When Your Dog Needs a $2000 Gown
Joanna Colon designs custom formal wear for competitive pet pageants
Welcome to Issue #6 of CAFÉ ANNE!
I first met Joanna Colon last month at the Atlantic Antic street fair in Brooklyn. She was with her dog, ChuChi, who was sporting some serious shades:
As it turns out, Ms. Colon designs custom formal wear for dogs to wear in competitive pet pageants. I had to learn more. Please enjoy this week’s feature below.
As always, please feel free to email your comments and questions—I love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org
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IN THIS WEEK’S ISSUE…
• Weird Trash Heap #4
• Brooklyn Heights Style Blog
• Feature: When Your Dog Needs a $2000 Gown
Weird Trash Heap #4
Kim in Philadelphia encountered the below next to a parking lot, just before Halloween. Note the elements of both witch and fairy princess attire. Perhaps someone couldn’t make up their mind and just said f-it! to the whole thing:
Please send your favorite sidewalk trash photo to email@example.com and I will include it in a future issue.
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS STYLE BLOG
Upon moving to Brooklyn Heights few years back, I noticed the neighborhood’s residents have their own distinctive style. Typical elements for both ladies and gentlemen include plaid button-downs purchased in 1992, ball caps and tote bags faded beyond legibility. Needless to say, I am a huge fan.
I’ve often imagined there is story behind many of these aggressively banal sartorial choices. So it is with great excitement that I introduce a new regular feature, Brooklyn Heights Style Blog. Each post will feature a local who epitomizes Brooklyn Heights style.
I asked retired Wall Street executive Phil Phillips, who I met up with at the Heights Casino before his squash lesson, to be my first subject.
“You mean victim?” he said.
THE SHIRT: “When I play squash, I wear all-cotton shirts because you get really sweaty. And you want to wipe your glasses. These new, funny artificial fabrics, you can’t wipe your glasses on them. I found a Brooks Brothers outlet in Florida that has these really nice tennis shirts on the cheap. They have all these excuses—the shirt is $79, but it’s three for $100, but it’s Tuesday so you get another ten bucks off. So the only place I buy summer shirts is this one Brooks Brother outlet in this funny mall in Florida. My wife gets on my case. I need to throw them out more often.”
THE PANTS: “They have an additional pocket in front, so I can keep my wallet there and it doesn’t bite into my leg when I go for a long walk. It’s a company called Union Bay. They’re cheap at Costco—$17.99. It’s like renting your clothes. You wear it for a few months, you throw it out, it’s fine! I love Costco.”
THE SNEAKERS: “I have very wide feet. I once did a favor for somebody in the sneaker business—I mentored his son. Turns out there are wider-than-wide New Balance sneakers. He always goes out of his way to order me these.”
CAFÉ ANNE: “Are your feet like, perfectly square?”
THE PULLOVER: “There was a woman who worked with me as my associate, who was really nice. She went back to Boston and worked for this firm, Income Research + Management, IR+M—where she’s now a pretty senior executive. One day she sent me this shirt. On Wall Street it’s called swag.”
THE GLASSES “Costco! The typical markup on glasses is so enormous. Costco limits their markup no matter the situation. 14 percent. So my glasses are always from Costco.”
STYLE PHILOSOPHY “There was a time in my life when I had a great tailor. I wore handmade suits, handmade shirts. That doesn’t make any sense anymore. I don’t care.”
When Your Dog Needs a $2000 Gown
Yes, there’s a subculture for everyone, and that includes folks who like to dress their dogs in formal gowns and tuxedos for competitive pet pageants. Meet Joanna Colon, a Brighton Beach, Brooklyn designer whose custom dog pageant outfits can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
“Some animals truly love the fashions,” says the founder of Rebarkable Wags. “I'm not lying to you.”
In cities from New York to Nashville and LA, hundreds enter their pets in elaborate runway contests, competing for prizes such as “Little Princess” and “Best Outfit, Furboy.”
Ms. Colon, who travels the circuit with her companion and muse ChuChi, a 3.5-pound Papillon-Chihuahua mix, has several clients competing in next weekend’s contest at the Monarch Country Club in Stuart, Florida.
Organized by G Girl Productions, a events company specializing in pet pageants, this year’s competition has a high school homecoming theme.
At the sold-out Saturday night contest (tickets cost $250), 75 dogs will compete for titles such as "Homecoming Court King and Queen." The weekend also includes a “sip and shop” at a local pet store and a farewell Sunday brunch.
Many folks in the circuit attend multiple shows a year, says Ms. Colon. It’s a real scene. “Once you get involved, you don't want to miss one. It's amazing seeing all the beautiful designs coming from so many different designers."
I would never dress my dog in any sort of outfit, let alone a ball gown. But I get it. Dressing pets in fancy attire is the most frivolous thing I can imagine, and that’s what makes it so great.
