Interview with Karl Jacobs, Fashion Designer and Drag Performer
An afternoon with Karl Jacobs, fashion designer, costume creator, and performer, begins with a home-cooked meal.
Honey Teriyaki Salmon is a specialty. When Karl is working on a new idea, he puts out a call for volunteers on social media. Friends who respond are invited to his home where they act as live models for Karl to develop his concept. “Whether I’m sketching or sewing, I try to depict as many types of people as possible.” His friends eat, talk, and watch TV while he works.
Karl’s approach, adapting his creations to the real and various bodies that will wear them, is a manifestation of his artistic vision, as well as his political stance. “There are so many sizest remarks in my line of work. It’s an industry that has found out how to monopolize on people’s insecurities. Size actually has zero to do with fashion, ultimately. They say clothes drape off of a skinnier body better. But I know that’s a load of bullshit. You can make clothes to drape off of any body, make it custom to that body.”
Other aspects of Karl’s process can be isolated and lengthy: years of researching, sketching, collecting materials, practicing technique, producing pieces. When asked how long his ideas take to develop, he replies, “Everything I’m doing now is 15 years in the making.”
Take, for instance, his new line of customized mermaid tails. As a child, Karl was enthralled by Disney’s Little Mermaid. “It was my favorite VHS that we owned. I scratched up the tape so badly from rewinding it and watching it, over and over again. I would wrap my legs up in a towel and pretend to be a mer-man.”
Sometime later Karl discovered Splash, the 1984 movie in which Daryl Hannah’s character is a mermaid in water, whose tail magically transforms to human legs on land. “I was always curious about how they made it, how they turned an actual human into a mermaid.” Over the years he read about the process and materials, exploring any information available from the handful of companies making mermaid tails, and watched YouTube tutorials. Actual production started last summer.
Karl grew up in Brockton, a Massachusetts town south of Boston. “Family life was pretty difficult. We had a strict Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, which meant no costumes, no holidays, no LGBTQ anything. My parents were naturally strict people so they adapted the religion to their household regime, really.”
Despite this, Karl developed his artistic vision, finding influence where he could. “The Carol Burnett show was on TV land every morning. Just seeing all the crazy costumes, all the immaculate set designs, I’m six years old watching, like ‘I wanna make that!’ but I can’t at the time.”
At seventeen, Karl moved in with two art history professors, a lesbian couple, who were teaching him advance classes while he was still in high school. “I started really exploring and making up for lost time with identity and sexuality. Pretty much throughout that year I flourished, just in terms of art in general and creativity. And because I was in an LGBTQ-friendly household, I got to express that side of myself more than I had usually been allowed to. That whole year living with them was like Christmas every day.”
At the close of the year, the couple offered to adopt Karl so he could continue his development. He agreed, and the papers were signed. In the following years he would make his way from Virginia, to Boston, and eventually to the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Along the way he continued to design, create costumes and theater sets, and perform.
As a Black man, Karl has had to fight hard to occupy these spaces. “Every theater I ever intern with, every design house I ever work with, I’m always the only black staff member. You always have to be working ten times as hard as anyone else - as any of your counterparts. It can wear you down quite a bit, if you let it.”
Today Karl creates costumes and clothing, categories he no longer really distinguishes, and performs drag and burlesque. “Everything I own between both worlds is considered a costume to me - an outfit that I put on to play a particular role. For me, over the years, it’s become indivisible.”
His typical daytime wear, which he describes as “Modern Day Mad Hatter,” is crafted from a combination of purchased and homemade items. Typically he starts with a single piece that resonates with him, and builds from there. “So if I have a blazer that I really, really love, I’ll search out a number of stores to accessorize and expand upon that. I do a lot of thrifting.”
Karl’s excitement and joy in doing his work are palpable. “The costumes are the closet things I have to babies at the moment, it’s always rewarding to seem them in a photograph, finally completed.”