From difficult alterations to custom wedding gowns, The Dressmaker’s Closet in Charleston does it all.
Julie Wirts says the best thing about her job is that she gets to do something different every day. Some days it’s just hems and basic alterations at her boutique and studio, The Dressmaker’s Closet in Charleston’s Bridge Road shopping district, but some days she gets to take on more ambitious projects—like the time she made a camouflage wedding dress.
“This gal actually had a wedding dress she wanted us to add a camouflage train to,” Julie says. “Instead of doing a train, it was split open in the front and we made the entire front camouflage. We cut out the back and made the lace-up camouflage, and then the insert was camouflage.”
OK, so it’s not every day she gets an assignment that interesting, but Julie says she’d love to make more custom bridal accessories. For someone who didn’t set out to have her own shop and still doesn’t do much advertising, she’s thrilled with the variety of requests she gets.
“She has a very exciting quality about her,” says Charleston event planner Belle Manjong, who gets several dresses a year made by Julie. “She thinks outside of the box. She’s incredibly creative and sees things differently. You present her with something and she’s able to push beyond that. It’s always evolving.”
Julie’s education is in costume design. A New Martinsville native, she graduated from Marshall University with her bachelor of fine arts in 1994. Her first jobs were making costumes for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and sewing for a men’s clothing store, a local dressmaker, and a general alterations shop. That’s where she really gained confidence in taking apart and reassembling garments. “A lot of women sew,” she says, “but they do it for a hobby. They do it for fun, and they’re very, very talented. If you even mention alterations to them, they just go ‘ugh’ because it’s so laborious. But for us, it’s what we do all day long.”
After three years in Cincinnati, Julie moved to Charleston with her husband and had her first child. She started doing alterations from her home, but her workload kept growing. “I got really busy and thought that I needed a studio,” she says. Most of Julie’s customers are professional women who dress up every day. “People don’t realize how important it is to have your clothes altered. It can make a really cheap outfit look expensive immediately by just getting it to fit you well.”
Julie moved into her first studio space in 2006 and within a month needed an extra pair of hands. She hired her first employee—a man named Andy Sanchez who moonlit as a clown. Then, when the venerable Charleston women’s clothing store Schwabe-May closed in 2008, its alterations seamstress found a new home at The Dressmaker’s Closet. Several more seamstresses have come and gone, and now Julie has a staff of five. Her most recent hire is 24-year-old Rebecca Arcenaux, a recent graduate of West Virginia University with a degree in fashion.
Before long, Julie and her team outgrew the small studio space and moved into a stand-alone building a block away. “If you would see where I was, how tiny, you wouldn’t believe that we actually fit in the space,” she says. Now she’s able to spread out into a basement work room where she also sponsors summer sewing classes for kids. With the help of her husband, she turned half of her main-level space into a boutique where she sells clothing and accessories. She finds local artists to feature, buys handmade items from Etsy and artists she finds in magazines and online, and even sells antique furniture and vintage clothing in half of the space, called The Boutique at The Dressmaker’s Closet.
The other half of The Dressmaker’s Closet is a cheerful beehive of a sewing room complete with mirror-surrounded pedestals for fittings—where Julie and her staff work most of the day. “On a typical day we’ll have 10 fittings,” she says, adding that Tuesdays and Thursdays are really crazy. The shop recently started opening on Saturdays to accommodate the many working people who can’t make it in during the week. Julie’s only complaint is that she stays so busy she doesn’t have much time to create. She sews clothing from scratch as much as she can to sell in her shop, and usually a customer buys a piece in progress before she even gets it finished. “She’s an artist through and through,” Belle says. “It’s not just alterations and making dresses. It’s so much more than that.”
The Dressmaker’s Closet and The Boutique are open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.