Browse Suzanne Vinnik's Opera Diva Dress Collection Suzanne Vinnik, soprano & founder of the Opera Diva Dress Collection. Photo by Jerry Metellus

Browse Suzanne Vinnik's Opera Diva Dress Collection

Jenna Simeonov
I sometimes wonder what the average number of evening gowns in the closets of opera singers. Probably at least 5 - maybe closer to 10? Having a closet that won’t stay shut from all the tulle doesn’t actually sound like a bad problem, but it’s certainly not practical. American soprano Suzanne Vinnik knows that it can be pricey to be a professional singer, and concert wear can be a huge expense. So, she started the Opera Diva Dress Collection Facebook group, where singers can buy, sell, and rent gowns from other like-sized singers. Dresses make the rounds and get the stage-time they deserve, and singers can save money without looking like an actual starving artist. Brilliant!

1. Can you tell us about the unlikely problem of having too many gowns in one’s closet?

In NYC there is a real closet shortage crisis, or I am a hoarder…

I’ve done a lot of concert work since I began my career at a very young age. There are a lot of pictures taken and it’s difficult to repeat outfits. Our male counterparts can wear the same suit and tuxedo but as women, we are just not able to go that route with videos and photos.

Some of my gowns are really difficult to part with because they hold a sentimental value but slowly, I’m purging them! My problem isn’t necessarily just gowns - I love clothes in general! Maybe I have a problem…

2. How does the Opera Diva Dress Collection work?

Currently, there are 4,370 members (more waiting to be accepted) who can join the group and post pictures of their items with a short description, location and price. Universally, we’ve mostly accepted the $75 rate for rentals.

From there, we do peer-peer sales and figure out if the person is close enough to try things on and establish meeting places either in our homes or a convenient location, exchange measurements in many cases and organize payment and shipping.

I’ve met a few singers with incredible items that I will routinely contact if I want something new as I know we are the same size. For $75, I can afford to look and feel my best.

Photo by Allison M. Harrell.

It is expensive being a singer. We are expected to appear as if we are dripping in cash. It becomes very difficult to pay for coachings, lessons, auditions, travel, health insurance, everyday bills, loans and just make the rent or mortgage payments every month off of singing. I know in recent years with the economy, presenters just aren’t paying as much and in many cases are switching from productions to concerts. In an opera, the company provides the costumes; but for a concert it becomes our own responsibility.

[Soprano] Zulimar Lopez messaged me and asked where she might be able to sell some of her gowns and thus the group formed with invites to her and maybe 13 other singers. The group grew to 50, 500, 1,000 and this summer 4,000 - I knew I was onto something in the two years since I launched it. There were some imitations but I think people trusted my vision and appreciated my vast network and forward thinking!

I personally don’t have a day job, as my lifestyle is quite precarious with a performing schedule that takes me both nationally and internationally for extended periods of time. The group allows me to earn some income when I’m not on the road and learn new skills that I’d like to apply down the road in other areas of fashion and the arts.

For me, engaging in my community has been a game changer. We’ve been able to take our expensive dust collectors and earn extra money for items that would otherwise just take up space.

I’ve never found something suitable for $75 in a store. If I rent out a dress a few times and/or sell it for a lower price, I don’t feel guilty. Just this afternoon I sold an $875 Theia gown for $275 and didn’t feel totally sick over it because I’ve worn it in the George London Finals, Irene Roberts wore it at the Hollywood Bowl and it’s appeared in photoshoots on three different singers beside myself! The sharing economy and peer-to-peer sales are the future!

Photo by Rebecca Fay.

4. What does a singer need in a gown that the layperson might not consider?

Gowns need to look professional and be comfortable to sing in and in many cases allow for movement with the rise in semi-staged productions and concerts. The fabrics must look good under lights and not reveal anything we wouldn’t want to be part of the performance. We are athletes so it is important to have room to breathe and be able to wear appropriate shoes underneath that allow us to sing our best. Depending on the event, we have to take into consideration the style and occasion, lighting colors and the size of the theater.

In many of my gowns, I’ve built in an inner corset, added extra padding and elastic and put in different ways to close the dresses with either new hooks, laces, or new zippers to allow for better breathing and versatility to wear again at a different time or by a different singer in my more popular rentals. I like for people to come to me and leave with a smile and a gown!

5. How do established singers respond to the idea of gown sharing?

I asked Christine Goerke and she responded with the same sentiments that I did earlier in the interview, “We don’t have the luxury of wearing the same tuxedo every time we perform. It is so much more expensive for women than it is for men to deal with concert wear. Why shouldn’t we trade and save some money?”

Time, logistics and packing can also be a factor. Diana Damrau had some photos for one of her recordings done by a photographer I’ve known for many years. She wanted to shoot again with this photographer but simply didn’t have the time, with her rehearsals, performance schedule and a new baby, to scour NYC for the perfect gowns. The photographer knew my expansive collection and called me a few days before to provide options for Ms. Damrau as I was leaving NYC for an audition and some working sessions elsewhere.

Ms. Damrau ended up wearing two of them in her photos and actually loved one so much that she purchased it! I asked her to sign my red Vera Wang that she borrowed which I sold after strong consideration to a lovely student at Manhattan School of Music.

There are several that are popular with the divas - I’ve had several Theia gowns which are in my opinion the best to sing in as they are well made and have inner corsets made out of mesh on the inside. Oprah wears them on most red carpets too - I get it! I also have a few Badgley Mischka gowns which I’ve recently sold after many rentals and a Jovani that picks up turquoise and a shimmery purple hue under the stage lights. My Betsey Johnson gowns, I can’t ever part with as she is my idol and inspiration to be myself, no matter what anyone else thinks!

Photo by Jerry Metellus.

7. What are you looking forward to singing in the coming season on stage?

I am singing a Verdi concert with New York’s most exciting new company, Loft Opera performing excerpts from La traviata, which I’ve had the pleasure of performing several times; and for the first time Leonora and the Count’s famous duet from Act Four of Il trovatore, before I head off to Russia to sing with Maestro Constantine Orbelian in excerpts from several Verdi operas and both popular and lesser-known verismo operatic arias and duets. It’s the first time I’m singing in Russia and very exciting as Craig Rutenberg will be on the music staff.

I will also sing a concert in Las Vegas with Dennis Doubin of San Francisco Opera and alongside students in Las Vegas Academy’s Symphony. I’m excited to work with them and give many of them their first taste of opera and classical vocal literature.

Coming onto the music scene very young as a lyric coloratura, it is exciting to perform this new repertoire as my voice develops into a full lyric soprano but more importantly to share what I’ve learned along the way. I’m actually really finding my identity as a singer and person through this repertoire and new business venture.

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