From Rippon to runway: CSF draper Cynthia Settje finds success in NYC and beyond
(Above: Kristin Chenoweth wears Settje’s corset at the 2015 Tony Awards. Photo by Jennifer M Koskinen.)
Some costumers need a showstopping, original piece to make it to the big time.
All Cynthia Settje needed was a petticoat.
Settje, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s costume draper, remembers the moment she got her big break. She’d just shipped that fateful petticoat to a New York costume shop when two-time Tony winner Gregg Barnes popped in for a visit, noticed her work and exclaimed, “That’s perfect for my next show!”
“It was so funny that, after all this fancy and intricate work I’ve done over the years, it all came down to a petticoat,” Settje says.
After Barnes got hold of her for his show “Tuck Everlasting,” the rest was corseted, big-skirted history. In the last year alone, her work has been seen on the Broadway stage, on the New York Fashion Week catwalk and on Kristin Chenoweth at the 2015 Tony Awards.
“That was probably the coolest thing to happen to me,” she says of the Chenoweth commission. “I think I shrieked in the CSF costume shop when Gregg emailed me.”
Despite all her big-time success, Settje still believes working for CSF is the real dream come true. As CSF’s draper, she realizes the vision of each play’s costume designer by finding fabrics, drawing up plans and supervising a handful of stitchers as they put everything together. From 17th-century Venetian doublets and dresses for the 2015 festival’s production of “Othello”—”lots of detail, tricky fabrics”—to the angular leathers and plastics in this year’s “Troilus and Cressida,” CSF plays boast so much variety that Settje is never bored.
“The reason I love working in theater and not just in fashion design is because I get to help create a character who fits into this world we all create together,” she says. “We make stories, and it’s so fun.”
Settje enjoyed sewing from an early age: “It was my creative outlet,” she says. She was inspired by what she saw on “The Lord of the Rings,” in live-action Disney movies and in TV costume dramas. She was homeschooled as a teen in Texas and had more time than most to devote to her extracurricular interests. As she perfected the art of costuming, she found the perfect setting to debut her work: living history sites.
“I’d go walk around in Victorian dresses in old homes,” she says. “I used to go to Renaissance Faires, too. I was kind of a nerd.”
Before Settje came to CSF in 2012, she was hard at work establishing her own business. In 2009, still working toward her bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, she started an Etsy shop called Redthreaded, a punny nod to her natural hair color.
“I wanted to sell off some of my old costumes and I discovered there was actually a market for that,” she says. “I said, ‘Oh, wait, people will buy these? That’s great, because I’m broke!’”
Soon, she was taking custom orders from all over the country. Cosplayers, Carnevale attendees and major theater companies all wanted to work with her—a huge relief to someone who’d just witnessed budget cuts at her university’s costume department and saw the closure of the iconic Barbara Matera Ltd. in the midst of a painful recession.
“I just started working the business full time and got enough custom orders to keep myself going and keep my bills paid,” she says. “In the last few years, I’ve even been able to hire staff, which is a whole new adventure.”
Her fantastic coworkers at Redthreaded and at CSF are a big reason why Settje has no plans to move to a fashion capital anytime soon.
“There’s an incredible number of really talented costumers in the area who can come help me out whenever I need them,” she says.
As long as she has the mountains, a plethora of top-notch yoga classes and an abundance of fresh air at her disposal, Settje says, she has no reason to pick up and leave.
“I feel like I’m kind of gaming the system a little bit. I can sew Broadway costumes, but then I can also go hike the Flatirons whenever I want,” she says. “I’m really proud of that.”