"Can I use your sewing machine?" asked the burly 6-foot-7, 350-pound Matt Bloom. These are not words wrestling fans would expect to hear from one known to them as Phat Albert, one of the snarling superstars of the World Wrestling Federation. Imagine a guy with fingers the size of kielbasas trying to thread a needle to alter his spandex cap.
"No, I'll do it," costume designer Julie Drozdov replied backstage at a recent show at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim. After all, a girl's got to protect her turf. She sewed the cap.
A grateful Phat Albert is now stage-ready, looking every inch the tough guy in a muscle shirt, black spandex pants, the cap and assorted silver studs piercing his nose, one ear and face.
Drozdov, 31, is one of four costume designers who make sure the big guys--and wrestling gals--get their performance duds right. She made her first wrestling costume in 1988, the year she graduated from a Chicago high school. Drozdov was a seamstress bored with making bridesmaid dresses, who liked watching the WWF on late-night TV.
She noticed two wrestlers in particular, known as the Rockers, who wore drab leotards. When the federation came to town, she and her three sisters made new costumes for the pair. "I thought they were cute, and I wanted to meet them," she explained.
With the help of a security guard, the sisters got their "couture" to the wrestlers. The Rockers liked the look and hired the girls to make more. Other wrestlers, tired of sewing their own costumes, placed orders with the sisters, who were hired by the WWF in 1989.
Today, Drozdov and her sister, Terry Anderson, are still at it, now working with Yolanda Warren and Diane Murell. The four are constantly coming up with new designs for monthly pay-per-view events. Each designer is typically responsible for 15 wrestlers, which means about 180 costumes a year per designer.
For the uninitiated, at least half the drama in pro wrestling is set outside the ring. The matches are as much about storytelling--characters and plot lines--as they are about wrestling--sort of a cross between "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Days of Our Lives." In fact, you can follow the thrills, spats and, yes, romances (with WWF Divas), on the wwf.com Web site, where the action is recapped a la Soap Opera Digest.
Vince McMahon, WWF chief executive officer and a sometime wrestler, creates a persona for each of the wrestlers. Though some wrestlers concoct their own looks, the designers create clothes that help define most of the characters. There's the Rock, the movie-star hero with his bull logo emblazoned on the behind of his traditional shorts; rotund Rikishi in his faux Japanese ceremonial garb; and the Undertaker, who favors bandanas and black leather and arrives in the arena atop a motorcycle. The Hurricane is a caped crusader; Chris Jericho favors flashy sequined pants.
The biggest challenge, Drozdov said, is to get the costumes to fit. "The girls are all built like Barbie dolls, the guys are huge," she said. One year, "Chyna kept wanting her leather pants really, really tight. As soon as she got out to the ring for her match, the zipper broke," Drozdov recalled. After that, it seemed that in every pay-per-view show with Chyna, there "was something: Her top would bust open or the snaps would come undone."
Fabrics with a little give--Ultraleather, spandex and stretch denim--allow the athletes to leap from the ropes, slam to the mat or flip through the air in the ring. The designers have more creative flexibility for scenes taped outside the ring. Rikishi, for example, wears an elaborate black satin kimono made especially for him, over the spandex underwear he wears in the ring.
Shawn Michaels, a semiretired wrestler, is Drozdov's favorite wrestler to dress. "I could do anything and he'd wear it," she says. "I've made things out of plastic, one [costume] was made out of the fabric they use in screen doors.... Once I shopped at a hardware store and made a jacket out of hinges."
For designer Warren, one of her toughest assignments is Kurt Angle, who uses his real-life experience as the 1996 Olympic gold medal winner in freestyle wrestling for his WWF persona. "How many ways can you do red, white and blue?" she asked. "Somehow we manage to make them all different."
Logo designs are almost as important as costumes to some wrestlers who earn a percentage of sales from merchandise with their logos. Backstage at the Pond, Triple H happily examined his new silver, red and black "H" logo, which Drozdov just applied to a jean jacket. The WWF staff tried to come up with a new logo for him, H explained, but "they screwed it up. Julie made it look cool."
The most grueling event of the year is WrestleMania, the Super Bowl of wrestling, coming up in March. Some wrestlers won't know if they will compete until a couple weeks or even days before the event. But Drozdov, who is married to former wrestler Darren Drozdov, likes the pressure.
"I don't consider this a job," she said. "It's like having 40 big brothers around."
Really big brothers.