Costume designer wins contest, dresses host of Patte Awards

Theater critic Pat Launer gets some of her best ideas in the middle of the night.

That’s when she had her latest inspiration - to offer a prize to students at Fashion Careers College for the best design of a dress she could wear as host of the 12th Annual Patte Awards for Theater Excellence.

Launer, who started the awards ceremony in 1997 to honor San Diego’s theater community, has become part of the spectacle with her own over-the-top costumes.

“I could have a resale shop in my house from all the dresses I’ve worn once at the Pattes,” Launer said.

This year’s added award means a big break for aspiring costume designer Jose Maria Ybarra. His prize-winning gown was seen by 450 of San Diego’s glitterati at the Jan. 19 gala and will be viewed by many more when the event is televised next month. It’s quite a coup for a guy from Hermosillo, Mexico, who spent 13 years as a Benedictine monk.

“You wear a habit for years and one day you just decide: enough is enough,” Ybarra said.

His next step - a long one - took him to San Diego to study fashion design. Along with his studies, he talked his way into an internship with fashion icon Zandra Rhodes, helping with her costume sketches for the 2008 San Diego Opera production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.”

How did he come up with his fantasy of purple silk, overlaid with organza and trimmed with Swarovski crystals?

“When Pat Launer came to speak at the college, I took notes,” Ybarra said. “She talked about being the Diva of Drama, told us her favorite color was purple, and said the dress had to be something flamboyant. I’m known for my flamboyant designs and the dress is very purple.”

Flamboyant was the word for the gala evening in the ballroom of the Westin Gaslamp Quarter. From the pâte-and-champagne welcome to the after-show reception, it was one big thing after another.

The first was the host’s entrance, with Launer wheeled in atop a 20-mattress bed - her divalicious take on “The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea,” which premiered at San Diego Repertory Theatre in 2008.

Next came the “Princess” opening number, “Partay,” sung by gospel superstar Tonex, who then won an award for his outstanding performance in “Dreamgirls” at San Diego Musical Theatre.

And then there was The Diva’s signature rhymed tribute to all the award-winning plays, with Launer hamming it up on film, deftly parodying each show’s style in 42 lines of verse and 40 costume changes.

The grand finale featured 13 young dancers from San Diego Junior Theatre’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” tapping their hearts out.

At the end of it all, many in the audience said it was the best Patte event ever.

But Launer isn’t content to rest on her laurels. The day after the 12th Annual Pattes, she was already starting on plans for number 13.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lonnie Burstein Hewitt is the sister of Pat Launer. Hewitt has attended every Patte Awards ceremony since the beginning.