In a quiet Yorkshire village, sandwiched between Barnsley and Doncaster, there’s a tree-lined street of semi-detached houses, and at the bottom of that street is what looks like an air raid shelter, partially hidden by the trees.
‘I call it my shed,’ says Neil Crossland in a broad South Yorkshire accent.
It’s actually an old church hall, and it’s home to Neil’s business: Stagewear Unlimited. Inside it’s a flood of rolls of material, pop memorabilia and photographs, covering every square inch of wall, showing off the thousands of acts who’ve worn costumes produced Neil and his team. The names dropped are impressive.
Neil and his team of six make outfits for TV programmes like X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Britain’s Got Talent, West End theatre productions such as The Lion King, Sound of Music and Jersey Boys, and Neil’s individual client list has included everyone from Michael Jackson and Norman Wisdom to Ronnie Corbett and Rick Wakeman (ask your parents if those names mean nothing).
Keyboardist Wakeman has visited in person many times, though when he first came Neil was a little embarrassed. ‘I apologised to him,’ explains Neil. ‘I said, “Sorry for the state of the place Rick.”’ When Neil explained that his intention was to build around the old church hall and knock the inside down, Wakeman begged him not to. ‘Rick said, “Never, ever change it. It’s got character.”’
It has remained pretty much unchanged since Neil moved his company here in the mid-1980s. He used to operate on a high street in nearby Goldthorpe but realised there wasn’t much point as he never sold to the public. His customers are exclusively professional performers and companies who appreciate his discretion and the unique type of costume he can create.
Wakeman is still a regular visitor. Earlier in the year he dropped by with a BBC Four camera crew to film Neil as part of a documentary, Oh You Pretty Things: The Story of Music and Fashion. Neil appeared on camera to talk about his career working in showbiz, though the novelty of appearing on camera or on stage has long since worn-off.
‘I started in showbiz when I was seven years old,’ he explains, ‘And I appeared on radio at seven years old as Britain’s youngest drummer. I couldn’t play very well, couldn’t read music, I just played with a war-time dance band.’ Neil’s dad owned a music shop, Crossland’s Music Centre in Barnsley, and Neil worked there as a teenager. ‘It was the Sixties, the guitar boom had started, so when acts came in to buy equipment I used to ask them things like how to play a C minor.’
They taught him, and Neil became proficient enough to earn a living touring the UK playing in groups, which is when he realised how difficult it was to source stagewear. ‘Walking around shops you might see a yellow jacket in the window, and ask, “Can we have five of those?” To which the reply was, “Oh no, we’ve only got two.” You could never find what you wanted.’
When Neil married and started a family he began managing groups rather than playing in them in order to spend more time at home. He found acts on his own roster pressuring him to find rare items like gold suits, satin dresses and sequin coats. ‘I kept thinking, “Somebody ought to open a shop selling stagewear.” Like an idiot I decided to do it.’
He bought a small premises and spent the first six months visiting warehouses across the UK trying to build stock. ‘I realised no-one made it, you couldn’t buy it. There were boutique shops in the Seventies but you couldn’t buy anything in bulk for stage.’ Neil outsourced production at first then advertised for professional clothing makers. ‘I would scribble drawings, give them some cloth and say, “Here, can you make this for me?”’
The club act scene was booming, Neil had an address book full of contacts and business soon took off. ‘That was a good era,’ recalls Neil. ‘There were some great stage outfits, lots of lamé, satins and sequins. Big, weird styles. It went scruffy after that, everybody just started wearing T-shirts and jeans. It was a shame. It lost its appeal. You’ve got to be larger than life on stage, you’ve got to look better than your public.’
Over the years, Neil has experienced the weird and wonderful side of showbiz. A circus promoter once called into the factory and asked if Neil could make a studded collar. ‘No problem,’ said Neil, who accompanied the promoter to a van outside. ‘I went out to his van thinking there would be some guy there. Instead there was a cage with a great big brown bear in the back.’ The circus performer suggested Neil start by measuring the bear’s neck. We can’t print Neil’s reply.
Another unusual request came from a dancer who asked Neil to make a white fur coat for her ten-foot boa constrictor. ‘I had to try and measure its body and make a white fur coat with a long strip of velcro down it,’ says Neil. ‘For the act this dancer would come on stage, pick someone on the front row and sit on their knee wearing what looked like a feather boa round her neck. She would throw it round the person’s neck, then rip the fur coat off the snake and walk away.’
Then there are the famous people. ‘I once went over to visit Norman Wisdom at his house on the Isle of Man. On Wednesday I was down in London measuring Aled Jones. I once went to Ireland and measured Boyzone up. I’ve done Oasis – Liam Gallagher would have 20-odd shirts at a time. Compo out of the Last of the Summer Wine, all those raggy suits are mine…’
Neil says he can’t remember half the names of his clients, but those listed on his website include Harry Hill, Jean Claude Van Damme, Jonathan Ross, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Girls Aloud, Alesha Dixon and Christopher Biggins.
‘I suppose the most famous has got to be Jacko,’ says Neil. In the Eighties Neil was contacted by somebody on behalf of the King of Pop. ‘This guy’s job was to travel the world and find unusual clothing for Michael Jackson. He got paid £1.25 million a year – there’s no wonder Jacko went skint.’
Neil made five jackets for Michael Jackson. For the first, Neil was sent black suede along with 12 solid-gold buckles to stitch on. ‘I remember thinking, “Shall I just put 10 on and keep two?” But thought, “No, they’ll notice.”’ Neil has a picture of Jackson wearing the outfit on stage in Germany during the European leg of the Thriller tour.
After he’d made half a dozen pieces for Jackson, Neil received a contract that he would have to sign if he wanted to continue the collaboration. ‘It must have been 50-pages long. I let my bank manager read it and he said, “Don’t sign it.”’ If he had and anyone had found out Neil made stagewear for Jackson, he would have been heavily sued. ‘I sent it back to Jacko’s guy and said, “Forget it, I don’t need him.”’ Shortly afterwards a local newspaper interviewed Neil. The subject of Jackson came up and the interviewer asked if Jackson had paid Neil for his services, ‘I’m a Yorksireman!’ Neil told him, ‘I’m not doing it for nothing.’
The Sun picked up on the quote and printed a picture of Neil on their front page next to Jackson, with the headline: NEIL TELLS JACKO TO BEAT IT. ‘I rang them and said, “I didn’t say that. I’ll get sued!” They said they would put a retraction in. So about five weeks later on page 100-and-something, bottom lefthand corner, there was one line. Luckily nothing ever came of it, but it could’ve got me into big trouble.’
Many would see The Sun splash as money-can’t-buy publicity, but Neil has never needed to advertise his services. Business remains steady 30 years on from the Seventies and Eighties heyday. Talent shows like X Factor, Strictly and Britain’s Got Talent have helped. The morning of our interview he received a text from his contact at X Factor forewarning of an avalanche of orders. ‘Once they get down to the last eight or so acts, that’s when they start to spend money on stage.’
I ask Neil if he still gets a buzz knowing that costumes made in his Yorkshire ‘shed’ are being seen by millions. ‘Not these days,’ he admits. ‘But I always remember the first outfit I made for somebody that was on TV. It was a bright blue suit and I was telling everybody, “Oh, I’ve got a suit on television tonight!” But two or three times a day now there will be someone on TV wearing my outfits. Generally it doesn’t bother me.’ Neil’s been there, done that and made the outfit.