Kim Dylla makes killer clothes for everyone from metalheads to wrestlers

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Aside from a few ready-to-wear items like printed T-shirts, all Kylla Custom Rock Wear pieces are made-to-order. Photo by Jackson Smith Aside from a few ready-to-wear items like printed T-shirts, all Kylla Custom Rock Wear pieces are made-to-order. Photo by Jackson Smith

Standing at a waist-high, cork-topped work table in her West Main Street design studio, Kim “Kylla” Dylla measures an arm’s length of white thread and uses her teeth to snip it from the spool. She pinches a curved sewing needle between her silver-ringed forefinger and thumb and slides the thread through the needle’s narrow eye before using its point to attach a blackened metal chain to the chest pocket of a white denim vest.

A Siouxsie and the Banshees song emanates at low volume from a bluetooth speaker on the carpeted floor, mingling with the soft whir and clack of a sewing machine from the next room, where Dylla’s sewing assistant (or “stichin’ vixen”), Loryn Awesome, assembles a pair of white and gold spandex trunks that Dylla designed to match the vest.

Dylla, clad in studded black leather ankle boots, black skinny jeans, a black band tank top and black denim vest, works the needle through the denim and around the chain with a nimble hand. It’s already quarter past three in the afternoon, and she has about an hour before she has to be in her car, en route to the post office on 29 North with the custom-made vest, trunks and matching knee pads, which will be shipped overnight to California to professional wrestler Will “WillPower” Hobbs.

As far as embellishments go, chains are easy to add to a garment, Dylla explains as she stitches; the same goes for patches (Hobbs requested a patch of his hashtag, #willpower, be stitched across the rear of his wrestling trunks). Things like bones, bullets, spikes and studs are more difficult to apply, Dylla says, but she’s adept at those, too.

Heavy-metal shredder Nita Strauss, who plays guitar in Alice Cooper’s band, wears a Dylla-designed studded black denim vest on stage. © Miquel Llop/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

In fact, she’s more practiced with hammering studs into distressed leather than she is stitching metallic spandex, because for years, the 34-year-old has been making custom stage wear for some of the world’s most famous heavy-metal musicians, among them Machine Head, Cradle of Filth, King Diamond, Kreator and Nita Strauss, guitarist for Alice Cooper and Femme Fatale.

She’s also designed for more mainstream, non-metal rockers like Arnel Pineda of Journey and Amos Heller, a Charlottesville native who plays bass in Taylor Swift’s band. And Hobbs isn’t Dylla’s only wrestling client—she makes entrance costumes and ring wear for an arsenal of World Wrestling Entertainment performers, too.

“The power of wardrobe and fashion is transformative,” says Dylla. “When you put on a costume, or when you put on that piece of clothing that really makes you feel like a star, it transforms you not only in the eyes of the people that you are performing for, but internally, it gives you confidence.” When someone slips a Kylla Custom Rock Wear jacket over his shoulders, she hopes he feels like a rock star, whether he’s walking to the store for a loaf of bread or picking up an axe to shred for thousands of headbangers. “That’s what I have to give people,” she says.

The prologue

Before Dylla designed clothes for heavy-metal heavyweights, she listened to their music. As a teen in the Hampton Roads area, Dylla and her friends went to goth and industrial clubs. Through that scene, Dylla says she became “obsessed with finding underground music. It was always about finding the thing no one had listened to before, that sounded more heavy and more evil.”

The heaviest, most evil-sounding stuff she found while trading tapes with other metalheads was Norwegian black metal, with its satanic- and pagan-themed lyrics growled over the sound of heavily distorted guitars, music that “sounded like it was recorded on a four-track in a basement in Oslo.”

“I loved it,” Dylla says, grinning. “I just jumped into the deep end of metal stuff; I didn’t have any gateway bands.”

Eventually, though, she got into other types of metal—regular old heavy metal, thrash metal, doom metal—and started listening to Iron Maiden, her favorite band of all time. Metal is a niche scene, but its fans are among the most dedicated out there. “Like, no one’s just casually into Slayer,” Dylla says.

But there’s good reason for it: Metal is a fairly technical genre. Metal musicians are often virtuoso players who compose structurally complicated songs played fast and in unusual time signatures. What’s more, the songs often exist in a mythology that the band has created for itself. Metal isn’t just music to listen to—it’s a world to step into.

