Western riding jackets combine cowgirls and couture

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By Madeleine Kalb

An AWOL horse tears through the parking garage at Will Rogers Coliseum in Forth Worth to the amusement of no other bystander but one.

Two cowboys dressed in denim and Stetson hats run up from the stalls to chase down the rebel stallion. The horse runs aloof while the men run off in separate directions on either side of the parking garage trying to capture the wild animal. The horse runs out of concrete and accidentally corners itself between a car and the concrete wall that fences in the rooftop parking level of the garage.

Fortunately, his captors move in and “wrastle” him back to his stall where he would be prepared to show in the American Paint Horse Association World Championship Show 2015.

Cold, dry air slaps audience members in their faces as they enter the heavy doors into the John Justin Arena at Will Rogers.

“Once the cold air hits the horse, you feel them wake-up and want to hightail it out of the ring,” Leroy Poignant, a youth world champion western-rider, said.

The dirt ring in the center of the stadium features some plastic foliage and bars aligned in a pattern tailored to the showmanship class that had just finished. Some old Waylon Jennings quietly sings out of a speaker over the silent and sparsely populated stadium. Incredibly poised and stiff looking women stand idle with their horses against the railing of the ring, awaiting National Championship placement for this class.

The women stand facing the judges with their backs to the stands; Swarovski crystals and rhinestones dazzle and blind observers. Some jackets are extremely bedazzled in which there is no obvious pattern or design, not even a trace of fabric is visible. Explosions of sparkles dazzle across the torsos of these women.

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Photo credit: Madeleine Kalb

“I’m showing in the Western pleasure class and my full piece outfit – button-up, under-shirt, cuffs, vest and chaps cost $7,000,” said 22-year-old North Texas University student Brett Avery Sanders.

According to Sanders, she has another show outfit set in green that cost a whopping $12,000 and was constructed from a stiff drape fabric. The set includes three different style jackets and matching attire. Sanders said she has only worn that particular green set once or twice. My jaw drops.

Sanders says that these jackets and show outfits are all custom-made for show purposes and that everyone goes all out for this annual world show.

“You have to have the look to win,” Sanders said. “Our look is the final touch. Everything has to be tailored to the body so the judges can see our form.”

In the merchandise hall of the world show, underneath heavily bedazzled displays sat Janet Cook – the principal designer of Show Off Designs from Forth Worth. Cook said her jackets are less expensive than some of the other jackets that are in the pen but are still custom-made designs. Cook’s jackets don’t exceed $1,500 and she says that each month she spends between $5,000 and $10,000 on rhinestone wholesale orders alone.

“The girls want something that will compliment the color of their horse,” Cook said. “People think if you feel good then you look good, but I promise you the judge is looking at the horses.”

Cook said that in addition to designing show outfits, she has also been judging for 20 years. In her judging perspective, she said she personally cannot tell the difference between a $500 outfit and a $5,000 outfit in the pen. Cook also included that she looks for an entire well-rounded picture of a well-trained horse that is coordinated with the rider’s fitted outfit.

The beautiful jackets display similar patterns, colors and styles while lacking an edginess and uniqueness one would expect in a multi-thousand dollar custom purchase. That is until one meets a lady known as “Hair” from Aubrey, Texas – Diane Luckey.

“You don’t want to go to the dance wearing the same dress,” Luckey said.

Luckey said she has been showing horses for 15 years and designing for eight years. She began designing after her mother bought her a custom show outfit, including a vest and chaps, that cost an alarming $8,500. Luckey said the outfit is amazing and she still wears it to this day; however, she decided that she would become a designer.

“Diane Luckey is a do-it-yourself lady. She’s one of the few who can do it all,” Sanders said.

Luckey said that the matador style jacket she wore to the APHA World Show this year would probably be sold for about $6,000. But unless one bought this custom-made jacket off of her back, it will be the one and only style ever made. Luckey said that she only makes one original and that is that.

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Photo credit: Madeleine Kalb

For just this jacket, Luckey said that cutting of the leather pieces took her two weeks to complete. It is a very meticulous and time-consuming process because the designs are so elaborate.

The shoulder pads on the matador jacket are stiff and broad, giving her an elegantly poised and well-postured stance.

“The shoulders are made out of upholstery fabric,” Luckey said. “Carpeting, upholstery, anything is fair game. We are crazy!”

Luckey prefers to use stretch Lycra fabric when constructing the shell of the jacket because it provides the wearer with the flattering, stiff shape they need to have in the ring.

