This is a story about friendship, a love of theater and a shared passion for costumes. And how all those things have come together in a downtown Rutland business.
Seeing Middlebury resident Diane Mott and Rutland native Jacob Patorti together, you immediately sense they're old friends. They tease one another and goof around, and there's an easiness between them. The fact that Mott is 86 and Patorti is 31 doesn’t really factor into their relationship.
What does factor in is costumes. The more feathers, beads and glittery bits, the better.
“So, most of these sequin gowns came from Diane's barn,” explains Patorti while walking down a long aisle of dresses.
“Yep, yep, get one of the good ones,” Mott adds.
“One like this?" exclaims Patorti, pulling out a shimmering blue green gown.
“Sequins sequins, sequins... Nadine Boutique, size medium, hand-beaded, aquamarine chiffon, double-layered,” explains Patorti, as he reads the dress label and nods approvingly.
“This is total Hollywood glam, Ginger Rogers ... gorgeous,” he gushes.
For years, Diane Mott stored thousands of costumes like this in her barn in Goshen. Most of the items came from the Marble Valley Players, a regional theater group she was involved with. But she also collected pieces of her own over the years.
“These hats are from the barn,” she says pointing to several dozen stored in small compartments on a wall. “They’re from the 40s and the 30s and the 20s. They’re worth a small fortune, they're great, and they're such fun to try on!”
She laughs as she slips on a black feathered headband. “This one’s a fascinator,” she says, then reaches for a wide brimmed black hat with a polka-dotted ribbon.
Patorti opts for a more demure orange velvet hat – something Audrey Hepburn might have worn. It looks tiny on top of his curly brown hair.
Patorti used to hang out at Mott’s barn as a kid and help her organize things and make repairs. The two have been thick as thieves ever since.
Over the years, Patorti has made a career out of the performing arts as a musician, teacher, actor, director and theater owner. But his love of costumes goes back as far as he can remember. When he was 3 or 4 years old, he says his grandmother brought over a bag of dance outfits and feather boas for him and his older brothers to play with — and that was it.
“I never stopped,” Patorti says with a shrug. “From that second on, I just wanted more and more sequins, and feathers. I just thought that it was comforting — I mean that, if I’m in a room with Diane and everybody’s sewing like crazy, I could work on balancing my checkbook, because all that creativity makes me feel comfortable, always has.”
A few years ago, when Mott moved from Goshen to Middlebury, she reached out to Patorti: Might he be willing take over her collection and store it in Merchant’s Hall, the four-story building Patorti’s family owns in downtown Rutland?
Patorti liked the idea, and says volunteers have helped them move thousands of items from Goshen to Rutland. But he admits they’ve still got a lot to do.
“It's going to take another handful of years to even pretend to have everything rehung," he says.
Before the pandemic, Patorti had been living in New York City. Most of his attention, when he was in Rutland, had been focused on the ground floor performance space at Merchant’s Hall – a space that’s hosted everything from operas and birthday parties, to funerals, cabarets and board meetings.
“We pride ourselves on being able to do anything that someone can imagine in the room," Patorti says. "If they think they can do it, we’ll do it.”
But COVID-19 changed all that. It closed the theater, brought Patorti back to Vermont full-time, and finally gave him time to go upstairs and develop what he’s calling The Big Red Barn Costume Collection at Merchant’s Hall.
The second and third floors are still being renovated, and the building’s early history is clearly visible. A coffin-sized dumbwaiter is testament to the undertaking and furniture business that was located here in the 1800s.
A century later, these high-ceilinged rooms held the Fashion Shop, an iconic clothing store and dress boutique in Rutland. You can still see glimpses of lilac wallpaper and pink-trimmed dressing rooms.
“On this floor, that is what most people remember as the bridal suite," Patorti says, pointing. "This whole floor was bridal gowns and such.”
Now, the space looks more like a chaotic tag sale with hangers, boxes and aisle upon aisle of costumes.
Patorti walks past men's suits and what he calls "blouse boulevard," by a cedar closet filled with fur coats to a rack that’s practically dripping with satin, lace and sequins.
“Probably my favorite area, honestly, 31-year old man telling you, dress alley is where I like to be," Patorti says. "Look at this, we started here, Shakespearean, Elizabethan, French Renaissance, and then it gets more mod, and we go through the 1920s, 30s,40s, West Side Story, down to the I Dream of Jeannie-type stuff…"
And all of it is available to rent.
Patorti estimates he has about 10,000 garments on hangers, and countless more in plastic tote boxes — everything from ascots and cummerbunds, to shoes, stockings, corsets and gloves.
He's been renting costumes, set pieces and props to local schools and a small number of other clients for several years. But now, he wants to expand the business. He joined the National Costumers Association this year and has bought thousands of additional garments to fill in gaps in inventory.
“If we want to pride ourselves on being one of, if not the largest, regional and community theater collection in New England, we need to have what they ask for," Patorti says.
Joshua Collier, artistic director of Barn Opera in Brandon, says he used to spend days scouring vintage clothing and thrift shops to cobble together costumes and props for his productions. Earlier this year, he and Patorti worked out a long-term contract, and Collier says he’s thrilled to have one-stop shopping so close by.
“If I said I want a peacock-feathered hat, he would be able to look up and see, 'Well, do we have something like that? Yeah, here are the options with pictures included.’ So, it's an amazing thing,” he says.
According to Collier, new garments that Patorti recently purchased from a costumer in Pennsylvania will be a game changer for the opera productions.
“We are costuming our production of Tosca in August, using exclusively this new acquisition of costumes, and it just looks stunning," Collier says.
With theaters slowly reopening, Patorti expects more directors to reach out. He says he's also getting calls from photographers who need special items for photo shoots. And he plans to rent costumes for Halloween and parties... once people have parties again.
Patorti used to help out at Mott’s barn. Now she’s driving down several times a month with her sewing machines to help him.
“There’s dresses everywhere that somebody will ask for, and we'll say 'No, we don't have a 6-foot-wide French pannier, Marie Antoinette dress."
"We do!" chimes in Mott.
Patorti nods and smiles. "Diane will create it out of old curtains," he says. "So, really, we have a lot here."
Correction 6/8/2021 11:20 a.m.: This story was updated with the correct spelling of Audrey Hepburn's name.
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