A Robe By Any Other Name: Seamstress Puts Wrap on Wrestlers

By: Jack Wilkinson

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution March 29, 1988

Descending into Olivia Walker's basement, the thought is inescapable. Surely, this is what it was like entering the Camelot of kitsch: Liberace' s closet. Shield your eyes from the glare. There are rhinestones, blinding rhinestones everywhere. Thousands of sequins, too, and an astonishing array of fabric and color, a rainbow coalition even Jesse Jackson would envy. Small wonder that after decades of working with rhinestones, Mrs. Walker must now wear sunglasses while on the job. But that's a small price to pay when you've become the ultimate rhinestone cowgirl. The undisputed queenpin of couturieres.

Olivia Walker, 44, who masquerades as a mild-mannered College Park housewife and mother, is the First Lady of the Ring. She designs and creates most every outlandish rhinestone-studded robe worn by most every self-respecting professional wrestler. Her clients include such National Wrestling Alliance fashion icons as Dusty Rhodes, Lex Luger and the Robes Pierre of professional wrestling, Ric Flair. "He loves his robes, I'll tell ya," Mrs. Walker said. And she loves making them. In 20 years of wrestling robe-making, Mrs. Walker has created nearly 1,000 robes and ring jackets. "It's either 972 or 792," she said. "Let's say 972. That sounds better." But of all her robes and all her clients, no one - not Greg " The Hammer" Valentine, not Stan "The Man" Stasiak, not even the New York tag- team tandem, The Killer Bees - can touch Ric Flair.

His robes are his trademark, and Mrs. Walker has made more than a dozen of them. The first was 18 years ago, when she was living in Charlotte, N.C., where Flair is based. An Irish immigrant, Mrs. Walker was 18 when her family moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a designer and seamstress. After marrying and moving to North Carolina, Mrs. Walker came to Flair's attention. "He wanted five robes right away," she said. "I made him the first one - a very simple one, pink velvet, silver sequins and trim, and rhinestones - and he came absolutely unglued. And it went from there. I'd make him a robe, and he'd say, `I want a couple of thousand dollars more stuff.' " And she would gladly oblige. What makes a good wrestling robe? "The money," Mrs. Walker said. "Being able to call New York and order anything I want. If a wrestler says, `Olivia, no limit, the works, ' I can have a great time. No skimping. If he says $500, well, you can't do anything for $500."

Not at 45 cents a rhinestone, you can't. And Olivia Walker buys only the best, only Austrian rhinestones. "They're exquisite," she said. "Just brilliant when the light hits them. German rhinestones are dull." Mrs. Walker's robes are neither dull nor cheap. They can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000. It usually takes from four to six weeks to make one robe, even with the help of her sister, June Scribner, who lives around the corner and does most of the beadwork. Which is considerable: One Ric Flair robe required 50 gross of rhinestones. That's 7,200 rhinestones, all hand-applied. The robe weighed 45 pounds. At Thanksgiving, the sisters spent all day finishing a robe for Flair to wear that night at The Omni. Mrs. Walker's latest was a gold lame job Flair wore for a March of Dimes charity cookoff. And then there was the late, lamented peacock robe, which had 1,000 peacock feathers. "Beautiful," she said. "But the fans got a hold of that one and tore it up. I was sick." Her reputation is such that wrestlers call, asking for sartorial help. But she is quite selective. "I handpick the men I design for, " she said. "Some of them I wouldn't let through my front door."

The chosen come to her home, where she has already drawn a preliminary design based on their phone conversation. She measures and fits them, then pieces together the robe pattern on a mannequin. Nicknamed George, the dummy is actually that of a woman whose breasts are taped flat. "Sometimes," Mrs. Walker said, "the tape breaks, and . . . " There are other professional perils. Mrs. Walker misspelled Lex Luger's surname "Lugar." "He didn't like that and sent it back," she said. "I fixed it. We guarantee our work." Stan "The Man" Stasiak, known for his "Heart Punch," wanted a jacket with a red heart on back with a fist punching it and red blood dripping. "I had nightmares about that one," she said. And then there's Dusty Rhodes. "He has such strange taste," Mrs. Walker said. "He'll walk into the ring with his robe and a sweatshirt." "And knee-high boots," her sister said. "Look at this one." She pointed to a photo of Dusty in a revealing robe, his head thrown back and complemented by his ever-present cap. "He looks like Mae West in that." Despite such obstacles, the sisters persevere, making the wrestling ring a fashion runway. Alas, there is one robe Olivia Walker will never get to make. "I would loved to have done some work for Liberace," she said. "That would have been the ultimate, really. If I had had the opportunity, I'd have designed one for him for nothing."