“It's true. Very true!” Ms. Colon agreed. “I mean, for a person to spend $1,000 on a dog outfit to present in a show. Think about it!”
But like any community formed around a shared passion, the pet pageant circuit is also about friendship and support. “Also, the number of dogs that were involved over the years that have crossed the Rainbow Bridge,” said Ms. Colon.
“Say that again?” I said.
“A lot of our dogs have crossed the Rainbow Bridge…”
“You mean died?”
“Yes, a lot of the dogs have died,” said Ms. Colon. “And these are dogs that have been modeling for years. So we do a tribute to them as well. It's not all laughs. Sometimes we're in tears crying because we're watching these tributes.”
Ms. Colon’s custom designs can cost anywhere from $45 for a simple harness to $2000 for an elaborate three-piece headdress, dress and cape ensemble hand-sewn with glass beads, feathers and Swarovski crystals.
A commission typically starts with a consultation in which Ms. Colon meets the dog and discusses the best options based on the upcoming event and the pet’s personality. Much depends on what the dog will tolerate wearing.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘No pants for my dog. He's not comfortable in pants.’” says Ms. Colon. “You have to respect that!”
“But there are some dogs,” she adds, “the minute you take out their clothing, they run right to you. Like, ‘Let's get dressed and let's go out.’ They love it!”
Even beyond the pet pageant circuit, you see more people these days dressing their pets like people. I asked Ms. Colon why this is happening.
“A lot of these people don't have children, okay? A lot of them,” says Ms. Colon, whose own son is grown. “So the dogs have always been the children in their lives. That's basically what it is. It becomes part of your family. It's like dressing your little girl or dressing your little boy.”
Ms. Colon, who always loved fashion, grew up on the Lower East Side. She had her mother, a professional seamstress, design her the elaborate costumes she saw worn onscreen by her idol, Shirley Temple.
“I had to have a hat and a purse to match, and my white gloves,” she recalls. “In my area, there were a lot of old Jewish ladies. They used to sit out on the benches. They totally loved me. That’s who I would talk to in the mornings when I went out.”
Ms. Colon’s mother taught her to sew at an early age, but she pursued a career in interior and theater design. It wasn’t until recently that she went into pet fashion.
Her first client was ChuChi—her sister’s dog at the time. ChuChi needed warm outfits for winter, and Ms. Colon happily obliged. Soon she was borrowing ChuChi for weeks on end, using her as a muse and fitting model. The two bonded.
“I would bring her back to my sister's house and she would be very, very unhappy,” says Ms. Colon. “She would cry and didn't want me to leave.”
Finally, sis let Ms. Colon keep the dog.
When Ms. Colon entered ChuChi in their first show—the 2016 New York Pet Fashion Show—she was a hit. “Because she's such a rare-looking dog, the paparazzis were all over her,” says Ms. Colon. “We immediately, instantly became known because of her.”
Ms. Colon and ChuChi have a mutually beneficial relationship. While the shy dog does not like to wear to clothes, she patiently tolerates the fittings and pageants. She is also a service animal who serves as Ms. Colon’s therapy dog.
“I have a lot of anxieties, and I do get panic attacks,” says Ms. Colon, who recently remarried following the death of her first husband. “Basically, she picks up on that when I'm feeling that way. She comes up to me and rolls her head into my neck and hugs me. That's her way of saying, ‘I love you so much. I want you to be okay.’ And it just feels great. It distracts my attention from what I'm feeling.”
In return, Ms. Colon showers the dog with attention. She gives ChuChi regular spa treatments, including massages and painting her nails. They bathe together.
Ms. Colon also maintains a large wardrobe for ChuChi—collected in seven file boxes labeled, “formal wear,” “summer,” etc., including both fashions from other designers and outfits she made herself.
Her designs are often quite spectacular. My favorite: the “Galactic Angel” outfit ChuChi wore to a recent NY Pet Fashion Show.
“Basically her thing was to make sure that all love in the universe was being spread equally, and spread among all the areas that it needed to be spread on to,” says Ms. Colon. “I used rose gold because rose signifies love, and gold signifies royalty. Because she was a royal Galactic Angel. And this was her super power, spreading love.”
It’s not always prom queens and fairy tales when it comes to costume themes, however. Next weekend’s event in Florida will include a Sunday breakfast with a graduation theme. Ms. Colon plans to enter ChuChi in the contest’s “Most Likely to Be Expelled” category.
“We’re dressing her up like a hippie,” says Ms. Colon. “I'm going to be painting marijuanas all over her outfit, and I'm going to roll a big joint blunt for her. And yes, she's most likely to get expelled from school because she's busy in the bathroom, smoking joints with her friends.”