East Croydon Cool talks…Ballrooms (and Ballgowns!)

East Croydon Cool talks…is a blog series that explores topics of cultural interest via local area experts. Last month, in celebration of International Dance Day, we headed to one of Croydon’s best kept secrets for a ‘Behind the Seams’ tour of DSI (Dance Sport International) London – a local company who make the majority of outfits for Strictly Come Dancing!

If you’re a Strictly fan, a dance obsessive or have an interest in the fashion industry (or if you just appreciate a pretty dress!), then this is the tour for you. In fact, even if none of those thing’s appeal – the exuberance and energy of Gerald (the co-owner who leads the tour) will soon have you looking at sequins and beads with a newfound appreciation! 

DSI’s low key surroundings (it’s located in the middle of a residential area, overlooking a cemetery!) are juxtaposed by the glitter and colour found inside. The DSI London studio incorporates 2000 square feet of warehouse space, a showroom, offices and also houses the UK’s largest stock holding of fabrics and embellishments.

The company originally started in 1982 as Hearn & Spencer Ltd and was run by Geoffrey Hearn and Peggy Spencer MBE. Known as the “Queen Mother of Ballroom and Latin”, Peggy taught, choreographed and adjudicated for 70 years, training more than 20 winning formation teams for the BBC’s original dance show – Come Dancing.

Since then, the business has grown from a small dance school to an international business – one that incorporates manufacturing (of dancewear for all ages), media (producing and selling dance books, cds, digital videos and dvds), and a stockist service (including shoes and accessories) alongside making couture, made-to-measure dresses and costumes for the entertainment industry and competitive dance world.

Their ten-year association with Strictly Come Dancing (the Creative Head of DSI is the BAFTA award winning Vicky Gill who is also the Costume Designer on the much-loved show) has helped raise further awareness of the business and the ‘Behind the Seams’ tour allows people to see where the real magic happens!

The experience begins with a glass of Prosecco and an informative talk (with plenty of opportunities to ask questions) before being led around the whole premises, exploring the various production and stockrooms (and amusing anecdotes from Gerald!). The tour ends back in the showroom, with the opportunity to try on a dress.

We spoke with Gerald afterwards to find out more…

How did you get involved in Strictly Come Dancing?
In the beginning, no one could have predicted the huge success of Strictly Come Dancing. Originally, the professionals taking part hired out their own dresses, and at that time we sponsored Anton & Erin, Darren & Lilia, James & Ola and Brendan & Camilla. So as their dresses were technically our property, a connection with the BBC began. Our in-house designer at the time was Vicky Gill and no other company was able to produce the amount of quality dresses required in this relatively short time. Vicky offers a unique combination of skills – demonstrating creative genius alongside an incredible hard-working attitude, all underpinned (excuse the pun!) by a great emotional intelligence when in dealing with customers and her own performance background. Her subsequent appointment as costume designer for this amazing show was well deserved, an achievement we are all incredibly proud of. 

Where are the dresses as seen on Strictly Come Dancing made?
True to our name DSI London, every single dancewear item we sell is handmade here at our HQ. Every single element is expertly overseen by our master craftsmen. ‘Made in London’ is not just a tagline for us, it’s a commitment to quality and expertise. Producing everything under one roof gives us the control required to respond to our customers’ wishes. All aspects of the production (from the initial design and specification, to pattern cutting and manufacturing, right through to placing the last rhinestone!) are exclusively carried out in our premises. If there’s one thing I want people to remember from this tour, it is the amount of time and skill that goes into creating everything we make. In terms of Strictly, the majority of the 300 dresses (not to mention the menswear!) that are created for each Strictly series are made here. A team then take them to the studio for Friday rehearsals to tweak anything ahead of Saturday’s big performance. Vicky’s experience as a designer (she trained at the Newcastle College of Art in Fashion Design rather than Costume Design) is invaluable for such moments!

How do you wash the Strictly dresses?
Considering some of the more heavily embellished dresses have up to 10,000 crystals on them, you might be surprised to hear this but…the washing machine! We just make sure we wrap them in a pillowcase or similar first and keep them on a gentle cycle! Dancewear is a mixture of swimwear and haute couture – and all dresses are built around an elastane leotard. This flexible material makes dancers feel very secure, but it also stretches easily for rigorous dance movements. And it’s obviously very washable (although not if it’s got feathers on – our stitching is incredible, but washing machines and feathers are not to be mixed!).

