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One of a Kind 

Designer creates custom fashions, hats and more

Oliver Manhattan keeps a tiny converted shotgun studio at the end of Decatur Street in the Faubourg Marigny. Today, she's working on a mauve-colored, irregularly shaped hat -- she's known for her hats -- sewing jewels and feathers on its front panel. The walls are lined with shelf after shelf of finished products, old costumes, tools, and just about any kind of fabrics, trim, or thread you can think of. Here she sits day-in, day-out, making things to wear, perform in, hold, sit on, dance around, whatever you need. She's been doing this as long as she can remember. "I think I was five when I realized I knew how to use a sewing machine," she recalls. "I actually could sew at that age. I think I made a mother-of-the-bride dress when I was 11, designed it and all."

Since her tender years, Manhattan has been involved in more projects than she can recall and produced such a variety of products that she doesn't even have a name for her occupation. "I have a hard time putting myself into a category," she says. "I'm a costumer, I'm a hat maker, I'm an artist -- probably an artist first. The other things are just my media. I also produce shows and make props. I'll do anything, really."

Before she broke onto the New Orleans scene in 1989, Manhattan lived in Los Angeles for 10 years. Quickly scrapping the notion of becoming a famous fashion designer, she involved herself in an array of creative projects: hat making, theater sets, fashion shows, and her own Saloon Gallery, an organization of artists and designers who would overhaul local bars and put on shows featuring their own work.

Music brought Manhattan to New Orleans. She arrived 12 years ago with a band, determined to plunge into the local music scene. The city developed a taste for Manhattan's style soon enough. "I realized I was going to make hats when I got here, that that would be my bread and butter. They were a big hit right away." Hat making led the designer to a whole new world of local projects, and she found herself happily sucked into the local culture "like quicksand," she says. "My soul always knew that New Orleans had something to do with me. It's a good place for your spirit to create."

While custom work fills much of her time, Manhattan also has worked with costumes, props, sets, fashion shows, and even interior design, including the sultry showroom of Magazine Street's lingerie boutique, House of Lounge. Last month, she participated in that boutique's Boudoir Ball lingerie show at the Red Room, featuring the Shim Shamettes. Oliver's segment was a backward strip tease in which the model played a vintage character trying to decide which hat to wear. One by one, she tried on about a dozen of Manhattan's hats. Each hat was different. Some were outrageously large and funky; others were small and dainty. Colors, textures, and patterns were used, along with intricate beadwork and other embellishments.

Recently Manhattan has worked regularly with the Shim Shamettes, the only burlesque troupe in the country that performs consistently. For the dancers, the designer recreates vintage burlesque costumes in all of their original detail. The Shim Shamettes, along with Manhattan's costumes, are featured in an A&E television documentary, It's Burlesque, which premiered in March.

Apart from her usual hectic load of custom work, theatrical projects, fashion shows, and motherhood -- she has a 3-year-old son and another baby on the way -- Manhattan plans to open a store where artists can buy supplies. Quaintly named The Rusty Thimble, Manhattan's store will carry hard-to-find fabrics and supplies obtained on frequent buying sprees in New York and Los Angeles. She will also sell odds and ends at discount prices. Tools, threads, rubbers, glues, art supplies, sewing supplies and even instructional classes are in the plans for the store. It also will double as a venue for her alteration and reconstruction services as well as a showcase for her myriad creations.

Manhattan's astonishing quantity and quality of creative production makes one wonder where she gets her ideas. "After doing this for 35 years, they pop into my head immediately," she says. "It's almost intuitive." Brainstorming is clearly a breeze for the designer. She claims to enjoy every part of the process, but admits that it's the tail end that really does it for her. "Seeing it come to life is the best part," she says. "I love watching people sigh when they see how beautiful it is, something I've made."

It seems she can make something out of anything: a few scraps of fabric, maybe a piece of old upholstery, a needle and thread, and a tube of glue. But she insists that challenges are constant. If they weren't, she says, the work wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

If one thing comes easily to Oliver Manhattan, it's hats. "Hats I could do blindfolded," she chuckles. "Blindfolded, playing maracas with a baby in my arms."

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