Not long after Dylla started listening to metal, she got into performing it. Classical voice lessons taught her how to control and properly use her diaphragm while singing, and while listening to bands like Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and Obituary in her car, she experimented with vocal techniques and sounds until she figured out that if she used her diaphragm to push air through a “sort of whisper” in her throat, what came out of her mouth was a dark, primal growl.

Dylla started making her own clothes when she was a teen, too. A self-described “classic goth kid,” she couldn’t find clothes she liked, and what she did like, she couldn’t afford. So she made her own, usually out of repurposed material from clothes she found in thrift stores. Dylla’s mother taught her to sew when she was young, but the first piece Dylla patterned, cut and sewed on her own—with some guidance from a friend’s older sister—was a corset. Corsets, with their panels, boning, laces (or buckles) and specific measurements, are notoriously difficult to make, but completing the challenging garment set Dylla on an open path to design, pattern and sew just about anything she wanted.

Kim Dylla in her studio. Photo by Jackson Smith
Photo by Jackson Smith
Photo by Jackson Smith

After graduating from UVA in 2005 with degrees in computer science and art, Dylla worked on the Rome Reborn project through UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. At night, she sang (and screamed) in Thismeansyou, the jewel of Charlottesville’s metal scene at the time.

Dylla wore her own designs on stage, and at some point, Joey Jordison of Slipknot borrowed one of Dylla’s jackets to wear on stage for a Rob Zombie show. He wore it again for an awards show, and, soon after, Dylla’s phone started to ring: Had she made that cool jacket Jordison wore, and would she make another?

She made another, and another, and another, and soon enough, when she wasn’t at work or singing with Thismeansyou, she was scouring local vintage and thrift stores for leather and denim garments to repurpose into jackets and vests for fellow metalheads. Using recycled and reclaimed fabrics not only suits the hard rock world’s torn-and-worn aesthetic; it helps Dylla keep costs down for her customers who, despite relative fame, don’t have a lot of cash to drop on a stage wardrobe (Dylla, who’s been a touring musician herself, knows this firsthand).

In 2012, she officially founded Kylla Custom Rock Wear, and while she liked her job in the digital cultural heritage field, she loves metal. And she wondered: How many $350 jackets would she have to make a week to equal her salary plus health insurance? “The answer was like, three,” she says.

So she quit her job at UVA and got to work on her two-month order backlog, sketching, cutting and stitching in the workspace she’d set up at home, or on the road as she toured with her other bands, including Kung Fu Dykes and Richmond-based shock rockers GWAR (Dylla embodied the Vulvatron character, singing and spraying the audience with fake blood spewed from prosthetic breasts, from fall 2014 to spring 2015).

From fall 2014 to spring 2015, Dylla embodied the character Vulvatron and provided vocals for GWAR, a heavy-metal band with its own mythology and a cult following. © Igor Vidyashev/ZUMA Wire

Dylla can, and will, sew just about anywhere (sewing machines are more portable than you’d think, she says). She’ll take her clients’ measurements on tour buses and backstage, or make ringside alterations. She’ll stack road cases into makeshift sewing tables, or balance her machine on whatever flat-ish surface is available. Dylla frequently travels all over the mid-Atlantic to meet clients at their gigs, and she goes to Europe most summers to catch a string of metal festivals, or even play a show here and there.

In the rare moments when Dylla’s not working, she sings in Fulton Ave., a Charlottesville-based serial killer-themed death metal band, alongside drummer Jordan Marchni, bassist and producer J.J. Williams and guitarists Drew Curtis and Justin Melton. Named for a street in Poughkeepsie, New York, where in the 1990s a man murdered a number of women, most of them prostitutes, Fulton Ave.’s beyond-obscene songs with titles like “Break Your Fuckin’ Face” are loud, fast and melodic and sound like a razor-wheeled bullet train barreling down the tracks…there’s something exhilarating about the possible danger of it. “This is your last chance to start a mosh pit,” Dylla told the crowd before Fulton Ave. closed out a recent gig at The Ante Room. One mohawked fan did exactly that, and Dylla couldn’t help but smile when three or four others joined in the thrash.

Dylla also sings in black metal band A Winter Lost and has played keyboards and sung on tour with electro-industrial band Velvet Acid Christ. She contributed guest vocals to Children of Bodom’s most recent album, I Worship Chaos, and finds a bit of time to travel. “Sleep is secondary,” Dylla says. “I don’t have children. I don’t have pets, and I don’t sleep [much]…except for Sundays.”

