Retired ballerina finds unusual next job — sewing custom leotards in Livingston
At the beginning of each month, Jordan Reed opens her Lone Reed DesignsEtsy page to accept orders for her custom-made leotards. Reed makes only 80 leotards a month in her Livingston workshop, and she closes down the page when she hits the limit.
Sometimes that takes 15 minutes.
During slow months, reaching the limit can take six hours. Reed has the confidence of someone accustomed to an audience, but admits a “slow” sales period can make her nervous.
She caps output at 80 to allow herself enough money to live comfortably while having plenty of time to enjoy living in Montana. In the summer she hikes, and in the winter she skis, an activity Reed was contractually prohibited from during her career as a professional dancer with the Houston Ballet.
At the time she became a professional dancer, she said she was only the second dancer from Idaho to join a major professional ballet company. Injuries forced an end to her career several years later and she defied the odds again by turning her side gig designing leotards into a livelihood.
Reed said she was always a hustler. She taught herself to sew and sold her creations from her ballet dressing room. Her large following on Instagram opened a platform for other dancers to see her work. By the time she retired from ballet in 2015 she had no shortage of customers.
“This business was already running (in 2015), so I felt like I needed to choose one or the other, and my body was already giving up on me,” Reed said.
It is hard to imagine a 275-pound NFL linebacker and a professional ballet dancer having much in common. But the two career paths share many of the same challenges: a competitive job market, frequent injuries and with few exceptions a short shelf life.
While football players hone their skills at colleges and universities on their way to a professional career, it’s uncommon for dancers to receive a college education while training. Reed estimates only 10 percent of the dancers she trained with attended college at the same time. A lack of job experience and education in areas outside of dance can create employment issues, although some dance companies are proactive in supporting dancers as they retire.
Reed started her company with a $5,000 grant from the Houston Ballet. with that she could purchase her six-thread industrial sewing machine and enough fabric to turn Lone Reed Designs into a full-time enterprise.
On a recent May morning Reed worked on a purple and lace leotard, joining two panels of stretchy Lycra with a swift pull through her commercial sewing machine. She has sewn the same seam thousands of times in the last two years. She ships the garments all over the world to dancers at all levels. This one will be worn by a professional dancer in Portland, Oregon.
“I’m very free-form with it. Every one is individual and special,” she said.
Reed sews all of her leotards in the back room of the Cactus Blossom Collective in Livingston. The downtown storefront was once the town’s post office, and her workshop still bears a nameplate designating it the “Letters” room. But now it houses a mannequin named “Glossy Glenda” that recently sported a leotard adorned with a unicorn flying through a pink-and-purple cosmic scene.
The work space is tidy. Bins filled with lengths of fabric line the walls and are organized by design. Some feature kitschy patterns with pictures of kittens or Justice League logos, while others are solid subdued tones.
Ballet schools determine what colors their students wear while training. Black and navy are most common, and sometimes the mandated colors change as dancers advance through the ranks. Few dancers claim coveted positions at professional ballet companies, but when they do they are rewarded with the freedom of choosing what they wear to rehearsal. Reed found her niche in this creative space.
Reed said dancers often buy entire wardrobes when they join their first ballet company. When she started Lone Reed Designs there was only one other company making custom leotards. She emerged into an under-served market filled with potential repeat customers.
“I definitely have some dancers who have like 20 of my leotards — and they’re still buying them, just going crazy with it,” she said.
Business has no sign of slowing down either. A growing number of women are pairing leotards with high-waisted jeans or skirts. The future is stretchy and potentially covered in unicorns.