Mirella's Magic Making:
An interview with Marilyn Burbank, Founder and Co-President, Mirella Dancewear
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
September 28, 2005 -- Mirella Headquarters, Seattle, Washington
We thought it would be fun to go behind the scenes of the dance world and take a look at one of the most important support functions of the business -- dancewear. Seattle-based company Mirella, a leading designer and manufacturer of leotards, tights, unitards, skirts and costumes, sells to dance shops, costume suppliers and dance companies around the globe. We got to tour the Mirella plant, and then sat down to chat with founder Marilyn Burbank about her odyssey into the craft of caring for how dancers look in class and onstage.
(Click here for a gallery of the Mirella factory)
Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet with us. Tell us about your own background and how you got started making dancewear.
I had wanted to be a ballet dancer from the age of six. My mother found an 88-cent recording of “Swan Lake” in a grocery store and I fell in love with the photograph on the jacket. Then, when I heard the music, I knew this was something I wanted to be involved in. However, I didn’t start lessons until age 18. I saw my first ballet at 20. It was American Ballet Theatre’s production of “Swan Lake” with Lupe Serrano and Royes Fernandes. It was beautiful and I’ve never forgotten it. I signed up for lessons at the Cornish School (now College) with a fabulous teacher by the name of Terri Lee Sparks, and was immediately struck by how difficult it was! [Laughs.] Well I became completely obsessed and by age 38 I had never pursued a career but held only day jobs that allowed me to pursue my hobby. I thought about making dancewear and began by making things for myself and for friends. I asked local dance shops if they’d be interested and they were. At the time, most dancewear companies were focusing on products for the Jazzercise crowd but ballet dancers prefer lower cut legs and a more stylish approach.
While I’m thinking about it, how did you come up with your company’s name, Mirella?
My business partner, Jay, and I were kicking around names and I thought I’d like something Italian. He said how about opera singers and I said Renata Tebaldi [Laughs.] Then he said well, no, but do you like Mirella Freni? I said that’s it.
I started with a small line of my own designs, making them myself and selling to local stores. Then I got a $5K order from Taffy’s, which was much more that I could handle by myself. I was used to $500 orders! I knew Mark Zappone, who was costume shop manager and principal designer at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and he put me in contact with a friend who was a ballet fanatic and wanted to start his own contracting company. We worked out a deal where I would cut the dancewear, and he’d sew it. Eventually, he brought his workers and equipment over here and combined them with ours to make one operation. We now have 40 employees!
Your ads in the trade publications, such as in Dance Magazine, are really great and very distinctive. You use famous or soon-to-be famous ballet dancers and seem to have a knack for finding those who are either soon to be riding the crest of the wave of their careers or are very well on their way there. What’s the story behind the ads?
It is very nice advertising art. The ads are designed and directed by my partner, Jay. I felt that most ads had too much print and most people just wanted to see the beautiful pictures of dancers. So ours have just the company logo (designed by Jay) and company information in small print along with credit for the dancer. We also have a wonderful photographer, Terry Reed, on our staff and a complete production studio. It’s a bit over the top but I think the ads speak for themselves. We’ve sometimes used student dancers but have found that professionals just photograph better! Their personalities come through. They have a physical and artistic presence that says they understand “it.”
How do you find your models?
I actively cultivate and recruit them myself. We used to use the studios at Cornish, because I really like the atmosphere there, but it’s become easier to do the photo shoots here at the factory, as we have better control over the lighting and other factors. We have a space just for this purpose. The other thing I like about our ads is the “look” -- the branding is immediately recognizable.
How do your get your ideas for your designs? What inspires you?
There are lots of ways to get inspiration. I look at dance classes to see what people are wearing. I observe clothing (in general) to look for designs in street wear that would translate well to the studio. I try to stay open to lots of projects. Doing work, pro bono, has resulted in interesting designs -- I do a fair amount of this. I take trips to New York once or twice a year to look at fabrics.
Have you ever designed your own fabric?
Yes! I’ve designed something that is lightweight enough for a skirt but that will have enough weight to drape, plus it’s something that will dye along with the leotard fabric and come out the same shade. It’s great for dresses and matching skirts. Too often with some fabrics, leotards and skirts will come out a different shade of the same color but not with this new fabric.
You’ve worked with PNB (Pacific Northest Ballet) then.
Yes. I made the leotards for “Symphony in Three Movements,” “Duo Concertant,” and the men’s tights for “Artifact II.” Some time ago I did the leotards for “Four Temperaments.” We have a little dress that’s being used for “Apollo,” “Concerto Barroco,” and “Square Dance” all over the country. Suzanne Farrell has become a customer as has Nina Ananiashvili, who now directs the State Ballet of Georgia. I went to Tbilisi when Maria Calegari and Bart Cook went to stage that company’s first Balanchine program. They have beautiful dancers who are working in conditions that are not the greatest and the same for the workers who put together the costumes -- terrible working conditions but they make lovely products.
What are some of your upcoming projects and plans?
I’m currently working on our 2006 line: colors, fabrics, and the photo shoot. I’m also about to begin a search for a designer to work with me and eventually become the next designer for Mirella. I’ll work with the Career Transitions for Dancers organization in New York and will be attending their Gala. I’m looking for a creative, talented person interested in learning garment design -- a passion for and background in dance is essential.