This past summer, Dylla set up her machine backstage at a metal festival in Slovenia, where she had a view of some epic central European mountains while sewing rock ‘n’ roll clothes. As she worked, she says couldn’t help but think, “this job is cool,” and in recalling that moment, a look of equal parts satisfaction, delight and gratitude spreads across her face.

Expanding her wardrobe

In June, Dylla moved the Kylla Custom Rock Wear operation to its current location on the second floor of the Starr Hill building at 801 W. Main St. Dylla went to a bunch of shows in this very space, back when it was the Starr Hill Music Hall (the venue closed in 2007), and she thinks often of how “it’s really neat” to make clothes for world-class rock stars in a place that’s so tied to the Charlottesville music scene. The only more appropriate spot in town would be if Trax (the nightclub that hosted some of the Dave Matthews Band’s earliest shows, and a spot played by Juliana Hatfield, Sonic Youth and They Might Be Giants, among others) was still standing.

The two-room studio is filled with multiple clothing racks hung with leather and denim jackets and jeans, plus a rainbow of spandex fabrics that puddle on tables and a black and white paisley ironing board. One room is lined with nearly a dozen sewing machines on tables—old black metal Singers, a white Pfaff machine, a serger and a Sailrite machine that’s intended to sew canvas sailboat sails and can needle through just about anything (including fingers, so Dylla and Awesome work carefully).

Near the door, grommet and snap presses sit atop a small desk, its top drawer full of various sizes and hues of metal grommets and snaps. There are small crates and big plastic tackle boxes full of embellishments such as studs, spikes, snaps, chains, chain mail, patches and spools of various fabric trim; black cloth bins on a metal shelving unit hold fabric dye, Simplicity dress patterns, netting, thrifted woven belts and other supplies. In one window, there’s a red-spiked succulent plant sandwiched between a brushed metal K and a gargoyle clock. Among the decorations hanging on the walls are pictures of some Kylla Custom Rock Wear clients, like Robb Flynn of Machine Head, WWE action figures wearing Kylla designs, an Iron Maiden flag and a Kylla Custom Rock Wear banner that bears the company’s motto: Rock your wardrobe. Rock your life.

Kim Dylla consults with clients on what they’re looking for, then typically prepares a design sketch before getting to work. She makes everything from leather jackets to jeans to corsets, and nowadays, about half of Kylla Custom Rock Wear orders come from professional wrestlers looking for durable, eye-catching ring wear. Some of her designs have even been immortalized in plastic, worn by wrestlers’ action figures. Photo by Jackson Smith

Pairs of shears and a small army of pincushions—the classic red tomato ones, plus a roly-poly black bat one—stuck with yellow-headed pins rest on just about every surface. Measuring tapes of various colors hang from the clothing racks and snake around clothing sketches on the sewing table. A few different dress forms, plus a pair of beige-colored plastic legs that Dylla has dubbed Larry “The Legs” Malone, stand at the threshold between the two rooms.

Dylla says that when she first started making rock wear, she worked almost exclusively in black, brown and Army green fabrics, using a straight-sew machine and black thread. Now that about 50 percent of her work is for wrestlers (and the occasional French metal band that requests neon leopard print pants) she’s working with a rainbow of spandex fabrics and threads.

“It sort of offends my goth sensibilities,” Dylla jokes as she sews a white and gold kneepad cover for Hobbs’ wrestling costume, looking over her shoulder and nodding toward hot pink, black and turquoise ribbon-cut spandex. After making a glittery green cape with feathers for a wrestler, she found glitter and wispy feather vanes all over the studio for months afterward. She gets it, though—she herself was a wrestler with Richmond’s Lucha Libre for a while.

But Dylla’s still a metalhead through and through. One night, she might host three touring metal bands at her house (the global metal scene is relatively close-knit and hospitable) and cook them breakfast in the morning before heading to work, where she’ll sew until it’s time to see Swedish guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen melt faces at The Jefferson Theater, or time to play a set with Fulton Ave.

Stitch fix

Making stage and performance clothes is radically different from making street clothes, Dylla says. Most of us aren’t jumping and bouncing off wrestling ring ropes on a regular basis, and she considers activity as much as aesthetic when creating a piece.