“You put all these stones on and it can drag a jacket down. It won’t fit right,” Luckey said. “This Lycra stretch fabric is real thick, it keeps you all sucked in there but you can still move.”

In addition to Lycra, Luckey also likes to apply ultra suede to line the undersides of her jackets. She said in the showmanship this application is helpful because it makes you as stiff as cardboard and wrinkle-free.

Not just anyone can wear a Luckey original; she only designs on a referral basis and for clients that share the same edgy vision that she has. She has learned over the years that not every client can shake off his or her conservative aesthetics.

“You can see my personality in my jackets,” Luckey said. “There have been instances where my edginess is too much for someone and it’s okay. We go separate ways, but I do try to accommodate to their needs.”

This past year, Luckey designed 10 custom show-outfits and says she will only work on two to three at a time. She also requests a three-month minimum on projects. The system that she has created for herself allows her to have an equal balance in her life between showing her horse, designing jackets, planning her December wedding and working as a real-estate agent in North Texas.

“I got so busy a year-and-a-half ago I could barely show my own horse and I was having to buy my own clothes,” Luckey said.

In order to continue to feel passionate about her design work and have time to enjoy her horse, she decided to keep her design workload small – which only adds to the novelty of owning a Luckey piece.

Inside Luckey’s home, a starched piece of leather lies atop a billiard table. Patent leather cutouts of a horse’s head and an assortment of Swarovski crystals lie next to the piece of leather, waiting to be carefully placed.

Luckey explained that she used to be afraid of cutting leather until she developed a no-fail trick. Before she cuts the leather, she said she starches it like a pair of jeans, irons it, dries it out and then applies heat to bond an adhesive agent that eases her design process. After the appliqués and crystals are glued and adhered to the fabric, the pieces are sent to her seamstress Evelyn in Denton, Texas to be sewn on and finished.

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Photo credit: Madeleine Kalb

Luckey’s design team consists of her seamstress Evelyn, her pattern maker Beth out of Dallas and even sometimes her fiancé Steve, who works as an art director and graphic designer. Luckey said you will know when Steve has had a hand on a garment because it will have a rhinestone skull.

The women wearing jackets by Luckey and other designers entered the pen of the arena incredibly stoic, beautiful and composed. They created a perfect image and formed with their trained horse by their side. But according to some of these women, up close and center, the image is not so picture perfect.

“I won’t put my jacket on until seconds before I go into the pen,” Kristina Hermanson said after placing fourth in horsemanship at the APHA World Show. “After horsemanship I was sweating so much, I was dripping and trying to pat my face down so the judges couldn’t see.”

Hermanson wore a beautifully decorated blue jacket, but all that was visible from the judge’s stand was her brightly colored pink smile and the flashy rhinestones on her jacket. She appeared perfectly composed and not at all over-heated and uncomfortable.

Desarae Gilley, a 23-year-old from Northern California, shared the same experience as Hermanson.

“You sweat your butt off in these jackets and you can’t get them dry-cleaned or else the rhinestones will fall off,” Gilley said.

Gilley said that in order to clean the jackets many women spray them with Febreze.

“It’s so gross,” Gilley said.

Once the jackets are zipped up and the women enter the arena, they have entered their own tropical climate within their jackets.

The jackets that are being custom designed and hand sewn for these women are nothing less than couture garments. There is no other place in the world where couture garments are worn in the dirt next to a thousand-pound animal.

Cook suggested that the jackets stemmed from old-time Western influences like Roy Rogers. She added that over the years the style of show-wear just kept getting more outrageous.

Sanders suggested the roots of their fashion evolved from old country singers.

“It comes from old rodeo queens. They started out with wearing just the yokes,” Sanders said.

Lisa Nelle of Lisa Nelle Couture, based in Los Angeles, provided a different explanation. The Michigan native has been showing since she was 8 years old and began designing around the same time. Her first show outfit was far more traditional than what she wears and designs today.

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The jackets she designs today are custom-made with meticulously placed crystals and metallic accents. She designs jackets and show outfits for customers in countries as far as Australia and Hungary.

“Back then we were all making our own clothes. I remember buying Kmart turtle necks and attaching piles of appliqués, which were super trendy at the time,” Nelle said.

Nelle’s first show outfit she designed herself presented a much more conservative approach with an apparent Western influence that is not obvious in today’s mega-glam Swarovski explosion.

Wherever these jackets originated from, they are the most ridiculous yet glamorous artifacts of a world that only few may afford access to.

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