Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic “Elvis” has all the extravagance moviegoers have come to expect from big-budget Hollywood productions. And some of its flair came from Southern Indiana.
Butch Polston’s parents introduced him to Elvis Presley as a young boy, and he’s been a fan ever since. He grew up listening to all of Elvis’s music and watching his movies.
“Being a kid of the ‘60s, I loved all of Elvis, anything Elvis did,” Polston said. “He could’ve spit on the sidewalk and I would’ve loved it.”
Now, Polston helps make movies about Elvis.
The journey started when Elvis died in 1977. The broken-hearted Polston searched fan clubs for items that belonged to Elvis to keep as mementos.
Polston hoped to buy one of his iconic jumpsuits — the bedazzled costumes with ornate designs, capes and tall collars that helped transform a performer into The King.
“These entertainers throughout the ‘60s come out with these wild psychedelic shirts and Nehru jackets and fringe and beads and all that,” Polston said. “But you didn’t see anything like this. It was completely off of the scale.”
Polston eventually got in touch with collectors who were selling jumpsuits. But they wanted $20,000.
His wife, Kim, had recently given birth, and they didn’t have much money. They decided to find someone who could make replicas from scratch.
Polston took their first batch of jumpsuits to a buy, sell and trade event in Memphis in 1980 and caught the eye of an Elvis tribute artist. It kicked off a career that’s lasted for more than four decades.
“The guy pulled out a roll of money big enough to choke a mule,” Polston said. “And my wife … had our son on her hip in one arm and her elbow in my ribs [saying], ‘Go on, take it, take it. We can always make more suits.’”
Polston sold four suits for $500 each that day. He later became acquainted with members of the Memphis Mafia — people from Elvis’s inner circle.
Word of mouth helped Polston grow the business. He wanted to make sure he was doing it legally, so he reached out to two Elvis’s original costume designers, Bill Belew and Gene Doucette.
“And they were so touched that I came to them and asked them for permission, they gave me the original patterns,” Polston said. “And they taught me and my wife, literally from scratch, how to be costume designers. So I’ve had the best schooling that one could ask for doing what I’m doing.”
The Polstons have operated B&K Enterprises Costume Company in Charlestown since 1993. Their access to Elvis’s original designs has allowed them to recreate jumpsuits exactly how he liked them.
Lead seamstress Kimberly Wein said fashion is part of what made Elvis larger than life. He started his career wearing more casual clothes — trendy, but not too flashy.
“When he started in the ‘50s, he had jackets, pants,” Wein said. “As he progressed after the movies, the leather suit. And then on with the jumpsuits, simpler ones to start with.”
Elvis’s love for comic books, specifically Captain Marvel Jr., eventually inspired him to take on a bolder look, like the jumpsuits Wein replicates at B&K.
“He loved his superheroes, and he had his designers come up with something that would look like a superhero,” Wein said. “So that’s where the taller collar came from, and the capes.”
Clothing as intricate as Elvis’s takes time to make, sometimes up to 300 hours for a single item.
Polston said all of B&K’s jumpsuits are handmade without computer assistance.
“The stitching is overlapped,” he said. “It’s like cutting your lawn. You go up and you come back, you go up and come back. So you see some of those little spaces there, you can imagine how long that takes.”
That attention to detail has made B&K popular in the entertainment industry. Celebrities like Bruno Mars, Miley Cyrus and Bill Murray have worn their jumpsuits.
Several television and movie productions have also commissioned their work over the years. Most recently, B&K made about 30 jumpsuits for Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” which premiered over the weekend.
Polston said it’s the biggest project he’s worked on, praising Luhrmann’s cinematic style as “eye candy.”
“This new movie, we’re hoping really keeps the younger generation interested,” he said. “And they come to us older fans, so we can keep that spark going.”
John Boyle is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. John’s coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County, Community Foundation of Southern Indiana and Samtec, Inc.