramprakash walked off with the 2006 title, partnered by Karen Hardy. This series, cricketing charmer Phil Tufnell lives in Kingswood and supports the Tadworth-based Children’s Trust. The coolest grandmother in rock and roll, Kingston Vale resident Jo Wood, lasted until week six of the current series when a samba proved her undoing. Professional dancer Flavia Cacace is a Guildford resident and loves the town’s iconic clock as well as the Weyside pub.  Dance partner Vincent Simone also lives in our county town and says his favourite place is the beautiful castle grounds. Anton Du Beke and Erin Boag are based in Kingston. Lilia Kopylova and Darren Bennett are married and live in Cheam.

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