Sure, Kim Dylla performed the role of Vulvatron in GWAR a couple years back. But there is so much more to Dylla than just a playing a "red-hot cybernetic spitfire" from outer space. She made the leap from academia to running her own business almost a decade ago, and is now a heavy metal's most in-demand seamstress to the stars -- all while traveling the world and continuing her own musical pursuits.
Read on to find out how she did it...
You've been the CEO and designer of Kylla Custom Rockwear, creating stage clothes for the biggest names in metal -- and some wrestlers too! How did you get your business off the ground back in 2013? Making stage clothes was actually a hobby for me for many years-- I played in a metal band and didn't have the money to buy stage clothes, so I started upcycling old leather garments I found into things that would look cool on stage! Some friends of mine in larger bands like Cradle of Filth, Slipknot, and Machine Head really liked the jackets I made, so they asked me to make things for them! At some point I got so busy with commissions on the side of my full time job that I decided to see what would happen if I devoted all of my time to this, so I quit my job and got my own health insurance. That was almost 10 years ago now, and I have been able to have several assistants, and we have clients in 75 countries!
How did you get into sewing and fashion design? My mother taught me sewing and patterning basics when I was a kid, but I only really ever used it to make Halloween costumes. A friend of mine lived in San Francisco and would make these involved corsets for club parties. As a Goth teenager, I loved corsets, and she taught me to pattern and make them! If you can pattern and sew a corset, everything else is easy, so I started just making most of my own clothes! I had a wild sense of style somewhere between Hellraiser and Heavy Metal, so I couldn't really find stuff like that in stores in Virginia in the 90s anyway. When you are designing a custom outfit for a client, how do you get a feel for what they want? I like to google live or in-ring photos of the client first, to get an idea of their own personal style. I want to make clothes that people feel comfortable in, but are less 'street' and more 'stage.' I usually have them send me a bunch of reference pics of things I have made in the past, or outside designs that they like, and this also helps me determine the aesthetic they are looking for. I think the hardest is when clients just tell me "DO YOUR THING" and give me free reign, because they almost always have something in their head that they can't describe. For this I have very strict rules on what I do and don't allow in terms of changes after I've started sewing, haha.
Tell me about a favorite piece that you've made recently. One of my favorite things we've done recently is a stage wardrobe for the Norwegian band Enslaved, for the "Frost" album set they did at Decibel Metal and Beer Festival in Philadelphia. I have been a fan of Enslaved for a long time, so it's always great when I get to bring a stage aesthetic to life for a band whose music already means something to me -- it feels like an added insight.
For this, I went to Bergen, Norway to do measurements, and then created the garments back in our studio in Virginia, and delivered them to the gig in Philly. I took the stage looks each member has worn for years and embellished them with Viking Age leather designs and carvings -- jormungandr serpent down the leg of the pants, Urnes tendrils and dragons carved into graphics for vests, runic writing cut from leather and appliqued, etc. When I watched them play the show in the gear, the entire vision came together, and it was a great moment! They were also one of the only bands that got to play any gigs during 2020, so it was cool to see the gear on stages in dramatic churches in Norway during the pandemic.
Before Kylla, you worked in jobs that combined computer science and art. Why did you make the leap from the "9-5" world to running your own business? What are the best parts about being your own boss, and what are some of the challenges? I always say that being your own boss is a double-edged sword. On one hand, I have total freedom to set my own schedule, and work from wherever I want to. I absolutely hate mornings, and never get up before noon if I don't have to (I'm usually up til 4am or 5am haha). I used to work in Academia as a Computer Scientist making 3D models for the Archaeology world, and I loved my job, but I didn't love getting 2-3 hrs sleep a night as an extremely nocturnal person. Running a company though, the work is never really done, so I would find myself working UNTIL all hours of the morning, or struggling to catch up if I take any time off. It's not like you get paid vacation. I struggled a lot with work-life balance when I worked out of my home, and I also struggled with focus when my boyfriend at the time moved into my home with me, when he would come home from his 9-5 and start distracting me. For me, this is also why I work better at night- less distractions.
The best decision I ever made for work-life divide was to get a separate studio and to set specific studio hours. I am much more focused there, and the mess of my work is not staring at me at home when I am trying to relax. I also set rigid boundaries about the way I let clients contact me for work matters: I try to direct them all to email, and then I check my work email twice a day. I had to turn off the notifications on my smartphone for work emails, as I was constantly getting sucked into communicating with clients all day instead of finishing the actual work. For creative fields, it's also hard to determine exactly how long a task or order will take, and to account for important clients wanting things on a quick turnaround. I found myself working a lot of overtime to account for this, so now I book the schedule like a doctor's office, where I'm expecting "walk ins"-- aka last minute orders and last minute changes, and it's a lot more sane.
What actions have been most helpful to you in sustaining and growing your business? Getting a business advisor was a huge step forward for me as an artist trying to figure out how to run a business like a business! I received a lot of invaluable counseling and help from the Virginia Small Business Development Center. They helped me figure out bookkeeping, getting a great loan, putting me in touch with peers and conferences in my field that got my manufactured Ready-to-Wear collection off the ground. If there is an SBDC in your area, I can't recommend using their resources enough! Renting my own separate studio space outside of my home was also a GIANT leap forward in professionalism and productivity. Being your own boss in the United States has its difficult aspects -- how do you handle things like retirement savings and health insurance? I am a person with a lot of pre-existing health conditions, so actually Health Insurance was my primary reservation in terms of leaving my career salaried job. I basically just worked out how many jackets per week I needed to make to pay my home and my health insurance, and it was a manageable amount, so I stopped being scared about it. The ACA helped me tremendously as well, and still does. Health Insurance is the first bill I pay, and I never let it lapse so that as a person with conditions, I don't get excluded even if the laws change. It is very expensive though, but not as expensive as one hospital bill if I got in an accident without it.