Dylla always consults with clients before designing, asking them what they’re looking for. She’ll ask them for examples of what they like and don’t like, what fabrics, colors and embellishments they want, and together they’ll agree on a design that suits their on-stage persona.

For her wrestling clients, she thinks about what a piece will look like when the wrestler makes his or her entrance into the ring, and then how it will both look and function during a match. The fabric and the design of a garment must be flexible and non-restrictive; embellishments like spikes and raised studs can be dangerous for physical matches, so Dylla tends to avoid them when designing for wrestlers.

Joseph Rudd, known to most as WWE SmackDown wrestler Erick Rowan, says Dylla helps him bring his “crazy ideas to fabric.” Dylla has made a few items for his character, including a pair of patched pants and a brownish-green military-meets-sanatorium vest. (For the record, Rudd is 6 feet, 8 inches and about 315 pounds.) Rudd says Dylla’s costumes are “durable and [hold] up to the most insane of matches.”

She’s designed things like a latex apron covered in faces for WWE Raw star Bray Wyatt (yes, it’s as creepy-looking as it sounds), and plenty of entrance and ring outfits for Tamina Snuka, a WWE SmackDown “diva.”

One of the biggest challenges Dylla faces when designing for wrestlers is the amount of, or rather the lack of, actual design space on wrestling singlets and trunks (or “manties,” as Dylla calls them). “You’re not really working with much fabric there,” Dylla quips, raising an eyebrow.

Musicians perform under hot, bright lights, so their clothing must be as lightweight as possible. Leather and metal aren’t featherweight materials, which is why Dylla avoids adding pockets and linings to rock wear that has to also be sturdy enough to withstand (fake) blood, sweat and whatever else gets flung around at a metal show. All Kylla Custom Rock Wear garments are triple-stitched to prevent seam blowouts—high-kicking drummers and amp-leaping guitarists tend to split the crotches of their jeans, Dylla says.

Dylla created an entire wardrobe for Danish metal band King Diamond’s 2015 Abigail tour, including the ensemble worn by guitarist, songwriter and synthesizer player Andy LaRocque (pictured). Dylla says this has been one of her favorite commissions to date, as she was able to translate what she heard in a long-loved album into cloth. Photo by Marc Nader via Zuma Wire

When designing for musicians, Dylla also translates what she hears in the music into the clothing.

“My painting teacher [at UVA] taught me to never use black out of the tube—you always have to mix your own black,” says Dylla. “So I feel like to dye things and paint things black so that there’s a bit of purple, a bit of brown, a bit of blue in it…it’s [more] interesting. You can make black a spectrum,” she says, adding after a pause: “That’s metal.”

A couple of years ago, she designed the stage wardrobe for Danish heavy metal outfit King Diamond’s 2015 Abigail tour, where the band played its celebrated 1987 concept album, Abigail, in its entirety.

Dylla picked up a vinyl copy of Abigail from the used bins at Plan 9 in Charlottesville, not long after starting at UVA. She’d gotten into the habit of lighting candles around the record player and just sitting with the music, as albums “provided the best company,” she says.

Know your metal

As is the case with all genres of music, heavy metal (or just “metal”) has plenty of subgenres. If you’re not familiar, here’s a crash course to give you a better handle on the Kylla Custom Rock Wear world.

Metal/heavy metal: Rooted in psychedelic acid rock and blues-rock and employing heavily distorted sounds, the genre was developed in the United Kingdom in the 1960s and ’70s (think Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple).

Thrash metal: A faster, more aggressive subgenre of metal (Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer).

Death metal: Characterized by low- tuned, distorted guitars, abrupt tempo and key changes, plus growling vocals and often Lovecraftian, horror film-esque lyrics about the occult, religion, death and murder, among other things (Venom, Obituary, Kreator).

Black metal: Perhaps the most underground and least accessible of the metal subgenres, it’s an even darker descendant of death metal (Mercyful Fate, Mayhem).

Doom metal: Doom musicians slow things down, employing more melancholy sounds and tempos than musicians in other metal subgenres (Saint Vitus, Candlemass).

Speed metal: Technically fast, aggressive metal that requires virtuosic skill.

Power metal: Similar to speed metal, but more symphonic in nature.

