Welcome to Industry Insiders, a monthly feature on Sounds Like Nashville that will give fans an inside look at the movers and shakers behind the country music industry. This month, we spoke with Steve Summers, Dolly Parton’s Creative Director and the man responsible for much of her branding. Check back every month for the next edition of Industry Insiders!
They say behind every great man, there’s a woman. Well, behind country superstar Dolly Parton, there’s a very talented man who makes sure the legend looks her best every time she steps on stage.
Steve Summers serves as Parton’s Creative Director and has worked with the entertainment icon for 29 years, designing her beautiful clothes, working on album covers, creating stage sets and anything visual pertaining to Parton’s brand. “My job as creative director requires me, obviously, to be relatively artistic and as an artist there is not a better canvas to work with,” Summers says of Parton. “Dolly has so many sides to her personality that all require a specific looks. I get Dolly the actress. I get Dolly the singer. I get Dolly the philanthropist. I get Dolly the book lady. I get all different kinds of Dollys. I get to dress them all and to dream up looks for each one of them so as a creative person, it’s the perfect job for me.”
Friendly, professional and always impeccably dressed himself, Summers’ entrance to Parton’s world began at Dollywood. “I auditioned at her theme park Dollywood as a singer/dancer in 1991, was cast in one of their shows and I have worked for her ever since,” he says. “I performed at Dollywood for about five years and I started doing the sets and scenery for them, and designed some wardrobe for them because I basically complained a lot about things like, ‘I have to wear this? Why isn’t it practical? I have to take this off in three seconds and there are buttons. Why do I have to do this?’
“So it was kind of an evolution of me being the whiniest person on stage,” he says with a laugh. “Finally they said, ‘Well if you think you can do better, why don’t you design something?’ So I did and it actually worked.”
Parton herself took notice of Summers initiative and creativity. “Everybody realized he could just do everything creative so they started using him, putting shows together, and doing sets and doing all that,” Parton says of Summers’ 15 years at Dollywood. “When I would go up there to work, I just kept seeing how great he was. I always pray for God to put the right people in my life and take all the wrong people out. One day I was making some changes he just popped in my mind like a light bulb. That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because Steve is fantastic with everything. He’s so talented and so creative whether he’s designing my clothes or making them. He’s also a great decorator. He decorates our places.”
These days as her Creative Director, Summers is responsible for Parton’s clothes, album covers, stage sets and all the visual elements of her multi-faceted career. He also created Parton’s state-of-the-art Chasing Rainbows Museum at Dollywood. “My job and goal is to make sure that the Dolly Parton brand is always represented as appropriately as possible,” says Summers. “Dolly is a creative giant, so I’m trying to keep up with her and what her visions are of things and making sure that what I am doing is perpetuating what she wants done. She has been controlling her brand for over 60 years. She sure does not need me to tell her how to do it. What she needs to do is inform me of where she sees us going and then my job is to go. If you think about it in terms of a train, she’s the train and I’m shoveling coal. I shovel coal just as fast as I can go, but I’m not the engineer.”
The East Tennessee native never imagined his career would take such an exciting turn. He admits there was a time when he was unsure exactly what path to take. “When I was in my early 20’s, I was a general manager of a department store. I was married and had a small daughter who was one-year-old,” says Summers, who began sewing to make fancy dresses for his daughter. “I was miserable in my job and not very healthy. I decided that I wanted to get out of all of that, so I moved back to my hometown of Harriman, TN and I moved my wife and daughter into my mom and dad’s house and had absolutely no plan of what I wanted to do with my future. I was 25 years old.”
His mother stepped in with advice that would change his life. “My mom said, ‘You have a pretty voice. You should go to the local college here and see if they’ll give you a voice scholarship.’ I thought, ‘Well that’s kind of silly. That does not happen. You don’t just walk in and ask for a scholarship and have them give you one,’” he recalls. “Mom basically said, ‘What do you have to lose?’ The truth is I didn’t have anything to lose, so I went in and auditioned, and they actually gave me a full ride to sing. So I went to college and sang with a group that they had there called the Celebration Singers. That’s how I got through college. In order to get out of my last semester and graduate, I had to audition for something. I went to Dollywood because I thought, ‘Well that’s the closest for me and so I’ll give that a shot.’ They hired me on the spot. That is how the whole thing started.”
Once she recruited him from Dollywood, Parton even paid for Summers to continue his education. “Dolly doesn’t hire people to do specific jobs, she hires personalities and then cultivates you to do the job,” he says. “She sent me to FIT—the Fashion Institute of Technology— because she liked what I had to offer and then figured out a way to cultivate it and make it work so that’s where I went to college and it’s because of her. She paid for it too. She’s not scared to put her money where her mouth is.”
