An interview with Karen Torrisi

Moulin Rouge, Star Wars, Sunset Boulevard and Phantom of the Opera are just some of the film and theatre productions Karen Torrisi has had commissioned costume work on. I can only imagine what it must feel like to sit in an audience and watch the actors grace the stage and screen in costumes you have helped to create!

Karen Torrisi began beading professionally in 1994. She opened her own atelier in Sydney and now beads exclusively for selected designers & costumiers. We are very proud to have her as a tutor at Beating Around The Bush, teaching three classes - Angel’s Breath, Enchanted Evening Purse and Beaded Lace Motif. She will also hold an evening lecture on Professional Beading for Stage and Screen. Last week I had the chance to talk with Karen about her love of beading and upcoming classes at Beating Around The Bush.

Having been commissioned to work on international blockbuster movies like Moulin Rouge and Star Wars, as well as a long list of stage shows, can you tell us how you came to a career in beading?

I had developed a strong passion for embellished Haute couture fashion during my time at Fashion College. I was interested in the practical hands-on process of making and embellishing fashion garments. I came to a career in beading after being involved in fashion manufacturing. Mass manufacturing was not my passion so I decided to pursue work in the couture clothing sector.

I began beading and hand finishing bridal garments for a couture designer in Double Bay. I loved it and recognised a niche market for French hand bead embroidery in Sydney. I studied with a beading legend, Maisie Jarratt, I read, I practised beading hour after hour and learned all the techniques I could find and began my own beading atelier/work room.

Having studied Haute couture beading and embroidery in Paris, can you describe what it was like to study in such an iconic city?

It was very creatively indulgent to be studying in such a beautiful place. Paris is a very beautiful and visually inspiring city, the architecture is exquisite. You are surrounded by romantic European beauty at every turn, every day. Taking time to observe all that was around me was one of my favourite daily pass times. It was also wonderful to study in a city that took fashion and applied decoration seriously, and where the Haute couture fashion industry was alive and supported.

You have been described as a “…woman to whom beading was an art, not a craft”. Do you believe this is true?

Yes I believe this is true. Beading in its simpler form is a craft, but in its more complicated and exquisite form, is an art. The depth of knowledge and technical expertise coupled with the artisan’s precision in the creation process makes their finished product art.

What inspires you?

Haute couture fashion, graphic design, music, travel, art, film, photography, pop culture, architecture, nature, colour, texture and all that is beautiful in the world.

Which came first, working on costumes for the theatre or film?

Working on costumes for theatre came first. The first show I worked on was Miss Saigon. I beaded men’s collar lapels and beaded women’s bikinis using the Tambour Beading Method.

I once read an interview with Catherine Martin (costume designer for Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge) where she commented, “I think I’d always been impressed by being immersed in themed environments”, do you think this an accurate description for working on film and theatre projects?

Immersion in themed environments is impressive and also helps to maintain continuity in the creative process. Working in film & theatre workrooms is immersion to a point. The workrooms have a certain feel about them that is quietly exciting. It is an industrious place, the whirring of machines, the smell of the art department, everyone making a designers dream a reality.

What has been your most rewarding project to work on?

My most rewarding project to work on was Delta Goodram’s 2003 Aria award dress.

In fashion it is a great privilege to collaborate with professional designers and it is a magical feeling knowing that a high profile performer will be wearing a dress that has the beading that I have done on it. The beading was simply elegant.

What has been the highlight of you career?

The highlight of my career was working on Sunset Boulevard’s nine principle beaded costumes. It was challenging to transform plain fabric to fully beaded fabric with in the elaborate design brief. It was exciting to be working on so many beaded pieces for the principal of the show within the production. It was wonderful to work with such a supportive and professional team of people from the designer through to the machinists, and an absolute joy to see all nine of the costumes lit up on stage and come to life because of my beading. I think I lit up sitting in the audience on that night too!

Having studied abroad, do you find teaching beading a rewarding way to pass on the knowledge you have gained?

Yes. Teaching is an extremely rewarding pursuit for me. I enjoy the gift of passing on my knowledge and offering my experience to those who wish to learn about this wonderful embroidery. I love the enthusiasm that my students have and the wonderful, challenging questions they ask! Teaching hand beading embroidery keeps the techniques alive for future generations to admire and enjoy. 

Your classes at Beating Around The Bush include a beaded Lace Motif, an evening purse and a delicate floral picture called Angel’s Breath. Can you explain what these projects were designed for?

These projects were designed to explore different bead embroidery techniques on a variety of articles.

The lace motifs can be applied to any article, including clothing, and can be re-applied and reused on another article if it perishes before the beading does.

A beaded evening purse is an accessory every-one should have!

The floral picture is for those who don’t wear anything beaded but still admire and appreciate the look of a beaded and embroidered piece.

What advice do you have for people attending your classes?

Learning bead embroidery is the beginning of a love affair with beads and the realisation that they can brighten and beautify everything they are sewn on to. I will guide you through many techniques that are gloriously straightforward on their own but combined with other techniques yield exquisite results.

I aim to make my classes fun and informative for enthusiasts and beginners. I hope you will join me with your enthusiasm, sense of fun and let me help you develop a passion for all things sparkly.

To enrol in Karen’s fabulous classes please click on the link below.

I am sure there are many of you who have aspiring movie stars in the family who would benefit greatly from having their own costumer maker on hand!

Until next time, thank you for reading,