Trevor Bowen doesn't know what he's looking for — until he sees it.
The freelance costume designer regularly scours thrift shops and vintage stores, picking through racks for castoffs with the potential to be transformed for the spotlight.
When Bowen finds a red velvet bathrobe, he sees a king's regal cloak. A beaded dress becomes a burlesque costume. A man's plaid wool jacket sets the scene in a hunting lodge.
"I see the possibility of a garment," he said.
He doesn't just dress actors, he creates costumes that advance the narrative, a skill that has made him an in-demand collaborator at local theaters.
"Nothing with a costume is accidental," he said. "A flat two-dimensional thing becomes a direct line to the work of illuminating a character for the audience and finding the back story for the actor."
Since arriving in Minnesota by chance four years ago, Bowen, 35, has outfitted various productions at Twin Cities companies, from Theater Latté Da to Park Square to the History Theatre to Ten Thousand Things, earning an emerging artist award at the Iveys last year.
"As a director, I get to select designers, and I campaign for Trevor," said Peter Rothstein, who has worked with Bowen on four productions.
"We did a modern setting of 'Romeo and Juliet' and he brought his great eye for how contemporary fashion carries meaning," Rothstein said. "When we did 'Ragtime,' which is set in 1906, he used costumes to interpret race, class and gender to a current audience."
Bowen is busy, often simultaneously researching designs for one show, scheduling fittings for another and stitching costumes for a third. For each production, he builds what he calls a "show bible," a three-ring binder that holds the annotated script with "costume plots" for each character. He uses a detailed spreadsheet to track every costume element on a grid, right down to the socks, jewelry and undergarments.
Bowen has outfitted Twin Cities actress Regina Marie Williams for half a dozen roles, including a black dress for her title character in "Nina Simone: Four Women" and a slinky red number for her turn as jazz singer Shug Avery in "The Color Purple."
"It was a showstopper. I could hear people sigh when I made my entrance," Williams said. "A costume like that lifts you into the character. You slip it on and you go, 'Oh, I see.' It tells you how to move, how to breathe."
Williams has come to trust Bowen and the intimate nature of their collaboration, which often takes place in a fitting room.
"He comes prepared and listens respectfully. It puts my mind at ease when I know Trevor is doing a show."
Behind the curtain
Bowen stumbled into sewing when he was 12.
He decided that his Walkman needed a fabric pouch. He explained his idea to his grandmother, who helped him find fabric and make a pattern, then she parked him behind her sewing machine, where he stitched it himself.
"It was a great life lesson about learning a skill," Bowen said.
The son of a Head Start teacher and a janitor, Bowen was born and raised in Altus, Okla.
His interest in theater began with acting. In high school, he participated in drama competitions and performed in school productions and community charity shows.
"When you're a teenager and not comfortable with who you are, it was wonderful to see how I could detach and be comfortable in a role," he said.
Naturally reserved, he realized he was more suited to backstage work while studying theater at Southwestern Oklahoma State. He was assigned to wardrobe for a production of "Tartuffe," the French classic set in the 17th century.
"I worked with costumes and helped with quick changes and lacing corsets," he said. "When I didn't even mind doing the laundry, I thought, 'This is where I fit.' "
Bowen went on to earn an MFA in costume design at West Virginia University, where he perfected his tailoring techniques and learned to sketch costumes, make patterns and collaborate with performers and directors.
"I started looking at the overall picture, how each garment serves a function," he said. "That unlocked a level of work that I didn't know I could do."
After graduating, Bowen worked alongside Broadway veterans in regional theaters in Connecticut and New Jersey. In 2013, he heard about a job as a design assistant at the Guthrie and agreed to a nine-month contract at the Minneapolis theater.
When that gig ended, a new acquaintance recommended Bowen to Faye Price, artistic director at Pillsbury House Theatre, for "The Road Weeps, the Well Runs Dry," a drama about the relationships between African-Americans and Seminoles who settled the same Great Plains town.
"Talking to him, I knew right away that he was our guy," Price said. "This show is a specific place in history and he got it. Costumes have no words, but put a lot across about characters. They can tell you who is powerful, who is poor. What he came up with — on our budget — was nothing short of magical."
Part of the community
Outfitting a cast with an eye to the cost is a constant challenge for Bowen. He buys some costumes, borrows and reworks others and creates some from scratch in a tiny basement workroom in the apartment building where he lives and keeps his sewing machine, serger, dye pot and tailoring tools.
Responsible for everything a character wears, Bowen has boxes, bins and zip-top bags filled with ties, jewelry, eyeglasses and buttons he's collected.
"I say Trevor is the hardest working man in show business," said Mixed Blood Theatre artistic director Jack Reuler.
"I marvel at what he accomplishes for the theater-makers in town. We have a small permanent year-round staff, and so our mission is accomplished on the backs of talented freelancers," Reuler said.
"If we are going to be as good as what we say we are with our productions, we need people like Trevor to make our claim."
Some of Bowen's theatrical collaborators are worried he'll be lured away to Chicago or New York.
But Bowen, who's booked for back-to-back productions for the next year, said he feels rooted in the Twin Cities theater community that he stumbled into by chance.
"Work begets work and without really trying, I've developed a network of relationships with directors and fellow designers," he said. "One day, I realized, 'I should stay here.'
"There's a lot of joy in the collective nature of what we do, and that I am part of."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.