Alibi V.28 No.41 • Oct 10-16, 2019 

Arts Profile

Zebra Couture

The Fashion of Balloon Fiesta Launch Directors

Elisa Bustamante-Paulk’s sports bags ring in true Zebra style.
Elisa Bustamante-Paulk’s sports bags ring in true Zebra style.
Photo by Clarke Condé

“In the land of color, black and white rules,” or so say the Zebras of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Like the yellow shirts on an aircraft carrier, nothing takes flight without a firm go ahead from the Zebras. After all, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hit in the head by a descending balloon.

The Zebra rings of Elisa Bustamante-Paulk
The Zebra rings of Elisa Bustamante-Paulk
Photo by Clarke Condé

But what of this outfit, and more importantly, their outfits? Bespoke assemblages of thrift store finds and handmade accoutrement lacking any wavelength are plastered with a dizzying array of pins that require advanced knowledge in ballooning history to decipher. Changing conditions throughout the day demand an element of versatility to the raiment, and the rough-and-tumble of the job requires substantial durability. It is clear by their choices these Zebras have thought this through.

Kim Kelbe on the field
Kim Kelbe on the field
Photo by Clarke Condé

Weekly Alibi went to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta to speak with the Zebras and to ask what exactly what are you wearing?

Shawn Leonard covers his pool table with his zebra gear for the entirety of the Balloon Fiesta. He says, “That’s right. I can’t play pool.” He shops for zebra-striped items on the off season and fills bins with the stuff. He selects the outfit with purpose and deference to the events of the day. Today he wears one black and one white sneaker from different pairs, festooned with bells. Leonard says it helps to be heard as well as seen. Plus, the zebra tail, tie and bulbous, pin-laden hat. On some days he wears a tutu (when he can find it). Some year he hopes to move on to a full-length zebra striped ball gown.

Janice Wrhel breaks with tradition by introducing a little green.
Janice Wrhel breaks with tradition by introducing a little green.
Photo by Clarke Condé

Bill Brennan likes to keep it visible and black and white when it comes to wardrobe. He says other balloon events may have penguins or whatever but this is the major league here at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta for launch directors. He sports the multi-pocket fanny pack popular among Zebras, stocked with gloves, pins and undisclosed tools of the trade. Saturday, he says, he will be joining many of the other Zebras in adding pink to their wardrobe to support breast cancer awareness.

Tiffany Kenworthy has her ears to the sky on the baloon field.
Tiffany Kenworthy has her ears to the sky on the baloon field.
Photo by Clarke Condé

Experienced Zebra watchers can spot Jeff Dill’s fashionable chapeau at a distance. Zebra’s in the first year on the field wear the red “ZIT” hat to alert others to their training status.

Tiffany Kenworthy starts with thermals and waterproof hiking shoes. “They’re not sneakers,” she scolds. Her Zebra items take over her dining room during the Balloon Fiesta as she sifts for the layers she needs to contend with the changing temperatures. Kenworthy has forgone the traditional fanny pack in favor of a child-sized zebra backpack in something like the shape of a zebra. Finally, zebra-striped Minnie Mouse ears top the outfit—a departure in animal derivation, but on the whole consistent among the canon of Zebra wear.

“Zebra In Training” Jeff Dill
“Zebra In Training” Jeff Dill
Photo by Clarke Condé

Bright green gloves from Target command the attention of balloon pilots and crew alike when Janice Wrhel takes to the field. Her hat, a gift from a pilot, is among the many items of clothing Zebras seem to receive from visiting balloonists. Her Chuck Taylor’s are hand painted, adding a bit of color like Fruit Stripe gum. Completing the outfit is her skort with zebra-striped edging. Rarely seen on women over the age of eight, Wrhel says her skort “keeps her covered and lady-like” when she falls down on the balloon field. A bold and practical choice for this Zebra.

Zebra Shawn Leonard prefers tophats and tails.
Zebra Shawn Leonard prefers tophats and tails.
Photo by Clarke Condé

Kim Kelbe brings an international feel in her handsewn zebra top she created from a German Berta pattern. Carrying on the tradition, she includes a hand-embroidered zebra on the pocket of her durable white canvas pants. Topping her outfit, she reaches south to New Orleans where she picked up her zebra-striped hat complete with a bejeweled fleur-de-lis.

Bill Brennan brings the Zebra flavor to the field.
Bill Brennan brings the Zebra flavor to the field.
Photo by Clarke Condé

Elisa Bustamante-Paulk stays zebra-minded all year long with a zebra room in her home. Out on the field today, she is heavily laden with multiple bags, lanyards and zebra rings in true pack-zebra style. Always on point with the importance of timing for Zebras, she calls this outfit “casual Monday.” She says she has been a Zebra for 30 years, except the year they changed them to skunks, that is. “That didn’t go over very well,” she says.