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Art & design alum dances into designing

Jennifer Blackerby, an Oklahoma Christian alumna, danced her way into the business of designing Irish dresses.

“I would just say if there’s something you love, focus on it and become awesome at it and don’t let it go,” Blackerby said. “So if you want to do something, just be the best that’s out there and you’ll be able to do whatever you want to do.”

Blackerby decided to begin making Irish dresses after dancing for 13 years. She was unable to afford the attire and tried her own hand at making them. According to Blackerby, it took her 10 years to perfect her art.

Blackerby said she would sit and “dress-watch” at competitions. She said she admired the intricacy of the costumes and entertaining the idea of making a career of it.

“I started off going to school for graphic design and I just couldn’t get away from it,” Blackerby said. “I kept trying to put it aside and say I’m going to do a normal career. My senior year I gave up and said ‘okay this is going to happen so let’s just focus on it’ and I love it.”

She started Jennifer Blackerby Designs in 2008 before graduating in December 2009 with an art degree.

According to Quinn Drake, Oklahoma Christian senior and friend of Blackerby, Jennifer started her business originally on Facebook. He said it is honorable the way she started her business by not taking shortcuts or easy ways, she did it on her own.

“The art department at OC taught me to take critiques and criticism,” Blackerby said. “It’s very helpful because I deal with people’s ‘oh I don’t like this about this dress.’ It helps me produce the dress that the dancers want to wear.”

The whole process takes typically 3-6 weeks from the consultation to completion of the dress, according to Blackerby. Customers send their ideas via email and then she creates three sketches for dancers to critique and alter. The one-of-a-kind dress is produced in one to two weeks.

“It’s really exciting,” Blackerby said. “Like when I get a whole bunch of people emailing me at once about new costumes. It’s nice to see that it’s continuing successfully.”

According to Blackerby, she made her first Irish dress 13 years ago, but it was several years before a useable dress was made.

“We have weird stiff skirts and they have to be able to kick up,” Blackerby said. “I’ll try the dresses on and make sure they sit and kick right. I know whether a dress is going to work and be comfortable. It definitely helps to understand it from a dancer’s perspective.”

According to Blackerby, fall is the busy season for Jennifer Blackerby Designs because dancers are leading up to the regional championships for Irish dance, which start the first of November and run through December.

“September, October and November is just a mess,” Blackerby said. “It’s like tax season almost. I’ve been booked solid, which is crazy but good.”

Success for Irish dance dressmakers is determined by how their dancers do in competition. Blackerby has dressed two regional champions with several dresses at nationals this year.

“It is the only dress you have for competition until you outgrow it and need a replacement dress,” Blackerby said. “You have to qualify for a solo dress and it shows you’ve reached a certain level as an Irish dancer.”

Originally working out of her dining room and spare bedroom, Blackerby moved her design space to a shop on February 27 to accommodate the workload.

“I feel very proud of her,” Drake said. “ There was pain, frustration, setbacks, and long hours put into starting this business. To see Jennifer’s hardwork and perserverance rewarded by its’ success makes me so happy for her.”

Blackerby said she works on designing dresses endlessly and even draws up designs on her phone while sitting at Starbucks.

“My favorite part is the rhinestones,” Blackerby said. “You can take something like a nice dress and turn it into something amazing and sparkly, obviously.”

Blackerby said she ensures that every single dress is a unique work of art and special to the dancer.

“This past fall I did one for a little girl based on her deceased grandfather’s tattoo,” Blackerby said. “It’s these flames with Celtic knots inside of it, it’s exactly the same, but it’s made into dress. It’s just really special for these dancers to have something really meaningful for them.”

According to Blackerby, the price of her dresses is usually shocking if a person is unfamiliar with Irish dance. They currently range from $1,100 to more than $2,000 before rhinestones and rhinestones can add anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000 to the total dress price.

“It just depends on what you want and how much you’re willing to spend,” Blackerby said.

Blackerby is featured in this month’s edition of Outlook.

“There’s been times I’ve been ready to be completely done with it but I just love it so much,” Blackerby said. “I can be completely burned out and sick of it but I’ll take a week off and can’t stop thinking about it. When you love Irish dance, you can’t get it out of you.”

Blackerby’s work can be viewed on her website.

“If you know you’re good at something, you know you have a talent for something don’t give up on it,” Blackerby said. “You don’t have to have a ‘normal’ career if you don’t want to. Just keep working. If you have to work a day job to get there, do it. Don’t be afraid to do what you’re meant to do.”

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