I really feel like as a person in my 30s I'm just starting to grasp how to properly save for Retirement though. I was lucky in that working for an Academic institution for a decade, I have a nice TIAA account. Currently though, I just try to put a few hundred bucks a month into my savings account and then dump it into my TIAA at the end of the year. I would like to structure that better in the future.
The most crucial thing you have to manage as an American small business owner though I feel is estimating and paying in your quarterly Estimated Taxes so you don't get a huge bill at the end of the year! I used to just set 15-20% aside in a separate checking account and pay them from that, then it was a nice "refund" come tax time!
Going to Sweden for the summer sounds awesome! Are you traveling for work, fun, or both? One of the nice things about being self-employed is that I can work from anywhere that they have a reliable postal service and an internet connection, but it's a bit trickier for me to travel with a sewing machine in carryon and a suitcase full of fabric than someone working from a laptop! I do it every year though! Most of our Metal World clients are in Europe as metal is much bigger over here than in the US, as are the summer festivals. It's much easier networking for me to come to Europe and go to festivals where 10+ of our clients are playing, rather than drive in circles around the East Coast traffic to catch them one at a time, so most Summers I spend working from here.
My boyfriend is Swedish, and the borders between the EU and the US have been closed for noncitizens since last March. I would usually only come over for 2-3 weeks at a time, but since we have been having to go to Serbia for 14+ days to get him back in the country, I have set up a sewing studio here in Stockholm in his apartment so that I can easily come and stay for 2-3 months instead. It's been nice to not have to lug a sewing machine through airport security checks. I really enjoy Europe in the Summer though -- as a History buff and a Metal fan, there is so much here to see!
You're known for portraying Vulvatron in GWAR, but you have had many other musical projects too! Can you tell us what's going on with The Burned Over? I see some things being teased on Facebook... :) I have been playing in Metal bands for the last 20 years, and singing on stage is my passion! The late great Dave Brockie was one of my good friends, so to pay tribute to his legacy in such a personal way as getting to sing for GWAR as Vulvatron was a real honor, as was wearing such a cool costume (I miss the boobs)!
I have a few projects going on currently! The Burned Over is a 'Baphometal' band I'm working on with an amazing guitarist Mark Dannells down in Atlanta- the music is themed around the Last Great Awakening/Spiritualism movement at the turn of the century. It's a studio project, and the recordings are some of the music I am most proud of having made in my life! I'm so happy with how the songs are turning out.
The last gig I played was with Folk Metal legends Cruachan from Dublin on 70000 Tons of Metal, which was awesome, and going to be playing a festival in Ireland with them whenever it stops getting rescheduled. I also sang on their latest single "The Hawthorn." I have a live Death Metal band called Fulton Ave in my hometown of Charlottesville, which is a lot of fun, and hope to get back to some van tours with them soon. I also have a new Doom band I'm working on with my boyfriend Johan Soderberg (Amon Amarth) and it sort of sounds like female fronted Candlemass -- can't wait to release that stuff!
Until coming across your website, I did not know you were an accomplished painter, or about your background in digital humanities! Did it ever feel strange balancing the academic world and the heavy metal one? I was educated in Liberal Arts and love to be a Renaissance woman, so for me, I love being involved in many different worlds! The photorealist paintings of High Energy Physics machines I make are a way for me to be tied to the Physics world I grew any up in (both my parents are Physicists). My career in the Digital Humanities was a great way for me to balance my loves of Computer Science and Math with passions for Archaeology and History! I feel the most at home for the person I am though, singing on a Metal stage, or with Metal friends at a Metal show! I think if you're in several different fields it helps you to have perspective and be more well-rounded! How was Kylla Custom Rockwear affected by the pandemic? When the pandemic first hit, I was working the last festival on earth, Hell and Heaven in mid-March down in Mexico City with the 70000 Tons of Metal crew. It was very scary for me as a person with Immune and Respiratory conditions to have to fly at that point, and when I got home, I didn't leave the house for 2-3 months. I thought for sure we would not survive since most of our business is the music world. I started sewing masks for Healthcare Workers as there was a mask shortage. I designed the mask initiative that people could buy our handmade masks, and then we would donate them to the essential workers for free. I was surprised how successful this was, and how many people were happy to pay for the masks, so that carried us through several months. We were able to provide over 1500 masks to Healthcare Workers in need, which we sewed one by one! I am lucky too because we also dress many Professional Wrestlers, and federations like WWE and AEW never stopped doing shows, they just had them without a live audience and only for TV. Wrestling has kept us in business through the pandemic, and we are masters at sewing many colors of spandexes now!! hahah What would you like to see for your business and band now that pandemic restrictions are being lifted? I cannot wait until festivals start happening again, and we start making band wardrobes for tours again! I'm still dubious when I see festival and tour announcements for August and September. The US still has a travel ban in place for any noncitizens from the EU, so fingers crossed they lift that soon and bands can start playing. I think I speak for everyone in Metal when I say that we all miss our lives and careers! I miss seeing all my friends, and I miss being on a stage for sure. It's been good to see that the business is a bit resilient through this though, that has made me proud, and I'm grateful for my health through all this mostly!
Photos provided by Dylla. Vulvatron photo by Jose Calvo.
To learn more about budgeting, band finances, and more, order Money Hacks for Metalheads and Old Millennials in paperback and ebook formats: https://amzn.to/3lCsFdq