Here’s a question: What have the Tiller Girls, scores of pantomime performers, some the best female impersonators in the UK, a host of cruise ship dance teams and even Take That’s tour team got in common?
Answer: Feathers. More exactly Maxine’s Feathers.
From an Aladdin’s cave of a headquarters on Normoss Road, Maxine’s Feathers has established itself as a world leader in bespoke head dresses, harnesses and costumes. All made on the premises. In Blackpool.
Maxine’s Feathers is husband and wife Maxine and Billy Tutty plus their backroom staff.
The couple married eight years ago, became a limited company a few months ago and also run Tut Tut Designs from the same crowded premises.
They are not an obvious glitz and glamour pair. Billy is a big Scottish bloke with a big laugh and a hearty handshake – but no showbusiness background.
I met Maxine when I was retiring and decided this is what I wanted to do with her
Before meeting Maxine he owned a restaurant and a couple of bars – and a security company. Prior to that he manufactured contact lenses for more than 18 years for a small company in his native Scotland.
“I met Maxine when I was retiring and decided this is what I wanted to do with her,” he says. “Yes, it was a quantum leap and, yes, I still gethassle and ribbing from my friends up in Scotland. They don’t believe it, coming from all that to feathers…. but I love it.
“I could see the potential in Maxine’s business when I first met her. She had the talent but didn’t have the know-how with the construction and business side of things. I brought more of the engineering side in. She’s not very technical that way.”
“He bought me my first drill,” she says proudly and laughs. “I used to use scissors for everything. I knew then it was love!” “And a hand free mobile phone,” adds Billy. “When I used to ring her from Scotland she’d put a big head band round her on like tennis player John McEnroe and shove the phone in it so she could talk and work hands free at the same time.”
Maxine’s professional roots are at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
“I did a degree at Bradford University in art and design,” she says. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I wanted to do costumes ideally, so when I finished I worked at different theatres and heard that the Pleasure Beach needed a headdress maker, feather hats and things for the ice shows and Mystique.
“So I winged it. I went for an interview and lied – well exaggerated. I said I could make hats and I got the job.”
She stayed six years – “and it was fantastic” - before setting out solo under her maiden name of Maxine Iddon.
“When I met Billy I changed it,” she says.
“I found it difficult answering the phone as Maxine Iddon,”adds Billy.
So Maxine’s Feathers is more macho?
“It gives more of an immediate measure of what we do,” he admits.
Maxine, 47, hails from Tarleton near Southport. Her father was a market gardener originally, then owned a cardboard box factory.
“He’s lived there all his life, my brother is still there, it’s a nice area but I settled here because I loved it.”
Having initially commuted from Tarleton every day she eventually bought former Funny Girls headliner Betty Legs Diamond’s house on Leeds Road and “moved in when I was 30.”
“I can get everything I need for the business in Blackpool,” she says. Except the feathers?
“There are fabric shops, the town centre is great for anything from belts and buckles, bras and shoes, all the costume things that I need, we like to use local businesses as much as we can plus I’ve a lot of friends here and we do a lot of the shows like Funny Girls, the Alabama as it was then, Legends at Sands Venue.”
Billy recalls: “The night I met Maxine I’d been in the Alabama watching the show. An hour after I met Maxine in the Soul Suite with one of her friends, the singer Catherine Kerr.”
Billy and his friend had decided to stop off in Blackpool on a bit of greyhound business for one of his pubs.
“And that’s what changed my life,” he says and with true conviction adds: “I love it here. I just feel it gets a hard time when you see programmes like 999 What’s Your Emergency. I mean every town and city has that sort of stuff but unfortunately they’re showing it as Blackpool. And it puts a lot of people off.
“Blackpool relies on tourism so there needs to be some common sense from the council somewhere – that’s the only way that Blackpool is going to get back up there where it belongs.
“I think that local authority should focus on what Blackpool is and not try to make it what it’s not.”
