Costumier, Gabieba Isaacs (64) reflected on her nearly 40-year career as embroiderer, seamstress and costumier
at Artscape Theatre Centre at Woman Zone’s Story Café last week Saturday (30 September)
In conversation with journalist Theresa Smith, Isaacs spoke about basic pattern blocks, darts and toiles – the language of a costumier; about bodices, baubles, brocade and built-in sweat pads….and the duvet sized petticoat that makes The Queen of Hearts frock fulsome…. .about the fabric buyer, the curtain cloth and cutting sequinned cloth.
Isaacs, recounted that often she would spend months on a single costume, some giving her “sleepless nights”.
However, her road to success was not easy.
“I didn’t grow up in ease. I lost a husband, raised three sons by myself, nursed my own mother before her death, but if I look at where I am now I count myself as lucky. I am not sure my younger self would believe I would end up here, (at Artscape) turning designer’s ideas into real-life fabric and sequin creations for the stage you know”.
Isaacs grew up mostly with her grandparents in District Six in the 60s. At the age of 13 her grandmother became ill and Isaacs had to leave school to take care of her grandmother. To make extra money she worked packing the Argus newspaper at St George’s mall at night.
“I still remember those long walks home after work while the city was waking up around me,” she said.
Sadly her grandmother died five years later after falling ill.
When she was 17-years old Isaacs started working as a runner in a clothing factory.
“Runners had to do just that, run to make sure that the seamstresses had all the materials they needed,” she chuckled.
She progressed to becoming a seamstress, then landed a new job as a trainee embroiderer at a different factory.
Looking back she now laughs at her then inexperience: “I had no idea what I was doing. The first day I went home in tears telling my mother that I did not want to go back the next day”
She, however, returned and after a while was promoted to the position of a supervisor. The embroidery machine used then was called a “Cornely” and Isaacs became part of the women known as “Cornely Girls.”
Isaacs attributed her Cornely embroidery skills as the conduit to a career at Arstcape where she commenced in 1978 (then the Nico Malan Theatre Centre).
But Artscape did not only bring her a glittering career – it also brought her love.
She met her husband at Artscape. They remained married for 18 years. Unfortunately she was widowed in 1998.
Meanwhile, Isaacs honoured the women she deemed as instrumental in shaping her career at Artscape. She calls them the “three Mrs Ps”. While she was employed as a seamtress it was them who recognised her potential as that of costumier. They acknowledged the pride she took in her work including not “even a small loose thread” on the finished product.
She now calls them “her friends” – Phyllis Midlane, who makes costumes that are used all over the world; Penny Simpson, former head of Wardrobe at Artscape, and the legendary costumier, Eva Parsons.
“I am very grateful for all that you taught me,” Isaacs acknowledged.
After a 38-year association with the Artscape, Isaacs will retire at the end of October this year.
“I am looking forward to my retirement; although I do worry sometimes these skills will be lost. Soon the only costumes I will make will be for my three-year-old granddaughter,” she concluded.