Where do you source the fabrics from?
Whilst we are very principled about making everything from here in London, we sadly can’t buy the materials from here. There is basically no fabric manufacturing industry left in the UK and anything that is available, is so expensive that it makes our business totally unprofitable. We therefore source the majority of our fabrics from overseas. We have a huge range (including crushed velvet, chiffon, tulle, lace, mesh and foiled) and offer a colour palette of 42 shades. The majority of our stretch fabrics come from Italy, our lace from Austria and our Polyester from Japan. We get our rhinestone crystals from Preciosa, a Czech based company (who were originally glass manufacturers but now make jewellery alongside chandeliers!) Brexit has brought its challenges but one of the more unusual issues we’re facing at the moment is in relation to feathers. Typically, we use Ostrich feathers on our dresses, which are imported from South African farmers. In recent years, Ostrich meat has become a more popular delicacy and so farmers have found it more profitable to kill Ostriches at a younger age and sell the meat, opposed to waiting for them to grow old and pluck the feathers.

What is the main part of the business?
Whilst the association and experience with Strictly Come Dancing has been great for us, producing dresses for them makes up a relatively small proportion of the overall business. Our day-to-day income comes from creating designs for the wider entertainment industry – especially cruises, theatre and film. And of course, we make dancewear for the competitive dance industry – with the big competitions like Blackpool ensuring ongoing custom throughout the year. We also sell our fabrics to dressmakers. In our commitment to championing talent within the Ballroom and Latin dance scene, we sponsor various performers both in the UK and Internationally (providing them with all the outfits and accessories they need). You can check out these Elite Performers here.

How was the business affected by Covid?
Urgh, don’t get me started! Like all businesses, we have struggled. What was a particular frustration for us, was the fact that we were allowed to re-open and operate relatively soon after the initial lockdown (and so we couldn’t pay to have staff on Furlough etc) BUT we didn’t have any clients – because the entertainment and competitive dance industry was totally shut down! But we survived it and demand is now bouncing back.

How big is the team?
Currently there are around 50 of us – with around 30 working on the production side. This includes designers, pattern cutters, machinists, embellishers, and office staff. We’re an international bunch which I’m very proud of but it’s been interesting to watch the change in skill sets over the time I’ve been in the business. When I started out, the best machinists were from Greece. Ten years on, it was the Commonwealth Countries (in particular Hong Kong and Pakistan) that were the most skilled. Nowadays, it’s the Eastern block countries who work the best and the fastest. And slowly but surely (in part due to the incredible machines they have access to!) the Chinese are taking the lead. From my point of view, I just want the best of the best – so if you’re readers know of any talented pattern cutters, tailors, designers etc – do encourage them to get in touch! Our current vacancies can be seen HERE.

Can people buy dresses as seen on Strictly Come Dancing from you?
They can! In addition to selling Ballroom and Latin dancewear (which we sell in both standard dance sizes and with a made-to-measure service) we also sell dresses we’ve created for a range of tv shows and films – including Strictly. The dresses range in price but on average are around £1400. We also offer a Couture service, whereby you can have a dress individually designed and made for you by our team. Prices for Latin dresses start from £1200 and for Ballroom start from £1800. If any local Croydon organisations are putting on shows – be they dance, theatre or otherwise, they might be interested to know that we also have a costume hire service (which starts from £300).

Who typically comes on these tours?
We run tours on a Tuesday and Saturday at 2pm for up to 30 people. It’s generally a very female heavy crowd -with a good mix of Strictly fans and people who have either worked or are interested in working in the fashion industry. Although (just like our Strictly contestants!) I do love an audience and am always delighted to run talks for larger groups. So, if any local Croydon organisations would be keen for me to come to them, I can bring a selection of dresses as seen on Strictly and tell some great stories of what goes into making them.

The Behind the Seams Tour runs on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 2pm and costs £29 per person. The tour runs from the Showroom located at Aurelia Road, Croydon CR0 3BF (which is a 10-minute drive from Croydon town centre or a 10 minute walk from Therapia Lane tram stop). For more information, see: “BEHIND THE SEAMS TOUR” (dsi-london.com)

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