Maxine agrees “There are plenty of positive things, like Strictly Come Dancing, they big up Blackpool for weeks before they come up, that’s the main dancer’s aim, to get to Blackpool for the Tower Ballroom.”
Billy feels the same.
“It’s got a lot of heritage that should be focused back on. I think Strictly does help, it brings a lot glamour back to what Blackpool used to be, but I wish the local authority would get into it more. It might cost them money now but it would make them money in the future. The closed guest houses sends out the wrong message.
“Blackpool isn’t seen as a historical place but it has a lot of heritage especially as far as showbusiness is concerned.”
As for their own business, Maxine’s Feathers creations have and do grace stages across the world.
For Australia and America (“I’d love us to crack Las Vegas,” says Billy) they ship out their outfits, for closer to home like France and Spain they try and go with them.
“We pack the motorhome, take all the feathers and costumes with us and stay there for about five days at the venue,” says Maxine.
“When we go through passport control you can see them looking as if to say “what?”
Because of its showbusiness tradition Blackpool has a history of costume design.
“There’s still a good eight or nine good costume makers in Blackpool and that’s unheard of outside of London,” says Maxine. “And a lot of the people involved in it started at the Pleasure Beach.”
But Billy adds: “There are loads of companies and people out there who can make an outfit but making one for the stage is a totally different thing.”
So with pantomime upon us is this their busy time of year?
“We used to always have January and August off because Christmas shows were up and running and summer shows were on,” says Maxine. “But now with cruise ships, it’s full on, even in January.”
They are already in discussion with the country’s biggest pantomime producers Qdos for next year and have started work on a couple of designs.
“When I met Maxine I thought I’d retired,” says Billy. “We used to go away for a cruise for three weeks in January, then February we had a week, then away again in August or September but we can’t do that anymore.
“This year we got to Scotland for five days - which was wonderful - but we don’t get the five holidays that we used to.”
So they are a secret Blackpool success story?
“People in Australia and South Africa know us but we take the neighbours by surprise sometimes with what have delivered to us,” says Maxine.
“It’s funny when we’re loading up trucks,” says Billy. “You see cars slowing down to look at these marvellous creations that Maxine has made.”
But they often go unsung.
“We do the feather finale for Funny Girls but when people watch it they don’t wonder where it’s come from or where it’s made but it’s nice to see an audience going ‘wow’,” says Maxine. “That’s why we like doing Blackpool shows because you do actually get to see your work on stage. A lot of our work is shipped away the minute we’ve finished it.”
Their strangest request was a pair of wings for London artist Paul Fryer. But not just any old wings. This order grew to a length of 6.2 metres.
“Massive,” says Maxine. “Each wing filled the length of the workshop and in the end it took 22,000 feathers in total. Each wing took 17 hours to feather, it was horrendous, three of us feathering but when we saw the finished item it was amazing.”
So how do they source their feathers? Presumably not e-Bay?
“You can but not for the quality we require,” says Billy.
Their ostrich feathers come from South Africa and ironically some end up back there on cruise ships.
There’s irony too in that they are currently recreating an original Ziegfeld Follies headdress – itself inspired by French folies.
“The whole thing originated from French burlesque and spread to America becoming the Vegas showgirl look,” says Billy. “We’ve taken a small business in Blackpool to making feathers for shows in France which is quite nice, it’s a big compliment getting a contract from France.”
So you can take coals to Newcastle.
“Well we’ve been taking feathers to France for seven years and we’re going again next summer. It’s flattering that we’ve become part of the family there.”
Despite turning out more than 400 headdresses and 2,000 hats a year they never tire of it, especially when there’s a good reaction from the audience.
“I still love seeing them on stage, I love going backstage, I love the buzz, fantastic,” says Maxine.
As for Billy: “The first work I did with Maxine had me in tears. I came down for the weekend and she kept me for 11 days doing light-up antlers for Funny Girls. I’m not afraid to say when they switched them on, I got emotional and started crying. It hooked me then, I knew I’d got the bug.”
