Founder & designer of Louise Apparel
Born and raised in Portland, Oregon Ellen Warren grew up dancing at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre. At the age of 15, she was accepted into the School of American Ballet and soon joined the New York City Ballet as a corps member in 2003.
After 9 seasons with NYCB, Warren returned to the West Coast and finished her ballet career as a guest artist with Oregon Ballet Theatre. During that time she began honing her sewing skills and after years of constructing leotards for herself ventured into sewing pieces for other dancers, catching the eye of former colleague, soloist, and current Resident Choreographer of NYCB, Justin Peck. In 2015 the two collaborated on Peck’s Osso Duet and soon after Warren was invited to design and ultimately construct the costumes for Peck’s first commission with the San Francisco Ballet, “In the Countenance of Kings”. It was within this process she discovered the discrepancies in dancers’ measurements and traditional leotard sizing and went on to develop a custom-fit sizing and construction method.
In 2017 Warren launched the leotard brand Louise Apparel using her now patent-pending method and applied this method to her third collaboration with Peck “Reflections”, commissioned by The Houston Ballet in 2019. Warren continues to design and construct leotards as Louise Apparel and intends to expand her pending patent’s use to one-piece swimwear in the Spring of 2021.
We asked Ellen to reflect upon her career transition.
As the maker behind Louise Apparel, your passion for design was evident early on during your time with New York City Ballet (NYCB). You were known to make changes to your leotards; what did you do to work around this problem?
Ellen Warren: I would say what I now call passion for design started more as a persnickety dancer being picky about leotard fit, as most dancers are. First I needed a “good butt”, which in the ballet world is dancer speak for coverage that comfortably hugs around the bottom of your cheeks, stays there, and doesn’t give a double bubble (That’s when the leg elastic cuts across your cheeks and usually leaves your buns hanging out the sides. Sexy for swim perhaps but not so comfortable when dancing.) Second, my torso is on the longer side, so finding something with enough length was often a challenge. It took a while in my career to realize a fix existed, but eventually, I began cutting leotards in half along the waistline, adding some length when cutting, and then mixing and matching top halves with “good butt” bottom halves. Finding a leo off the rack that did it all was a rare gem.
Having suffered many cycles of injury and recovery, you persevered and danced a total of nine years with NYCB. What happened in your final year with the company that started the process of your career transition?
Ellen: Heartbreakingly, it wasn’t my choice to begin my career transition. I was let ago after requiring bunion surgery at the end of the Nutcracker season. It was an exhausting 50 show run, in a December full of snowstorms, and the straw that broke my bunion’s back was having to walk a mile in unplowed snow to catch a subway for the last double show day (and walk that mile back after). Most streets were closed, so a cab wasn’t an option. As I think back on that trudge home I remember knowing I would probably be let go if I went out. What a brutal moment that was. My body demanded that I listen to it and I knew doing so would cost me, put lightly, my dream job, but essentially my world, my sense of home that was nestled within NYCB, and most deeply my identity. And I was right. Unfortunately, my injury track record made me an easy target for non-renewal, so in March when it appeared my recovery needed more time I was told I’d be let go.
After your recovery, comeback, and your final performance with Oregon Ballet Theatre, what came next?
Ellen: It was in the midst of those endeavors that the seed for my next chapter was planted. Trying to save money but still wanting new leotards for my time dancing with OBT, I started sewing my own and figured out how to make the aforementioned “good butt” and add the length I needed. Feeling fairly confident with 2 patterns I’d created, I gathered the various yards of fabric I’d accumulated over the years, a real problem of mine, and began mixing and matching colors at whim. I sewed up 10 leotards, all in unique palettes, and with the help of my dear friend Savannah Lowery who was still a soloist at NYCB, sold them to the ladies in the company. They were snatched up quickly and with glowing feedback, so I knew I was onto something but at the same time felt the need to pursue other paths. I began a few basic college courses, with veterinary medicine in mind, and also started working my first “real job”, as dancers often say, at the front desk of a massage studio owned by yet another dear friend.
Do you think there could have been any way that the company or the industry overall could have better prepared you for a career transition?
Ellen: Absolutely, and I think there’s a bit of a moral responsibility to do so. In my case, and for many, if not most professional ballet dancers, I was hired as a teenager. Such a fragile time for mental and emotional development in general, let alone while managing a consuming adult career and existence. It’s a specifically challenging bubble to become an adult in and dancers, who by nature can be quite self-sufficient, become adept at functioning within that world but possibly lack the tools to survive and thrive in a healthy manner outside and beyond that career. I feel therapy and some kind of support group, as well as opportunities for basic work skills outside of dance (essentially Pivot Pointe!), could profoundly support dancers as they maintain their focus on dance but gently acknowledge the painful reality that their career is fleeting and could end truly any day, any minute. I know some companies offer financial support for academic and business pursuits (which is wonderful), but if a bit of focus and care were targeted toward the mental and emotional health of dancers and their inevitable career transition, it could serve them eternally.
Despite remarkable progress in recent years with Louise Apparel, I understand there was also a lot of emotional uncertainty and battle in setting it up. Can you share more details about the toll your career transition took on your mental health?
