The peculiar problem of preserving a meat dress

By Guy Adams

It was, without doubt, the red-carpet fashion statement of the year. But when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame acquired the little red dress that Lady Gaga wore to last September's MTV Video Music Awards, it faced a unique logistical problem: the dress was starting to decompose.

The outfit, made from approximately 35lb of prime Argentinian beef, had begun to turn a worrying shade of brown. By Christmas, despite being kept on ice, it had also started to smell. Without drastic action, there was no way it would ever go on display next to such artifacts as Janis Joplin's Porsche and Joey Ramone's leather jacket.

That was when Sergio Vigilato got the phone call. A professional taxidermist who works out of a small industrial unit in Burbank, a short drive from Hollywood's major film studios, he earns a living as the entertainment industry's foremost preserver of dead animals.

"I asked what the problem was, and they said, 'We have a meat dress. Can you do it?'. I told them, 'I can do anything if the price is right'. They offered $6000, so I told them we had a deal. I had never heard of this Lady Gaga. I'm into the Bee Gees, old music, jazz, and bossa nova. I had no idea how famous this piece would be."

Vigilato immediately set about treating and rebuilding the outfit, then hanging it from a Gaga-shaped mannequin.

He used a secret mixture of chemicals to stop it rotting, and then borrowed techniques from Gunther von Hagens, the German pathologist famous for his displays of plastinated human corpses, to ensure the garment's long-term preservation.

The cuts of meat were painted in the exact bloody hue of the original dress, which was the creation of fashion designer Franc Fernandez and stylist Nicola Formichetti and was intended to demonstrate, in the words of Gaga herself, that "I am not a piece of meat".

Layers of fat on the garment, which it was impossible to prevent from rotting, were recreated from rubber. The painstaking job of rebuilding it, using fishing nylon to stitch the preserved meat on to a corset just as Fernandez had done, took months.

"When I first opened the dress up, it was disgusting," he recalls.

"I had to ventilate everything. They were lucky no flies had laid eggs, because it would have had maggots. The oxidation from the air had made it blue. I spent six weeks just killing bacteria."

The finished item was finally installed in the Hall of Fame, in Cleveland, Ohio, last month.

Vigilato is meanwhile considering what to do with off-cuts from the project. A few slivers of preserved beef remain, and he is hoping to secure Lady Gaga's permission to turn them into earrings and other items of jewellery which will be sold for charity.

"Now I have finished the job, I am confident it will last for ever. That is my guarantee. People said it couldn't be done, but I proved them wrong."

In Vigilato's workshop, stag, moose and elk antlers dangle from the walls. There is a fibreglass elephant's foot on a sideboard. Stuffed chickens peck away next to the forlorn carcass of a pit-bull terrier.

The entrance to the premises of his business, American Taxidermy, is overseen by a serious-looking brown bear, the property of a movie producer. In the locked store cupboard at the back are valuable skins from exotic creatures, including a leopard pelt worth $16,000. When I tour, he shows me a turtle shell, all that remains of a celebrity's pet.

When Vigilato, an eccentric 66-year-old, set up the business in the early 1990s, the lion's share of his clients were well-heeled local hunting enthusiasts who wanted trophies preserving from their recent trips to Alaska or safaris in Africa. But soon, he began creating pieces for Hollywood's prop suppliers.

"They know they can ring me up, and if they need something the next day, I will work overnight to get it done," he says.

In 1995, he stuffed several horses' backsides for a scene in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film True Lies in which the animals were ridden into a skyscraper's lift. In 2005, he stuffed a goose so that Disney animators creating a CGI version of Pegasus for an animated movie starring Barbie could perfect the creature's wing movements.

Just before Robert Stack, star of the TV series The Untouchables, died in 2003, Vigilato stuffed an African lion for his collection. Around the same time, he was asked to create a soda water dispenser from an elephant's penis. That commission came from a movie producer who had decided to build a drinks bar from elephant skin in his living room.

Lately, he's developed a lucrative sideline preserving dead pets, frequently on behalf of celebrities.

"The price depends on what you want to do with the remains of your pet's flesh. If you have them cremated, that's fine. But if you want all the bones to stay inside, that's a big job. It's going to cost you eight, nine thousand dollars. Otherwise it's more like three thousand."

Most of his famous clients insist that Vigilato keeps their identities secret, but Guns N'Roses singer Axl Rose has no such qualms. A few years ago, he employed Vigilato to preserve his pet parrot and husky.

"The dog was a malamute called Mali. The bird was his macaw, Superstar. When I dropped them off at his house in Malibu, I told him, 'Axl, why don't you let me cast your body. I can make a clone of you. We can put the dog by the door, you laying wasted on the couch, sit the macaw in the cage'. He asked how much that would cost. I said $25k. He said, 'Let me think about it'. I guess he's still thinking about it."

Asked whether the meat dress was the weirdest project he's ever been asked to work on, Vigilato stops to think. "Actually, no," he declares.

"A film producer once came to me with a baboon that he'd shot in the face. He wanted it restored to look perfect. After working awhile, I discovered the baboon's crotch has almost the exact same skin as its face. So we remodelled the animal from that, and it looked fantastic. People said it couldn't be done, but I proved them wrong. Just like I did with Lady Gaga's dress."

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