Three years ago, sisters Debra Weaver and Shella Mendoza were peddling their bejeweled bustiers at an Orange County swap meet.
It didn't take long for them to realize "nobody goes to a swap meet to spend $300 for one bustier," says Debra, 28.
"They're going for things like shampoo, plants and socks," adds Shella, 30.
Today the sisters sell their bustiers under their own "Get Custom" label at exclusive boutiques whose customers can afford the gem-studded bras.
If ever one needed proof that a bra can looks better when worn on the outside, the sisters' sparkling bustiers offer compelling evidence. Their bustiers come lavished with seed pearls, sequins, Austrian crystals, beaded appliques and antique jewelry.
"They're definitely show-stoppers," Debra says.
"We always wanted a Pirates of the Caribbean look, where you go by the treasure chest and you just want to run your hands through all those jewels," Shella says.
Some bustiers look so rich they could be worn to a wedding. Indeed, one bridal magazine showed a bride in Get Custom's white bustier bedecked with seed pearls, beaded appliques and crystal rhinestones.
"Women like to wear them under jackets so just a little bit of the bra will peek out," Debra says. "It's like wearing a big piece of jewelry."
Most find them flattering to the figure. One Orange County plastic surgeon packs a bosomy model into a Get Custom bustier to advertise his breast-enlargement services.
When nature or plastic surgery fails to fill out a bustier, the sisters add extra padding.
Their bustiers come in a short-bra style or a long-line style. Often the cups are paved in crystal rhinestones, beads or sequins, "with a juicy brooch in the middle," Shella says.
One of their most popular bustiers is a white long-line style with a lace backdrop loaded with swirling crystal beads and large teardrop pearls.
"That was the killer bra," Debra says.
"We called it D.L.--for 'Dangerous Liaisons,' " Shella agrees. "Our inspiration was that movie." Many of their bustiers have a rich look similar to the movie's lavish costumes.
Instead of genuine jewels, the sisters use antique earrings and pins for the centerpiece of the bustiers.
They decorate denim jackets that complement the bustiers. They've completely covered the yoke of one jeans jacket in a rich mosaic of antique rhinestone pins and earrings.
"We clip off the backs and fit them on like a puzzle," Shella says.
Their bestseller, a pink denim jacket, has seed pearls, beaded appliques and rhinestones covering its yoke. The jacket matches a pink bra top dripping with beads, sequins and pearls.
Shella and Debra have turned out about 200 bustiers over three months.
The two work in a small spare bedroom of Shella's Huntington Beach apartment. The closet and shelves are piled high with untrimmed bras, jewelry findings, spools of gold braid and seed pearls and boxes of sequins and rhinestones.
In one corner stands a large plastic tub filled with antique jewelry, supplied by a local antique dealer familiar with their work.
Shella, sitting at a small table in these tight quarters, uses a glue gun to fasten rhinestones on the yoke of a black denim jacket that is already covered in black beaded appliques.
The sisters spend two or three hours on a bustier and five hours on a jacket.
"The bras come plain and ugly," Shella says.
They sometimes dye the bras different colors, such as purple and pink. Shella invented one of their most popular shades, ivory, by soaking a white bustier in tea after a model stained it during a photo shoot.
The bras are covered in lace, then sewn with beaded appliqued flowers or swirling paisleys. The sisters often tack on large teardrop pearls or heart-shaped rhinestones or beaded fringe. As a final touch, they add rhinestone studs or enamel nail heads along the sides of the garment.
When finished, a jacket might weigh several pounds, but the sisters say the extra weight is not a problem. They can dance all night in their jackets.
The bustiers cost $250 to $450, and the jackets cost $650 to $1,500.
Shella, the self-described "shop queen," prowls malls and boutiques in search of new designs.
"It gives you a world of ideas," she says. "I'll buy an earring and, voila, I'll have a whole new design. Jewelry is our focal point."
The sisters have been sewing since age 11 or 12.
"We used to make our own clothes," Shella says, rolling her eyes at the memory. "Debra made her own bell-bottoms."
"Our mother was divorced, and with three of us living with her she couldn't afford to buy us new clothes," Debra says "And we wanted to have the new styles."
Eventually, the sisters became skilled at reproducing the latest looks.
They made their first bustier for Bianca, the pop singer, and liked the look so much that they made more. At the time, Shella was working as a flight attendant and Debra as an executive assistant.
Their stint at the swap meet lasted one month, but it paid off: They sold $3,000 worth of bustiers before being picked up by Priorities in the L.A. Mart, where buyers go to order merchandise to stock their boutiques and clothing stores. Today, making bustiers is a full-time job for both.
Their bustiers have sold in Tokyo, Mexico, Hawaii, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and in Beverly Hills. The bra tops do well in Las Vegas, perhaps because they make the wearer feel like a showgirl.
Walt Disney World in Florida recently ordered a batch of bustiers. When the new Nordstrom opens in Santa Barbara, the sisters' bustiers will be carried in the lingerie department.
In Orange County, they are sold at Boutique Angelique in Huntington Beach and Red Haute Couture in Fashion Island, Newport Beach.
"We don't go for the real young market," Shella says. "Most of our stuff is classic."
The two hope to open a factory and their own boutique. "We need to expand, we need more space," Shella says.
This year, they expect to double or even triple their output from last year.
"People said bustiers would die out after the first year, but they're getting stronger," Debra says. "We haven't slowed down at all."