Abigail is a concept album about a young 19th-century couple whose lives are turned upside down by Abigail, the evil spirit of a baby stillborn decades earlier. “The lyrics are like some sort of Lovecraftian epic, full of evil and mystery, but with an old prose to them,” says Dylla. The music is soaring and epic, but still headbangable, and the overall story is satanic and otherworldly but full of the complexities of human existence. This is what she put into the band’s wardrobe, outfits that she says were classic metal looks, “like they crept out of a grave they had been buried in since the album had been released, but surfacing with an edge that speaks to all generations of metal fans.”

Andy LaRocque, guitarist, songwriter and occasional synthesizer player for King Diamond, says it was a “pleasure” to work with Dylla on the costumes. “She totally understood our needs, and her eye for details just made it perfect; she even came out to our rehearsals [in Texas] to fix the last details,” he says, adding that they plan to consult with her again on future tours.

Dylla says she doesn’t get starstruck anymore, but she “can’t deny it’s really cool when you stand on [the side of a] stage in front of thousands of people and watch a band that you’ve loved for years and watch them play in your clothes.”

“It’s always been hard for me to put into words what is in my head when I listen to music, but with this job, I get a chance to put it into cloth,” Dylla says.

Dylla’s reputation as a thoughtful, creative and reliable performance clothing designer has spread mostly organically from musician to musician, but occasionally thanks to the internet. Sean Gronholt, guitarist for Northern Virginia-based goth metal band Novarium, ordered a pair of pants and a jacket from Dylla after finding Kylla Custom Rock Wear at the top of Google search results for “rock wear” and “stage clothing.” Gronholt had a good idea of what he was looking for, so he sent Dylla some examples and let her run with it.

“Besides having an impressive portfolio of past work, Kim is a metalhead through [and through], and I knew her sense of aesthetics was perfect for what I needed,” Gronholt says. When wearing his custom pieces, he says he feels “like a character, a larger-than-life rock star and all-around badass.”

When Gronholt showed up for a Novarium set wearing his Kylla Custom Rock Wear outfit, his bandmate and fellow guitarist Dean Michaels had to have one, too. Michaels ordered a custom jacket and pants, and based his request on other items Dylla had already made, with a twist: She incorporated a Celtic design into the pants to represent Michaels’ Irish heritage. Dylla’s “reputation in the industry, her customer service and her handmade, one-of-a-kind pieces with such attention to detail make her the perfect designer of the kind of look I was going for,” Michaels says.

There are a few other folks in the industry who do what Dylla does. Michaels says he’s spoken to them, but “none of the pieces come close to the level of detail that Kylla Custom Rock Wear does. Other companies churn out multiples of the same pieces. Someone else walks around wearing the same outfit as you somewhere. Kim’s pieces are one of a kind. Kim [even] refuses to make something for someone that she’s already made,” Michaels says.

Pattern of life

It’s about 4pm when Dylla and Awesome finish up wrestler Hobbs’ custom order, and Dylla takes the entire getup—trunks, hooded vest and kneepad covers—into the cutting/patterning/photographing/mailing room and pulls the vest over a chest form and clips the trunks and kneepad covers onto hangers for a quick photo. Next, she folds the individual garments and stuffs them into two USPS Priority Mail Express packets along with a thank you note and custom care instructions for how to wash everything in a hotel bathtub or truck stop sink. Dylla tapes the two packets together and weighs the whole thing on a mail scale—2.7 pounds—before filling out the online shipping forms and printing a label to affix to the front of the taped-up packet.

At 4:25, Dylla rushes down the stairs and out to the parking lot, Hobbs’ parcel in hand, and hops into her little black Pontiac with a KYLLA license plate. She knows that if she doesn’t leave by 4:30, she won’t make it to the post office in time. Dylla says that most days, the post office employees are standing at the desk looking at their watches, waiting for her to run in at the last minute with a package to ship to some random place in Sweden, Norway, Japan or Australia.

After the post office run, Dylla will return to her studio and work late into the night, sipping cans of Wegmans blackberry tangerine-flavored seltzer water as she works. Even with Awesome sewing in the studio three or four days a week, Dylla still works about 12 hours a day, six days a week. She tries to sew for eight hours a day, which can be tricky when she’s handling all the other aspects of the business—money, books and shipping, design consults, patterning, buying and dyeing and treating materials. If you pass the Starr Hill building at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and see a light on on the second floor, chances are it’s Dylla, working away amid the whir of the machines and heavy metal screams streaming from the bluetooth speaker.

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