Events: Dress Up, Drag Out

Quiet designer creates bold costumes for divas

Patrick Howell has designed costumes for many Cincinnati-area divas. His work is pictured above.

For those who think the arts in Cincinnati are affected by conservative attitudes, think again. The Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) and designer Patrick Howell are teaming up to present his collection of outlandish performance costumes for female impersonators. That's right, they are bringing us a drag show.

On Friday evening for the next Contemporary Friday event, the entire 5,000 square foot Johnston Gallery in the CAC space (soon to be former space) on Fifth Street will feature 17 stage acts that showcase Howell's work. The evening, Divas By Design, features performers — including Hurricane, Ashley West, Samantha Rollins, Quasi, Scarlet Fever and Hope Sexton — who will perform the songs of famous divas while wearing his spectacular works of art.

This is the third year for the CAC to sponsor the event, and the expectation is that this show will be the best one yet. The special anticipation for this year's show is resulting from CAC's move to a new building, which makes the entire space at the Mercantile Building location available for the show. For the first time, the performers will have a long runway, proper sound and stage lighting to enhance the show's theatricality.

After seeing Howell's vastly theatrical designs, it's somewhat surprising to meet the man who created them. There's a notion about actors that the ones who are the most outrageous onstage are always extremely quiet when they're not performing.

While this observation may or may not be true, it certainly describes one of the most sensational costume designers in the area. Asked to put his sense of style into words, Howell reluctantly replies, "Bold with a lot of big colors," but he admits, "it's kind of hard to describe myself."

A self-taught designer, Howell has worked in many areas of the fashion industry. Over the past 14 years, he has been involved in wardrobe and costumes for everything from independent films to the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival. But what he is probably most recognized for are his designs for drag shows.

"When designing costumes for a drag show everything depends on the drag queen's performance style," Howell says, "and her taste in terms of the songs that she does. We will usually decide together which song to use. The collaboration between each performer and me is very important. It's a strange symbiotic relationship. Their performance influences my design, and my design influences their performance."

This special attention to each performers' particular style and a willingness to collaborate make Howell a designer many people want to use. Also, for as much attention as he gives to the performers, Howell takes exceptional care with each costume. Not only does he design every costume, but he also does all of the fitting and stitching.

"Everything I do is about the costumes," Howell explains. "That is where my heart is, and that's what I want people to see more than anything. I don't care about me being seen personally, because I'm nothing to look at and I don't speak especially well. But my costumes are good."

His costumes have been more than good. This CAC even has sold out every year. "This year we are limiting the number of tickets sold," says Lisa Buck, CAC curator of education. So if you are planning on going, be sure to order tickets ahead of time.

Although you can tell by the enthusiasm in Howell's voice that he is excited about the show, he plans to have only his costumes, and not himself, appear on the stage. But if you are eager to see him that night you may be able to spot him.

"It will be easy to find me," Howell jokes, "I'll be the one cowering in the corner."

DIVAS BY DESIGN happens Friday evening at the Contemporary Arts Center, Downtown.

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