These days Summers is responsible for designing clothes for one of the world’s most recognizable entertainers. One of Parton’s most spectacular dresses is the flowing white gown she wore earlier this year when the Grammys held a special tribute to her. “The dress took forever to make and it took many different people,” Summers says. “My main seamstress is Iisha Lemming who has worked with me for 12 years now. Most artists will sketch out something really nice for their seamstresses to make it. I don’t sketch anything that pretty for Iisha anymore. I can sketch a dress on a napkin over dinner and she can make it off of that. She’s so talented and it’s wonderful to work with your family. At this point, we’re family. If you could see the drawing that I gave her to create the dress for the Grammys and what she turned it into, it would blow your mind that she knew what to do off of what I gave her because it was not outlined very specifically, but she understood what it meant. That’s a beautiful place to be in with a partner.”
In addition to designing clothes for Parton, Summers also reaches out to other designers because of the volume of clothes she needs for concerts, awards show and events. “I feel like I don’t have to design everything. In fact I do use other designers often,” he says. “I use a guy in LA. His name is Robért Behar and he designs clothes for her when I don’t have time or if it’s something that I think he would be better at than I would. There are lots of great designers out here.”
Summers often finds clothes for Parton in unexpected places. Target is a favorite. “I buy lots of pants there. She’s about 5’2” and she’s a size 0. If I buy a 12 or 14 in little kid’s sizes it usually fits her pretty well,” he says. “I may have to do a little nip or tuck here and there. The funny thing about Dolly is she doesn’t care where things come from. It makes no different to her. She is not a brand conscious person at all. What she is worried about is, ‘Do I look good in it and am I comfortable?’ She could care less with where it came from or who made it.”
When Parton is doing a show like the Grammys or CMA Awards, he will have multiple outfits ready. “If I go to the Grammys, I don’t go with one dress. I go with four and then when we get there she chooses what she wants to wear,” he says. “There are so many questions that go into making a decision. Is she sitting? Standing? Is she riding in a car before she gets there? Is she mic’d,” he says of wearing a microphone. “What is everybody else wearing? Is she on stage with a bunch of other women? What are they wearing? Is there a curtain? What color is the curtain? You can’t put her in a red dress in front of a red curtain. You’ve got to think about all of these things.”
Summers is also quick to point out that the life of a celebrity stylist/designer isn’t as glamorous as people might think. “The Grammys are wonderful, but it’s work,” says Summers. “Everybody at the Grammys has a team. You are underground. You don’t get to see the show. I was sequestered in a dressing room with security everywhere, ironing and steaming clothes and making sure I was prepared. I walked up to the stage when Dolly was getting ready to perform because I had to carry that dress. That dress was so heavy so she’s walking up the stairs and I’m holding the back of the dress like we’re in a wedding procession so she can get up there without stepping on the dress. Then I go back downstairs until she is finished performing because there are too many people there. Everybody is there trying to represent their star and to make sure their star looks good. It’s not just me and her. There are 200 stars there and they all have a ‘me.’ We’re all waiting downstairs for our celebrity to come back, then we get in our car and go home.”
As for the team that Summers leads, it’s a very small and tight knit squad. “I have Iisha who works with me and then Dolly’s production coordinator. Her name is Rebecca Seaver. She is my sidekick,” he says of Parton’s niece. “We try to tag team things to make sure things go as smoothly as possible, but we are the only full-time people who work in the wardrobe division, just the three of us.”
Summers says the creative portion of his job is only a small part of the gig. A lot of it is very detailed preparation and information gathering. “If you are going to New York and doing 10 different TV shows in three days, you have to talk to the production designers for every one of those shows,” he explains. “You have to get information on what those sets look like. You have to get information on what are the co-hosts going to look like. You have to find out how is she going to be mic’d. Is she going to sing or is she not going to sing? Do you take a guitar? How are we getting to that venue? How far is the next venue. Is there time to change between this show and the next show or do I make it to where you just have to change a jacket and a necklace so that it looks like you are wearing a different outfit, but you’re not really?
“These are all things you have to know before you plan,” he continues, “and if you are going to New York City where there aren’t dressing rooms and you don’t have a large amount of space, how do I transport all of this stuff all over the place? Who is carrying it? How do I get it to the next spot? How do I get it there before she gets there so she can finish up the interview she is working on and I can be set up for the next one? This is stuff that nobody knows about. It’s not an easy job, but it’s an incredibly fulfilling job.”
In talking to Summers, it’s obvious he loves his work and he loves his boss. “I love the whole creation process from the very beginning and I also love Dolly,” he smiles. “She is a great lady and what you think she is, she is. She really is that wonderful to deal with, so it’s always a pleasure just to get to work with her.”