Taxidermist explains how he preserved Lady Gaga’s meat dress for the Rock Hall of Fame

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

LOS ANGELES — Fortunately, requests to preserve clothing made out of raw meat are rare, Sergio Vigilato admits.

But when the Burbank taxidermist got the call to turn
Lady Gaga’s infamous Argentinean beef gown into a museum display, he
bit at the opportunity.

Vigilato was contacted by the Rock and Roll Hall of
Fame and Museum two months after the pop singer wore the meat dress on
stage Sept. 12, 2010, to accept the trophy for the year’s best music
video at the MTV Video Music Awards.

“The first thing I asked was, ‘Where is the dress?
This thing could have maggots by now,'” Vigilato said. “I understood
them to say it was in a room with air conditioning. I said make sure
it’s in a freezer.”

Actually, the 35-pound dress made of a dozen thin-cut
flank steaks was being kept on ice. It was frozen stiff — and
maggot-free — when it was delivered to Vigilato’s American Taxidermy
shop 3 1/2 weeks later.

As he defrosted it, Vigilato found that the dress had
begun decomposing before it had been frozen. As it thawed out, it
developed an odor.

“But the Rock and Roll museum had already paid me
upfront — $6,000 — so I went ahead with it,” he said. It took more than a
month to clean and preserve the meat.

Vigilato declined to reveal the process he used to
cure the meat dress, although museum officials said it was treated with
bleach, formaldehyde and detergent to remove bacteria.

Once the meat was preserved, Vigilato said, he had to
recondition it to make it semi-pliable so it could be reassembled into
the dress originally created by Los Angeles artist and designer Franc
Fernandez and stylist Nicola Formichetti.

He glued the meat slabs to a mannequin outfitted with
a pattern cut to resemble Fernandez’s original dress and then dyed it a
dark red to resemble its color when Lady Gaga wore it. He boxed it up
and shipped it May 20 to the museum in Cleveland.

In June, the dress went on display as part of the
Hall of Fame’s “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” exhibit, which
runs through February.

“After that, it will tour other museums if it holds together,” said Jim Henke, chief curator for the Hall of Fame.

Henke said Lady Gaga approved of the exhibition of
the dress. “They had been talking about displaying it themselves, maybe
in a glass case that had special ventilation,” he said.

The pop singer, known for her over-the-top costumes,
described the meat dress as being symbolic of standing up for one’s
rights and showing that “I am not a piece of meat.”

Fernandez, the designer, said he purchased about 40
pounds of beef for the dress from Palermo Deli in Granada Hills, where
his Sylmar parents are longtime customers. He ended up using about 35
pounds of the meat for the dress and its accompanying hat, shoes and
purse.

Daniel Vega, co-owner of Palermo Deli, said he
selected cuts of beef that would hold together and would not be dripping
blood, after Fernandez explained what he intended to do with it. The
beef was priced at about $3.99 a pound, Vega said.

Some of his customers know that Lady Gaga’s dress
came from his meat case, but not all of them. “We didn’t make a big deal
out of it,” he said.

Vigilato’s own background is as colorful as the
mounted deer heads, stuffed birds and other creatures that line his
Isabel Street taxidermy shop.

A onetime member of a Brazilian rock’ ‘n’ roll band
who says he was chased out of Brazil by death squads, the 66-year-old
Vigilato boasts of traveling throughout the U.S. as a musician and
working for a dozen years as an Alaskan charter boat captain before
becoming a taxidermist.

His shop was originally called African American
Taxidermy because of the safari trophies he was asked to preserve and
mount. He said he changed the name after a heckler called and made
racial slurs.

Acknowledging that the meat dress preservation was
unusual, Vigilato said it wasn’t the weirdest taxidermy job he’d
encountered. A movie producer with an elephant-skin bar had him create a
soda dispenser from the elephant’s penis, he said.

Vigilato said he still has several slabs of
Fernandez’s leftover beef in his shop freezer. He may seek permission to
turn it into necklaces, bracelets and other pieces of jewelry.

For now, he’s happy to be working again with
wildlife. And his wife, Cynthia, is pleased that she is once again free
to grill steak for dinner, he said.

The raw meat dress job was a challenge, the taxidermist said. But in the end it was well done.

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