As happens on Dancing With the Stars, stepping into a Maria McGill creation spurs a metamorphosis: mother of two to sultry samba queen; girl next door to Hans Christian Andersen princess.
The same can be said about walking through the doors of Designs to Shine, McGill's studio in Pinellas Park. Outside, it's a nondescript industrial park structure. Inside (by appointment only), the atmosphere is that of sensuality, sophistication and sweetness.
Hundreds of gowns hang from racks — a rainbow of satin and sequins. A beaded fringe two-piece has surprising weight. Gauzy, floor-length pastel floats bring to mind Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, captured on grainy black-and-white film reels.
When asked to choose a favorite, McGill, 56, looks around the cluttered space. "How do I pick?" she asks.
Her showroom represents more than a decade of outfitting some of the world's top ballroom dancers: Edyta, Karina and Anya. First names only, for some of her "girls."
"I love every aspect of the business because I deal with so many different kinds of individuals and dancers," she says. "I dance through my dresses."
Her personal success story begins with a search for something new. McGill, a dancer who emigrated from Hungary to the United States in 1969, wanted more from her own costumes. She turned to a reliable source — her family. Her mother, Ilona, helped her design her first gown for a competition.
"I sold it right off my back," she says with a laugh. "We worked on it all night long, and I had nothing to show for it. No pictures. No dress."
A business was born.
The designs eventually became so sought after on the dance circuit that she stopped competing and opened Designs to Shine. Now, the company's 25 employees churn out about 900 dresses a year to an array of clients from their 5,000-square-foot workspace, which McGill thinks they've already outgrown. Her highest-profile accomplishments: costuming the first cast of ABC's Dancing With the Stars and her continued alliance with Fox's So You Think You Can Dance.
Picking out costumes for So You Think You Can Dance is like slipping into a well-loved pair of dance shoes for Michelle Butler, Designs to Shine's business manager. The company has sent costumes to the reality competition for five of the show's six seasons.
"They call us up and tell us what ballroom dances will be featured that week — salsa, tango, waltz — and I'll pull two to six costumes," said Butler, who sends the dresses to the show in Los Angeles.
Julie Weintraub, vice president of Clearwater's Gold and Diamond Source, was so captivated by McGill's work that she became partners with the designer in Entrada Couture, a line of evening gowns. Entrada gowns feature the same intricate details and styling of the ballroom collection but are pared back for everyday customers.
"I walked into her studio and I swear I never left," Weintraub says.
Magic happens here; think the impeccable hand-detailing of Paris couture blended with Las Vegas glamor.
In one workspace, McGill's sister, Ilona Buckner, hand-sews delicate floral lace on a gown. McGill makes a quick introduction and says, "Machines can't achieve what we're looking for."
And what would that be?
A dress that serves as a "hallelujah" to the feminine form — expertly draped fabric to hide flaws and strategically placed accents to showcase attributes.
In McGill's world, fantasy always trumps reality, then swirls across the dance floor in chiffon and crystals.
Jennifer DeCamp can be reached at (727) 893-8881 or firstname.lastname@example.org.