Professional fairy wing maker Angela Jarman adjusts one of her handmade wings at her studio in Richmond. (Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)
Angela Jarman knew she had reached a career milestone the minute models strutted down the catwalk of a 2014 Victoria’s Secret fashion show wearing her creations. “They found me through a Google search," Jarman says. “I thought, if that could happen then I knew I made it.”
Jarman, who is based in Richmond and is 42 years old, makes fairy wings for a living. Victoria's Secret models wore Jarman's handiwork at the lingerie company's 2014 and 2015 fashion shows in London and New York. Last November, Katy Perry donned a set of rhinestone-encrusted, translucent, white wings made by Jarman for the H&M apparel giant's holiday ad campaign.
Jarman began drawing fantastical and mythical beings when she was in third or fourth grade. “I was always interested in the fantasy genre," Jarman says. "For a long while unicorns were my main subject matter.” Soon after high school, Jarman decided to get into graphic art and design because her father told her it was a more viable and lucrative career path than drawing wizards and warlocks. Jarman reluctantly agreed.
So Jarman went to work as a graphic artist for various small companies such as ScanArt, a printing firm based in Richmond. She also worked for her own children's entertainment business as well as providing face-painting at kids' parties and other events.
Before long, Jarman was itching to make her own set of fairy wings. “I really wanted an original fairy costume," Jarman says. Inspired by the fantasy movies The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Jarman set about creating her party wardrobe. "In each movie there were these iridescent and insect-like fairy wings, instead of the glittery and pink fluffy wings,” Jarman says. “And so I tried to re-create that.”
For her first set of wings, Jarman used iridescent film, heat set vinyl, and wire. She met a photographer who worked at Avalon Arts, a studio in Vallejo, who had a fairy portrait series. Jarman traded her handmade wings for use at the studio in exchange for professional photos of her artwork. Next, she decided to see how well a pair of her handmade wings would sell. When she posted an ad online, they were snatched up almost immediately.
Jarman continued to work at parties as well as for a Halloween supplies company until about 2009, when she ditched the day jobs and became a full-time, fairy-wing-fashioning professional, and launched her own company, Fancy Fairy Wings and Things!
Jarman works from her home, where her studio is colorfully decorated with fabrics, plastic flowers, glue guns, and sewing machines. Fairy sculptures and paintings cover the walls and shelves, providing inspiration at every turn. In the corner by Jarman's living room is a life-size, plastic mannequin dressed in a dark purple corset adorned with the artist's latest set of hand-painted light pink wings.
Jarman begins the fairy wing-making process by designing a template using Adobe Illustrator and sending it to a metal shop in Napa, where workers cut out the wing frames from large stacks of aluminum sheeting. After that, Jarman sands each frame at her home, then sends them off to a coatings business in Richmond where they are powdered (a process involving the application of colored powders to a grounded metal using an electrostatic gun.)
Next, Jarman brings the shaped, sanded, powdered wings back home, where she laminates them with an iridescent film and clear vinyl. Once the laminate has been applied, Jarman heats the wings with a heat gun and smooths the surfaces down until they are as wrinkle-free as possible. For the final step, Jarman cuts out the wings using a heat tool and attaches them to a U-shaped back brace.
Jarman typically produces about 10 sets of wings a week and ships them all over the U.S. and Eastern Europe -- parts of the world where fairy fans flourish in particularly large numbers. A large majority of her clients are avid cosplayers, who wear the wings as part of their costumes to comic book and fantasy conventions, and Halloween enthusiasts looking to enchant guests at a party. And Jarman's wings don't come cheap, costing up to $1,000, depending on the style and size of the design.
There are many big, commercial fairy wing makers across the world. Mass-produced wings run on the cheaper side. You can pick up a set for $25 or less at Walmart or Party City. But these products are typically made of inexpensive nylon and can break easily.
As a result, Jarman has created a niche for herself and her business has grown rapidly over the years. The wait-list for Fancy Fairy Wings and Things used to be long: customers sometimes had to place their orders more than two months out, until Jarman switched her business model to ready-to-ship. Jarman says there is enough demand for handmade wings that there is little jockeying for fairy wing maker supremacy among artists involved in the industry.
In fact, Jarman considers many of her competitors to be her friends. This number includes Renee Taylor, a fairy wing artist based in Virginia, who makes her products out of stretched papers, and Angelia Doyle of Gossamer Wings based in Texas, whose work is fabric-based.
Jarman's fans don't just come from the pop culture community. Artists of many kinds gravitate towards her work. “Her talent is undeniable," says Gregangelo Herrera, artistic director of Velocity Circus, a circus arts company located in San Francisco. "I've created characters for performances based on her wings. She is constantly integrating art and technology and her wings are just one of a kind.”
This month, Jarman is preparing to attend the Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade Ball in Los Angeles, where she will debut a set of moving wings that will flutter back and forth. Until now, Jarman has only been able to perfect a set of wings that light up using LED-colored lights. But after several months of experimenting, Jarman says she is able to successfully pull off her first set of flutter-capable wings. Jarman did the astethic and design and her boyfriend Jordan Price worked on the majority of the technology and coding.
She plans on putting together an online tutorial to show fairy wing enthusiasts with a technical mindset how to make their own motorized wings. “I always just trying to continue evolving my art and trying to make the most realistic fairy wings as possible," Jarman says. "Even though fairy wings are just something we imagine."
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