Rory O’Neill calls James David Seaver his “costumier” on Twitter.
“That’s just because he likes using that word!” says Seaver. “That’s way fancier than ‘the guy who knocks me up a few frocks’.”
Seaver made his first dress for O’Neill – or, rather, for O’Neill’s alter ego, drag queen Panti Bliss – about five years ago.
“Oh God, it was this monstrosity for Pride,” says Seaver. “A big, gigantic chiffon kaftan and it had these giant flowers all over it. It was the most ridiculous thing I think we’ve ever done.”
During a recent interview at Fallon & Byrne on Exchequer Street, Seaver sipped a coffee and described how he relishes staying behind the scenes.
By day, he works for as a designer for a mainstream Irish brand. In the evenings, he jumps between side projects that he’s usually agreed to do because they tick one key box for him: they’re fun.
That’s what he said in an email to O’Neill, when he saw the advertisement for somebody to dress Panti Bliss: it had to be a laugh, not a job. “That’s how it started,” Seaver said.
For Seaver, the journey towards fashion began at school, in metal-work class, when a drill left his hands and skittered dangerously across the classroom towards another student. He was banished to home economics, where he grew to love baking and sewing.
After school, Seaver ended up at the National College of Art and Design for a year, dropped out, headed to a fashion college in Bray for a year, took a year out and went travelling, and then – like many millennials – had an I-need-to-sort-my-shit-out moment.
After a stint in Italy as a fashion designer, he moved back to Ireland to work in the industry here.
“I never actually set out to be a fashion designer, but everybody just told me that was what I should do. When you’re young and impressionable and enough people tell you . . . ” he said. But, “I obviously really like what I do.”
Behind the Spotlight
Seaver could thrust himself forward as a celebrity. But that’s not what he’s in it for, he said. He gets more of a buzz from empowering those he helps clothe, than from a mention in the New York Times.
“If they don’t feel good in that garment, what is the fuckin’ point?” he asked. “If it doesn’t make them feel like an absolute million dollars.”
His own outfit of choice would be tight trousers and a baggy jumper and that makes him feel sparky.
“I think the people that make the clothes that I wear – I feel kind of empowered by their clothes,” he said. “I like to think the same for people who wear my clothes, they feel empowered by what you make. That, for me, has always been the most interesting part of fashion.”
Seaver is modest, says Sinead Burke, a fashion blogger, former Alternative Miss Ireland, and longtime friend of his.
“I think he is very comfortable playing behind the scenes,” she says. “He is one of these people who allows his clothes to speak for themselves. He doesn’t speak for them.”
Seaver has stepped up to help Burke in the past, she said. At three-foot-five, it can be a struggle for her to find clothes that are stylish and age-appropriate.
When she asked Seaver for advice on where to get a blouse to go under the tuxedo she planned to wear to present the National Tailoring Academy Awards, he said he’d whip one up for her.
She tried it on in a public toilet, an hour before the show.
“I put it on, and it fit like a glove,” she said. “I came out and we both squealed girlishly and got very excited.”
On later occasions, he ran up some elegant dresses for her.
“He’s designed me some amazing pieces that . . . you know when something fits you well, you’re whole confidence and the way you move changes,” she said. “It has this impact on yourself, on an emotional level almost.”
Dressing Panti Bliss
When Seaver took on the job as Panti Bliss’s frock-maker, he had no experience making clothes for drag queens. But the pair settled on a brief for the kind of image that they wanted the giant cartoon woman to radiate.
The look was 1940s housewife: a bit naughty, a bit sexy, a hint of the whip. As research, Seaver watched the film adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and tried to capture the essence of the prim teacher played by UK actor Maggie Smith.
Most of the costumes are a variation on that theme, a slick and sexy formula of cinched waists, high necks, and covered arms.
It took a couple of years to get the shape down and make the clothes sit perfectly, he said. It’s a bit of a challenge because Panti Bliss’s set of hips, corset, and silicon breasts aren’t always in the same place.
“On a good day,” Seaver says, “he’ll put them on in the same position as the last day. But if he puts them like a few inches higher, or if his bra’s a little tighter, or if his corset’s a little bit cinched, or if his hips are pulled up too high, then obviously his clothes don’t fit him.”
Seaver’s costume ideas for Panti Bliss often seem to have been inspired by films.
The Disney-villain look in the long black evening dress for the Women of the Year Awards. The gold lamé jumpsuit, inspired by an Oscar statue and Farrah Fawcett from Charlie’s Angels for the premier of the Queen of Ireland at the Light House Cinema on Smithfield Square.
Seaver’s favourite, though, has to be the houndstooth dress with a red leather zip up the front. “That was my favourite because it was so, it was kind of dominatrix, but had the sexy secretary thing as well,” he says. “Tranny-chasers all over the world have a lot to be grateful for, that’s all I’m saying.”
There’s a sign that Seaver looks for so he knows when he’s hit the spot with a Panti Bliss costume. “If he loves it, he does a little giggle and he spins around in it and he struts up and down his apartment as if he’s Claudia Schiffer,” he says. “And that’s when you know that you’ve done a good job.”