Portia Kirk is on an early morning mission. At 8:39 a.m. she sends me a text message to push our meeting back an hour: “Had a small window to meet up with the guy who supplies my animal prints and neons on his day off.”

The living room of her South Park bungalow later that morning is strewn with bright orange gauze trim, strips of blue-and-black zebra print fabric and four sewing machines. Her walls are painted brown and covered in posters of Picasso paintings and photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Kirk flips her dyed-black hair over her shoulder as she reaches for coffee and gathers armfuls of material.

Kirk is a seamstress for strippers. She sews about a dozen bikinis a day, then gathers up her wares, packs them in a suitcase, and heads out to adult nightclubs to sell outfits to dancers. In a couple of hours there, she can make a few hundred dollars.

She knows her niche intimately. Kirk, 29, was a nude dancer herself for 10 years before launching her line, and knows what will sell well to her pole-dancing, skin-baring clientele. When Kirk danced, she often paid up to $50 for an outfit from the mainstay local boutique, Aphrodite’s Closet. Now Kirk charges $20 to $35 for a bikini, more for custom orders.

Portia Kirk – Images by Sam Hodgson – To see these images in full screen mode, click on the bottom right corner of the player.

She still thinks in the currency of her former vocation.

“Instead of doing three to four lap dances to pay for an outfit,” she says, “they can do one and just buy it from me.”

A garment rack by her living room window is crammed with dozens of bikinis, ordered according to trim color: blacks, whites, oranges, pinks, turquoises, blues, purples, reds and camouflage. A headless black plastic woman’s torso hangs upside-down from a nail on the wall. Another mannequin dress form stands in the corner, clad in a lacy black gown.

Kirk wheels a rolling blade over blue fabric, tracing a pattern for bikini bottoms. She’s flying. Her cat, Vader, and her dog, Luther, scamper under her work table.

“Most of the time I make stuff, I think, ‘God, this is hideous — it’s gonna sell so well,’” she quips.

Kirk’s in the business of making clothes that will be stretched, tugged, and ultimately, removed. In the infinitesimal amount of fabric she uses for each outfit, she infuses thought and extras — ruched trim, neons, sparkles. She finishes a bikini top and plugs in a black light to see how it will glow in the club.

This is her strategy: Employ what she remembers working when she danced, and assemble ideal combinations of glitz and glow to compel strippers to buy her outfits.

When Kirk danced, she would change clothes several times in one shift. The economics of dancing are simple, she says — make your pole-dancing performance so compelling that patrons pay you to give them a private lap dance after you’ve finished on stage.

But many patrons in the clubs are used to hearing “no” from average women, she says, and they take it out on the dancers. It stings to take your clothes off and then have no one ask you for a dance, she says.

“You deal with tons of rejection,” she says. “So you go and change and do your hair differently and come back out.”

Sewing a piece of green mesh together with orange trim, Kirk lifts her foot off the sewing machine pedal and looks up.

“I’m so glad I don’t do it anymore.”

In business for about two-and-a-half years, Kirk now sews for about 40 regular clients, dancers from about five of the more than a dozen clubs in San Diego. She’s got a fashion show coming up in a couple of weeks at a bar in North Park — some dancer clothes, some lingerie and some standard women’s clothes and gowns. She works from the home she shares with her boyfriend of three years but wants to open a small boutique someday.

Her clear dancing shoes, a contingency plan, are still in her closet.

“I would never, unless I had to, dance again,” she says. “If it gets bad enough, I’m not stupid enough to not.”

For much of her life, it was bad enough. She was 18 and in school for interior design when she first danced at the Body Shop in the Midway District. Her parents are disabled, and were about to lose their house.

“It came to a point where it was like, ‘Move, get over it, or be homeless,’” she says.

She got over it. She made $70 in those first four hours, a paltry sum for an experienced stripper, but way more than she’d ever made at Subway making sandwiches.

After several years, Kirk had worked her way up. She had regulars, and could count on making several hundred dollars — often as much as $1,000 — a day. She won showgirl and pole-dancing competitions and traveled around the country and to Europe.

“It’s the willingness to get naked and the willingness to talk to people,” she says.

Between pinning garments for her upcoming fashion show, Kirk makes 10 bikinis by 3 p.m. Later, she packs up her suitcase and her garment rack and heads out to sell.

Around 4:30, Kirk wheels her suitcase into a purple and black building underneath freeway overpasses in Lemon Grove, a club called Little Darlings. Inside, blue and red spotlights cast shadows on red plush carpets and walls. The afternoon crowd, a handful of middle-aged patrons and a couple of young men, watches a woman dancing on a pole on stage. An announcer introduces the dancers: Gorgeous Daisy, Beautiful Katie.

Kirk wheels past the main club area and sets up her shop in the corner next to the restrooms, an ATM and a vending machine selling chips and candy bars. She shoots the breeze with a couple of women while she hangs bikinis on hangers and pulls underwear out of Ziploc bags.

“Anything new?” she asks.

“It’s better than yesterday,” one answers, flipping through the bikinis for sale. The dancer grabs a yellow and black striped outfit and takes it into the restroom to try it on, emerging a few minutes later with a $20 bill for Kirk.

“And that’s how you do,” Kirk says, turning to me.

She sells three bikinis and two pairs of underwear in an hour and a half, for a grand total of $97.

She glances at the dancers walking around the club and starts packing up her suitcase. “They’re all wearing my clothes,” she says, “so I might as well go.”

But she’s not done working for the day. She’ll hit Déjà Vu, Showgirls and Hustler Club in a few hours, and do the same thing tomorrow.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org. Follow her on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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