Elvis: Direct from Graceland curator Lauren Ellis spoke with Gene Doucette, the costume designer who worked in the background during Elvis’s stage career of the 1970s. Although Bill Belew’s place in the history of Elvis Presley’s iconic style is well established, Gene’s story is less well known.
In 1970, Gene Doucette landed in Los Angeles with $25 in his pocket and a dream of pursuing a creative life in Hollywood. A kid from Brooklyn with no formal training, Gene had a natural aptitude for art and had grown up observing his mother’s creative knack for making lovely and practical things using whatever humble materials she had at hand.
Gene soon got a job at Berman’s Costumes, a Hollywood costume studio which created garments for designer Bill Campbell. As a ‘runner’ for the company, Gene would shuttle with supplies and garments to another business called Pzazz, which specialised in beading, studwork, and embroidery. Gene started visiting Pzazz on weekends to learn the techniques of punching studs and beads, a form of decoration perfectly suited to his strong sense of geometry and composition, and his skilful ability to construct complicated patterns and forms across the body. Before long, Gene had moved to Pzazz and was extending his skills to include highly sophisticated machine embroidery.
Pzazz, a business established by a former ice-skater, was located across Santa Monica Boulevard from the Ice Capades costume studio. Ice Capades was a traveling music-and-theatre-on-ice entertainment company beloved across the United States for the thrill and spectacle of skilled skaters and resplendent costuming. Established in the 1940s, Ice Capades was an American household name in its heyday in the 1970s (the company ran until the 1990s) and the costume studio ran independently to meet the demands of multiple Ice Capades troupes.
When Bill Belew was engaged to create a suite of costumes for Elvis’s first engagement in Las Vegas in 1969 (on the heels of his successful ’68 NBC television special), he sought the assistance of Ice Capades. In addition to the strength and structure he required to create the bold silhouette that would become so iconic, Belew wanted the stretch and light weight of costumes designed for athletic and dynamic skating performances. After his experience with Elvis on the ’68 Special, Belew wanted greater flexibility for Elvis’s instinctive and spirited movements on stage, and something cool and breathable enough to contend with Elvis’s hot and sweaty state in the throes of performance.
Ice Capades produced the perfect solution, which would also prove itself capable of retaining its shape and holding in place hundreds of metal studs and clawed beadwork applied by Gene at Pzazz from 1972 on. Belew called their wool blend “stretch gab”, Gene also refers to it as “ski cloth” – a wool and elastane blend imported from Italian mills.
At Pzazz, Gene would typically work with designers to figure out how to bring to life in three dimensions ideas they had sketched in drawings. During 1972, Bill Belew was increasingly busy and in-demand as a designer and Gene explains that after a certain point, he was often left to devise new designs entirely from scratch. This situation was a double-edged sword for the young designer, whose creative impulse relished the opportunity for expression yet felt the injustice of his anonymity behind the scenes at Pzazz. But in a fast-paced industry experiencing challenging times in Hollywood, Gene knuckled down and produced one innovative design after another for his employer. He worked quietly in the background and ultimately never met the man who took such delight in his clever creations.
In addition to the suits themselves, Gene decorated the accompanying belts and capes. The belts were manufactured by Winton Belts, who Gene describes as ‘the best in the business’ – typical for Elvis’s costuming and personal wardrobe. The best suppliers and designers worked for Elvis, and often they remained in partnership for many years.
Discussing the hugely eclectic range of themes and motifs which appear throughout the studded and embroidered suits he made for Elvis, Gene puts it simply: “I never grew up”. His capacity for imagination, playfulness, and the fun of a technical challenge never waned for Gene, who loved to test himself to see just what he could create with his mind and the decorating machinery. Influences came from all kind of places – Yul Brynner’s armour in The Ten Commandments (1956), animals, fireworks, and rainfall. Elements of Native design and traditional First Nations clothing from across North America were sources of inspiration for Gene who has Iroquois ancestry on his mother’s side. A personal favourite of Gene’s (and visitors to Elvis: Direct from Graceland) is the dragon suit, which he says he designed combining Chinese and medieval European images of dragons, cleverly placed to wrap dynamically around the body. Suits such as the ‘Amber Stone’ suit (also nicknamed ‘Lava’) are masterful examples of Gene’s ability to construct optical thrills for long-distance viewers: the heavy beadwork becomes clearly recognisable as a striped tiger pattern at the right distance.
Gene used a wonderful array of beads and ornaments purchased from a Los Angeles store named Mobob. After finishing a suit, any leftovers would get stored in a cupboard which, one day in 1973, Gene raided to create a new design. Working with so many random handfuls of nailhead studs and coloured beads, Gene created an elaborate, symmetrical pattern which he nicknamed ‘The Kitchen Sink’ in the ‘everything goes on’ spirit of the design. This design is better known today as the ‘King of Spades’ suit for its resemblance to playing card symbols, and a densely embroidered turquoise version appears in Elvis: Direct from Graceland in Bendigo.
In the years after Elvis’s death, Pzazz closed and Gene became a freelance designer in the Los Angeles entertainment industry, working on productions including the Bob Hope Show, Punky Brewster, and Siegfried & Roy. In the mid-1980s he formed a friendship with costumiers Butch and Kim Polston through their mutual friend Ciro Romano, Elvis’s long-term tailor at the IC (Ice Capades) Costume Company. Butch has a passion for Elvis history and particularly that of Elvis’s wardrobe. Gene worked with Butch and Kim, and their company B & K Enterprises Costume Company, to establish a line of high-end recreations of Elvis’s 1970s stage wear and today their range extends to replicas of his most iconic looks from movies and his home wardrobe.