Medieval look becomes popular

New York company's business up sharply

May 05, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ULSTER PARK, N.Y. - Dressed in flowing robes from a fantasy of long-ago Persia, Lena Dun peers at the computer screen in her underground workshop and furiously clicks her mouse, cursing technology. Upstairs, wall sconces flicker behind her saleswomen, who sip from goblets while explaining the special-order process to customers arriving by minivan and motorcycle.

This is open house at Moresca Clothing and Costume, one of the largest medieval clothing companies in the country, and Dun is preparing for the high season.

Over the next few months, she will turn out thousands of hooded capes and jingly jester outfits suitable for dancing round the maypole at Renaissance fairs across the country.

Business has exploded during the last 10 years, Dun says, and if her newest enterprise is similarly successful, lords and ladies will soon be traveling through this otherwise drab Ulster County hamlet to visit the Thunderworm Inn, a banquet hall devoted to medieval merrymaking and named for the decidedly un-medieval freight train that tears past it 40 times a day.

Though Dun, a 56-year-old native Swede, does the bulk of her business at the fairs - or faires, to enthusiasts - her thrice-yearly open houses attract the diehard faithful to tiny Ulster Park, a place even the residents concede is "not much more than a wide spot in the road with a sign," in the words of Ray Rice, the town supervisor of Esopus, which includes Ulster Park.

`Interesting business'

"Not many people around here are going to be interested in Renaissance clothing," he said dryly. "But it's a very interesting business."

Not to mention a profitable one. Dun grosses nearly $1 million a year encouraging workaday types to shed their 21st-century selves and don a codpiece or a steel-boned bodice.

Last year, she embraced online commerce, and Moresca's Web site (www.moresca.com), which offers more than 100 Dun-designed items for mail order, is now her consuming passion.

Meanwhile, the cavernous Thunderworm Inn, with its glowing firelight and checkerboard floors, is open for business and awaiting its first round of revelers. Dun expects to fill the space mainly with medieval-style weddings.

"They're getting very big because everyone's so bored with the conventional marriage ceremonies," she said recently. "Though I'll admit, I think it's mostly going to be second-timers. I don't think I'm going to get too many 19-year-old Barbies walking down the aisle on Daddy's arm."

The droll designer seems to have little concern about attracting sufficient customers. Nearly every state has a Renaissance fair (New York's major festival is in Tuxedo, 50 miles away), and among the creative-anachronism set, Dun is something of a legend.

Princess syndrome

"In Lena's clothes, every woman gets to be a princess, every man gets to be a prince," said John Goleeke, a mortgage broker from nearby Kingston who transforms himself into a swashbuckling knight at the fairs. "You put on the costume, you take on the persona."

To those who scoff at such escapism, Dun smiles knowingly. The allure of the clothes, she explains, bespeaks a timeless human desire: the wish to look sexy.

"I've seen it a hundred times," she said. "If they try on one piece and look in the mirror, they see how good they look and they're converted."

Naturally, these are not the sacks and rags of serf wear. Dun designs for the nobility, and to women who want to feel like a queen for a day, $285 for the Megamedieval outfit is a bargain.

Dun has 20 full-time staff members who cut, bead and ship her wares around the country.

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