Today marks 20 years since the passing of John Denver, who was tragically killed in a plane crash off the coast of California on Oct 12, 1997. We celebrate the life of the humanitarian, political activist, award-winning songwriter and performer by paying tribute to his personal sewist and costumer, who sewed his extravagant stage shirts for 10 years. Anna Zapp, a former Sew News contributor, shares what it was like to work with John Denver and how he changed her life, taking her sewing business to the next level and helping her become a sewist for the stars.
SN: How old were you when you learned to sew?
AZ: The first time my hands touched a sewing machine I was about 7. Most Sunday afternoons we went to spend the afternoon with my grandmother. I was kind of bored and there sat this sewing machine calling my name and there were plenty of scraps!
I played with her sewing machine every Sunday possible. When I turned 12, she gave me a new White sewing machine for my birthday. It was a beautiful aqua color. Everybody thought she was crazy except me! I had a life-sized three-year-old doll that I got for Christmas, so I made her some clothes for practice.
After making a couple of garments for my doll, I realized I wasn’t much bigger than her so she went in the corner, and I started sewing for myself. By the time I got to 7th grade, a classmate liked what I made and commissioned me to make three denim shifts (in different colors). I charged her $3.00 each, which included fabric.
I was mostly self-taught until I was able to take home-economics classes in high school. All I wanted to do was to sew. College taught me tailoring, pattern making and draping.
SN: When did you start sewing western shirts?
AZ: My ex-husband, Rennie, and I came to Colorado in the fall of 1971. Everyone told us there were no jobs. We were hippies but I put on my “straight” clothes and headed down to the fabric store and got a job. The person who hired me said I was over-qualified, but I didn’t care!
One day this woman came in and said she had a store that made custom western shirts. I asked her if I could work there and she said, “Can you sew?” She told me to come to the shop and make a shirt to see if I could meet her standard. Well, I thought I could sew until I met Rosie Cabas. Boy, was I wrong. The shop sewed at a level of perfection the like I’d never seen. My first shirt took me 18 hours and the pay was $8! When my husband picked me up and he realized how long it took, he said “That won’t do.” I said, “Don’t worry, the next one will go faster!” It did and I advanced to be able to make three shirts a day minus snaps—but still too much work for one day.
I quit working at the shop and we started doing craft fairs. We’d work all week: I was sewing western shirts and Rennie was doing woodwork. We’d head to a show on the weekends. I told Rosie I’d not sell the shirts in Boulder, as I felt that was her territory.
SN: How did John Denver discover your creations?
AZ: One of these arts and craft fairs was in a large field in Aspen. We all had to build our own booths, from the ground up, which was crazy but we did it.
On the last day of the fair I spotted [Denver] across the field checking out each booth. He finally made his way to our booth and walked in, stood and looked at the picked over shirts that were left and turned around and said “Who makes these shirts?” I held up my hand and said, “I do.” He shook my hand and said “Hi, I’m John.” He said he didn’t care for any of the pieces he saw but made plans to come to our house and order some shirts the next week.
SN: How long did it take for other celebrities to start commissioning orders?
AZ: Not long. About a month later, John called to tell me he needed more shirts, and by the way, “Bob Redford” wanted some shirts like his. “I’ll call him now and give him your number,” he said. It was barely 15 minutes and the phone rang, and it was Bob calling to see if I could meet him at the Vail Environmental Symposium, where he would be speaking. We met him in his hotel room and I took his measurements. I made items for him and his wife at the time, Lola, for a number of years. Really fun!
SN: What’s the most extravagant outfit you ever made him?
AZ: The most extravagant outfit was a black wool tuxedo with appliqué pieces on the shawl collar embellished with black diamond rhinestones. He had a hard time making up his mind about what he wanted, and when he did, I only had 10 days to make it.
I called friends to come over and help me cut out the appliqué pieces. It took all 10 days and until 9pm each night. It was easily over 100 hours. It had a vest, jacket and pants. The jacket lapels were totally embellished, the sides of the jacket were embellished, four inches wide, as well as the pant sides. Lots of work!
I started out making regular western shirts, denim bodies and print yokes, and visa versa, like the one he wore on his first Johnny Carson appearance. Some of the shirts were made of used jeans. After I made a dozen of that style, I thought I’d make him some two-color denim pants. He loved them!
On our second meeting, in Stapleton Airport, he asked for something special to wear to the Country Music Awards. Right on the spot, I saw in my mind’s eye a tux with tails, made from medium-blue worn denim. He said “no tails” and I told him he needed tails. We made tails. It was lined in blue satin with lapels made from lighter blue brocade with sparkling slubs running through the weave. I had silver buttons custom made for the satin shirt and silver nickel buttons made for the tux.
This [arrangement] was fine until I made his first appliqué satin shirt. That was the start of a new look for him. The shirts had designs of flowers, leaves and stems with rhinestones accenting the center flower. He then wanted “appliqué outfits.” I think I made 17 of them, decorated with individually cut satin pieces that created the particular design. All of these outfits were totally different.
SN: Can you describe the process of creating one of his shirts? Was it a collaborative effort or did he trust you to design everything from start to finish?
AZ: The short answer is yes, he trusted me! It was an artist’s heaven! At first I would meet with him and show him samples of fabric for yokes only, to go on denim, and he’d pick all the swatches. After that, his secretary would call and tell me he wanted more shirts. As for the shirt and decorated pants outfits, on rare occasion he’d ask for a specific type of design, like an Indian motif.
SN: Were any of his songs particularly influential to you?
AZ: Yes! Rennie and I had moved back east and it was a cold, dreary day. We were both hard at work and “Rocky Mountain High” came on the little transistor radio; it was the first we’d heard it. We both sat down in the floor, I started crying and said, “We have to go back to Colorado!” The following summer we met John and the story began.
SN: What’s your favorite “John Denver moment?”
AZ: Of course, the first moment was meeting him in the summer of 1973. One other moment was when we were in Los Angeles. He flew us out, first class, so I could hear him say on stage, “My mom didn’t make this shirt, it’s an Anna Zapp original, man!” And he had me stand up. Far out!
Another is when his movie Oh, God! premiered. He called to ask if I wanted to come to Aspen for the premiere, and he’d come get me in his Cessna four-seater. The Chinook winds were blowing, and we had a rough ride but arrived safe and sound. The movie was fun. The next day the winds were quite a bit stronger, and the Cessna was being thrown up and down and side-to-side. We tightened our seat belts and hung on for dear life. He said if anyone got sick in his airplane, no more rides for you!
SN: What did your relationship with John Denver mean to you?
AZ: It changed my life! My dream as a young teenager was to sew and design for famous people. Knowing John opened all kinds of doors. He wanted me to outfit his entire band, and I met and designed for Annie, his wife. He wanted everyone he met, like Robert Redford, [to own my shirts]. Redford then ordered a shirt for Willie Nelson. Many celebrities in the western music arena started wanting specialty shirts.
Paramount Pictures contacted me and wanted a special shirt for John Travolta to wear in Urban Cowboy, and some shirts from my line that they found at a store in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Needless to say, sewing for John Denver was a dream come true.
Anna Zapp is the author of The Zapp Method of Couture Sewing, published by Krause/F+W Media and available digitally at shopsewitall.com.