Ellen: My career transition was the slowest of burns that ultimately destroyed my homeostasis. I’ve come to learn how fragile and interdependent our mental, physical, and emotional selves are. To begin with, I didn’t seek any professional support to focus on this transition. I thought I finally attained closure since I had the opportunity to perform knowing it was my last show. Plus, I knew Louise Apparel would be my next venture, so I just kept moving forward, with the same intense rigor I had applied to my ballet career. The stress of starting a business began rising as daily exercise fell by the wayside (a true perk of a physical career), and I also found myself struggling with some medication side effects that really disrupted my hormones. Once those factors compounded with my avoidance of processing the emotions I’d accumulated over the years, the stress began to manifest in skin rashes, and insomnia set in. True to my old patterns I kept pushing through it all for many months until the exhaustion triggered a severe anxiety attack that just leveled me. I was left unable to function on a basic human level and became somewhat agoraphobic because of this bizarre, constant vertigo sensation and a complete inability to focus mentally. As a dancer who always felt so present and solid in my being, this foreign lack of embodiment was terrifying and held me in a constant, gripping state of anxiety. One condition fed another until I was caught in this insomnia, anxiety, fatigue loop that I’ve been working through ever since. I eventually found the right practitioners and modalities to support the arduous work of what essentially is a rebirth and laying of a completely new foundation. I’ve come to find my career transition, decimating as it’s been, to be an endowment of sorts. An opportunity that, when properly supported, now has the capacity to help me really get to know myself and work towards the person I want to be and the pursuits I desire, in a healthy manner.
How difficult or easy was it to set up Louise Apparel? Did opportunities along the way expedite the launch of your brand?
Ellen: It was much more difficult than I imagined and I made it even harder by trying to revolutionize the industry, which wasn’t my initial aim. That first batch of 10 leotards were a catalyst I didn’t anticipate when they caught the eye of my former colleague, then soloist and resident choreographer of NYCB, Justin Peck. After our first collaboration on a pas de deux, he brought me in for his commission with the San Francisco Ballet, “In the Countenance of Kings”. It was a tremendous opportunity that struck me in many unexpected ways. I absolutely loved contributing to new work on the other side of creation. It was emotionally challenging at times though to be in the role of designer, as opposed to dancer, in that stage of my career transition but the experience was truly a gift. It was Justin’s enthusiasm for my designs, as well as that of the lighting designer and dancers, that boosted my confidence to earnestly consider launching a brand. During the construction process I also had a bit of a revelation and discovered space for leotard (and swimwear) innovation that I couldn’t believe didn’t already exist. From then on out I’ve carried this overwhelming compulsion that I have to pursue this.
Little did you know that working with Justin Peck and San Francisco Ballet would propel you into new ventures and the birth of a revolutionary idea. What was the realization that came as you reviewed the dancers' measurements?
Ellen: As I started sorting the women by their measurements (and luckily SFB wanted multiple sets of costumes, so I obtained 25 charts) I realized not every dancer fell into one size category, XS / S / M / L / XL, some busts were XS but low hips were an S or M. And the variance in torso girth/length stood out as well. It was enough dancers to prompt further investigation, so I reached out to women in a few other companies for their measurements to see if the discrepancies tracked. And they sure did. In addition to the top/bottom/length variations, I also noticed 2 women would have the same bust measurement but one would be broad with an A cup and the other would be narrow with a C or D cup. I felt there was no way those two body shapes could be equally comfortable in the same size. And they aren’t!
It was so clear from my measurement data there was a need for custom fit leotards and my initial workaround from those NYCB days, mixing and matching tops and bottoms along the waistline seam, provided the solution. I created a custom fit sizing and construction method where one can choose their top half size, bottom half size and length, to get a customized fit for their body shape.
You’ve since filed a patent to make this signature move official—congratulations! What does this move mean for the future of Louise Apparel?
Ellen: Thank you! It means legal fees! Just kidding. It means swimwear! I want to bring the comfort of my “good butt” and customized fit to the masses. Swimsuits are the most hated garment of women, and rightfully so. When it comes to one-piece suits we must fit our dynamic, unique bodies within a small range of sizes and when something doesn’t fit right we deem our bodies the problem. What a degrading mentality to hold in such a vulnerable situation, not to mention we’re probably buying that swimsuit to wear on vacation, when we of course want to feel relaxed and removed from negativity. I cannot wait to offer women the option of a customized fit one-piece swimsuit that will hopefully be the most comfortable one they’re ever worn and make them feel their body is right just the way it is.
What advice do you have for dancers thinking about career transition or about to go on the journey?
Ellen: Seek support, even if you feel like “you’ve got this'' because no matter how your dancing career ends it’s going to be a seismic shift that will reverberate into every aspect of your life and being. If you have access, talk to a therapist, join a virtual support group, or at the very least simply a journal. Find that safe space and, if possible person/s, where you can focus on and express the emotions that will inevitably arise around this transition. I also highly suggest maintaining a daily physical practice, all the better if it makes you sweat since the level of exertion your body is used to will surely be unmatched in this new phase of life.
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