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Custom Corsets Are a Cinch at This Hayes Valley Boutique

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Autumn Adamme tends to elicit a fangirl response from her clients, which is actually how we were introduced. While ringing in 2014, a friend spotted Autumn in the crowd at a party and squealed, "You have to meet this woman! She designs the most amazing corsets." Customers at Dark Garden, Autumn's Hayes Valley boutique are similarly enthusiastic, chatting about their couture commissions and producing iPhone photos of their favorite pieces. The excitement has paid off: After more than 20 years in business, Autumn has established herself as one of America's premier corset makers, designing for celebrities like Christina Aguilera, Pamela Anderson, Kelly Osbourne and Dita Von Teese, all the while maintaining her San Francisco roots.

We caught up with Autumn at her gorgeous Linden Street shop amid the pre-Valentine's Day rush to find out how she became a designer, who she wants to dress, and what she does in her down time.

When did your fascination with corsetry begin? How did you become a corset designer?
"My interest comes from my background in historical costuming. Once I was done with school I realized that there wasn't much of a customer base for highly-detailed, historically-accurate costumes, and people were responding to the corsets that I was making for myself. I really like sculpting the body. I'm endlessly fascinated by what our bodies are capable of and also what we can do to alter them. I also think that Lynda Carter's version of Wonder Woman had something to do with my fascination with tiny waists. I recall wearing belts as tight as I could because I wanted to be like her."

Are there any particular designers that have influenced you?
"I love '80s [Christian] Lacroix, [Thierry] Mugler, [and Vivienne Westwood]. They're just so incredible. Of course [Jean Paul] Gaultier is always inspiring; so off-the-wall. But Mugler's insect-inspired stuff was just life-changing for me and I saw that at a pretty formative time. I think that's got something to do with my fondness for an extreme silhouette.

You opened Dark Garden in 1989. What made you decide to start a design business in San Francisco?
"I can't think of a single city anywhere that is more suited to my type of business—in addition to it being fabulously diverse it's a destination city, so people that have been curious about us come in when they visit San Francisco. It's certainly not an easy place to do business in, but this is where I grew up and I need to be surrounded by the variety of people that live here and that are drawn to visit this lovely little city."

You've designed corsets for some pretty famous people—Dita Von Teese and Christina Aguilera, just to name two. How often do you collaborate with celebrity clients?
"Thanks to Dita's rising star and her own brand of lingerie being such a good fit with our corsets it happens more and more all the time—though of course I'm also hungry for even more. I dream of getting my corsets around Christina Hendricks! I believe this is just about the only downside to be located in San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles or New York—we're not close to the industry, so people have to know about us already, or discover us through Dita or another celebrity. We made Lana Wachowski and her wife's wedding dresses, but the photos weren't publicized, so it only comes up if I name drop."

In addition to traditional corsets, Dark Garden has a contemporary style called the Dollymop. What distinguishes the Dollymop from the traditional corset style?
"Dollymops are the creation of my associate designer Kalico Delafey, who has a very different design aesthetic than I do — she's less historically-inspired than I, she thinks more texturally and in a different palette than I do, which is refreshing to have around. I love silks and shiny fabrics, she works really well with earth tones and wools. What we have in common is our love of sculpture. She is an incredibly talented milliner as well, creating with vintage felts, trims and feathers, so each hat is completely unique and they're all very sculptural."

Dark Garden offers both pre-made and custom corsets. Talk us through the custom corset design process.
"We offer three levels of fit and production: Off-the-rack means you can walk in with a desire for a corset, and walk out with that desire fulfilled. These run between $265 and $675. Made-to-order means you try a corset on and choose different fabric and possibly different details, and we can do minor pattern modifications for improved fit. Their price range is $265 to $875 and takes between four and six weeks, depending on our work load. Custom means that we meet with a client, discuss design and fabric details, take about 15 measurements, draft a pattern, do a mock-up fitting, sometimes two, then make the corset, sometimes doing another fitting. The average price for custom is $1000 and the turn around time is approximately three months.

You also do bridal and couture design. Describe the Dark Garden bride.
"The Dark Garden bride doesn't usually get married in June, though more of them than one might think get married in ivory, (followed closely by red or silver). Some years we get a lot of light green wedding dresses, and shades of purple and blue are always popular. She's rarely looking for something terribly traditional, though I often spend a lot of the design process finding the balance between what the bride wants and what she feels her family can handle. What I enjoy most about these opportunities is making a gorgeous dress that the bride will love, feel stunning in, (and that she very well may be able to wear again), that truly suits her personality and lifestyle. They don't say 'It's your day' for nothing, and the traditional 'bride costume' doesn't often resonate with the people who come to us."

A lot of people use the terms bustier and corset interchangeably. Is there a distinction between the two?
"The clearest way I can describe the difference is that bustiers usually stop just at the waist (terribly uncomfortable) and include elastic. Corsets need to extend past the waist over the hips to smooth the abdomen and support the lower back. Corsets also lace up and the reason for this is they are worn tighter than a person can pull in and hook up with just the strength of their hands. The gradual lacing of the corset means that it can reduce the waist over four inches, but this takes a little time."

Corsets were traditionally a type of underwear, but your designs beg to be seen. How do you style a corset as part of an outfit?
"I wear corsets as the upper half of an ensemble, pairing them with skirts of many silhouettes, as well as fuller legged trousers. One of my employees wears her corset every day, and she looks great in skinny jeans as well as straight skirts. I like a short jacket with a corset as I'm not always ready for the attention just a corset always garners me, but when I'm prepared, I jump right in. People can't keep their eyes of someone in a corset. I also love a really beautiful corset under an outfit, a secret for myself and my beau."

San Francisco has a number of up-and-coming designers. Do you have any favorites who we should watch?
I am terribly guilty of living in a very small world. I know a tiny bit about accessory designers, my favorites being House of Nines Designs hats and Kalico Delafey millinery, but I have no idea about clothing designers; it's embarrassing, but my nose is pretty close to the pattern drafting table most of the time."

Corset and couture design sounds glamorous. Is the rest of your life equally glamorous? What do you do in the city when you're not designing?
"Ha! …. I often say a visit to a neighborhood outside Hayes Valley seems like a vacation because I so rarely leave it. I only live a mile from work and like to walk whenever I can. I have a very dedicated yoga practice since I discovered Laughing Lotus Studio, and I also enjoy indoor rock climbing and am lucky enough to have a pretty great significant other who dances tango with me."

Between the Edwardian Ball and Valentine's Day, the beginning of the year is pretty crazy for you. What are you going to do when you find a moment to relax?
"I'm currently keeping myself busy preparing for a two-week visit to Venice, Italy for Carnavale — it's like relaxing...but there will be costumes at the end of it. Time in Venice will be spent with friends at fancy dress parties, which for me is heaven! My hands and eyes are nearly always busy, so I get my reading done by listening to books. Without this, I don't know how I'd find time, and I dearly love to read."

Now for the lightning round!

Beach or mountains?
"A view of the beach from the cliffs."

Dogs or cats?
"Cats."

Twitter or Instagram?
"Pinterest."

Gold or silver?
"White gold."

Favorite decade?
"The 30s, in a few centuries, followed closely by the 1940s."
· Dark Garden [Official Site]
· Exclusive: Dita Von Teese Wants to Get In Your Lingerie Drawer [Racked]