Says Maxine: “You put so much into it, so much love and effort from the first conversations with your client, through to designs, what they need them for, the music, the manufacturing, when it leaves, it’s a lot of passion, people don’t realise what’s gone into it, sometimes you want to stand up and shout ‘excuse me, it took 12 hours to make that!’
“But when the client loves it and when the audience reacts it makes it all worthwhile.”
At times Billy’s business brain has had to take a step back.
“There’s never ever a head dress or a backpack that goes out with the feathers she’s quoted for, there’s always more, but when I see Maxine’s reaction and the client’s reaction I say, do you know what, they’ll come back to us now, so it pays off in the long run.”
So it’s not so much wearing their heart on their sleeve as their heart on the customer’s head?
“You play the long game with it and as long as you supply quality it works,” says Billy. “Maxine’s finished product is always exactly as the original design promised. Or better. We’ve had a lot of our stuff copied badly. There are a lot of contenders but no champions.”
Would they move anywhere else?
“Somewhere bigger perhaps but we’d love to stay in Blackpool,” she says. “The only other place would be over near Scarborough where a lot of our business comes from, but we would always keep ties here, we’d keep the house here because we like living here, but we could work elsewhere. We get to travel but home is always here.”
There’s not even much they’d like to change.
“Changes could actually damage the whole thing, there’s something special about the place, if you changed it, it wouldn’t be the same,” says Maxine.
As for Billy is only gripe is “the parking.”
“I’d just like people to really “see” Blackpool, see what it has to offer.
“Maybe more people will want to come now because of the hassles of travelling abroad.”
“A lot of our friends from all over and all backgrounds love coming to Blackpool.
“I think more people should appreciate what’s on the doorstep.”
As for their business?
“We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” she says. “In the last eight to 10 years feathers have become more popular than ever. At corporate events everyone wants showgirls, then there’s the Kylie effect, with her last tour it was feathers everywhere. When I was at university I didn’t know about feather headdresses, it was only when I went to the Pleasure Beach that I discovered feathers.
“Now, every week we have someone contacting us wanting to get involved in the industry or work with us, be part of it.
“Before it was all milliners making traditional hats, now it’s showgirls and drag queens.”
Perhaps the love of glitz and glamour is a reaction to the gloom of austerity?
“It could be,” says Billy.
“Everyone needs cheering up. “Start and finish a show with an amazing number and that’s what people remember – not the middle.”
They are now fully booked until March already and, with a clutch of cruises, there are plenty of orders through to this time next year.
And Christmas off? “We finish for Christmas just in time to take the Queen Victoria cruise costumes to Qdos in Scarborough then a break before starting for the Britannia,” says Maxine. “I’ve heard this for nine years,” responds Billy. “We’ve worked Christmas Eve before now.
“We hate to disappoint so we squeeze people in, we always do our best to facilitate – especially if they need pulling out of a hole.
“We’ve never finished the week before Christmas!”
Would Maxine do anything else?
“If I was to retire and never make hats again I’d love to be a dog walker, open some rescue kennels, but small and pampered, a dog boutique. Or make shoes?”
There’s plenty of scope for either in Blackpool.
What does Blackpool mean to you?
The Gazette has launched a new weekly series championing and celebrating the people that make Blackpool the incomparable place it is. The Gazette is Blackpool’s biggest supporter and will continue to be so, every day we feature your achievements and success stories. We’re giving Sandgrown’uns and the town’s army of supporters a platform to tell us why you think Blackpool is great, why you fell in love with the place, what challenges you think it faces and why we should stand up and show the ill-informed critics a more realistic picture. We want you to get involved - tell us who you think we should feature. Who embodies the spirit of Blackpool? Who is the every day person who can inspire others to focus on celebrating the town rather than castigate? This is your town, your paper, your voice.
We look forward to hearing from you.
• by email email@example.com
• by phone (01253) 361842
• twitter: @andyjsykes