Dollars are Up for Dress Up
Local costume shops are seeing revenues rise year after year.
Last year the National Retail Federation released some data on Halloween spending surprising enough to garner nationwide press. Second only to Christmas as the most commercialized American holiday, Halloween spending has now reached over $7.4 billion a year.
Of that total, $2.79 billion was spent in 2014 on costumes alone, and it’s a number that’s been on the rise.
For costume shop owners in New Orleans, these statistics aren’t surprising, but here it’s more than just Halloween that’s causes a bump in sales.
“The Halloween season starts in New Orleans in September and really lasts all the way through Mardi Gras and into Spring Fiesta,” says Wingate Jones, owner of Southern Costume Co. at 951 Lafayette St. In 2010, Jones opened SCC as the only “Hollywood-style” costume house in New Orleans.
No Purchase Necessary
Far from your typical small neighborhood costume shop, SCC’s 9,000 square feet encompass an on-site wardrobe design space, private offices, and wardrobe supplies and storage.
What you won’t find here, however, are the cheaper bagged costumes sold at big-box stores like Walmart and Costco.
“We don’t sell costumes,” Jones says. “What we have here are class-A, production-ready items like you see in the movies.”
In fact, a full third of SCC’s business is film and TV rentals and supplies.
“We work with about 99 percent of the productions that come into this city and 30 to 40 percent of those outside of the city,” he says. “For the really big productions, since they typically bring their own costume department with them, it could be something simple like providing them with some items they forgot or last-minute needs. For the smaller productions, it could be full costumes.”
In addition to renting out professional grade costumes, Southern Costume Company’s 9,000 square-foot headquarters includes large spaces for costume manufacturing and tailoring. Photos Jeffery Johnston
Jones is no stranger to class-A costumes. Growing up, his father, John Golden, was president of Western Costume Co. in Los Angeles — a six-story costume house spanning over 150,000 square feet.
“When I was 15 years old, I started there as a stock boy,” Jones says. “I’m sure I dusted every single box in that building, but on the way I learned where everything was.”
Years later, Jones moved on to the wardrobe department at Universal Studios before retiring from the industry in 2000. Ten years after that he opened his own version of Western Costume— on the other side of the country with about 10 percent of the stock he has now, most of it purchased in Los Angeles.
“We’ve really grown,” Jones says. “I’d say we’ve seen about a 30 to 40 percent growth rate each year.”
The second third of SCC’s business is public costume rentals, where visitors can browse from a warehouse packed with creations dating from all periods of history — from the caveman days to present-day men’s and women’s formal wear. Rentals are all for seven days and average about $150.
The final third of the business’ revenue comes from manufacturing — SCC creates costumes year-round, including everything from school mascots and theatrical characters to elaborate Mardi Gras masks and ensembles for krewes and courts.
“The sky’s really the limit here,” Jones says. “It’s not like in L.A. when we were always limited to a script. Here, you can really let your imagination go.”
While Hollywood South has provided a rather recent boom in the New Orleans costuming market, the Mardi Gras Indians and their intricate beaded and sequined apparel and sky-high feather headdresses have been a tradition since the late 1800s.
Not real Indians and not limited to Carnival appearances, the tribes are composed of local African-Americans who dress as Indians in their own self-taught, handcrafted costumes and “battle” in the streets by competing for the title of “prettiest” Big Chief.
And where do the Mardi Gras Indians go to buy all the materials to make these stunning creations that can weigh up to 150 pounds? Broadway Bound Costumes at 2737 Canal St.
Since 1987, Broadway Bound Costumes has sold everything a person could need to create the costume of their dreams, including fabric, feathers, sequins, hats, boas and pearl appliques.
“Mardi Gras here is a year-round business,” explains Sonny Borey, who, since starting the shop with his mother, Helen Koenig, has since gone on to become the co-founder and captain of the Krewe of Orpheus and chairman of the Mayor’s Mardi Gras Advisory Committee. “For the Mardi Gras Indians we’re talking about costumes that are so elaborate and expensive to create they have to be done a little bit at a time over a period of months and months.”
Borey says about 40 percent of the store’s sales are from the Indians; the other 60 percent comes from Mardi Gras krewes.
Beads,glitter and feathers: These Mardi Gras essentials are in plentiful supply at Broadway Bound Costumes on 2737 Canal St. Photos Cheryl Gerber
“We create all the costumes for two of the krewes,” Borey says. “Of course I can’t tell you which two.”
And business, Borey says, is good.
“It’s very healthy,” he says. “I mean, look at how healthy Mardi Gras is. We keep adding more krewes, more membership, more parties.”
Borey says that, like a lot of businesses, the challenge is figuring out what to stock.
“You have to try and guess what people are going to want each year,” he says, “and it’s not always the things you yourself would pick.”
The Woman Behind the Name
The music and film industries are packed with celebrities so successful in their craft that the public is on a first-name basis with them — think Madonna, Angelina, Elvis, Oprah — but in New Orleans there is only one who can claim that level of familiarity for costuming: Miss. Claudia.
Miss. Claudia’s Vintage Clothing and Costumes has been a haven for lovers of fabulous finds from every decade since it first appeared at 4204 Magazine St. in 2003. What many may not know, however, is that owner Claudia Baumgarten actually opened her first shop on Magazine Street almost a decade earlier.
“In 1994 I had a small storefront where I started selling handmade crafts,” Baumgarten says. “This was back when Magazine Street was pretty rundown — filled with thrift stores and old furniture stores.”
Baumgarten says it wasn’t long beforea woman named Mrs. Archinard approached her about selling some clothes for her.
“They were vintage, well-made items, and they sold fast,” she says. It was then that Baumgarten found herself in the vintage clothing business. Catering to the New Orleans culture, costuming was soon added.
LEFT: Claudia Baumgarten poses in front of the costume store that bears her name. RIGHT: Miss. Claudia’s has been outfitting costumers from head to toe since 2003. BOTTOM: “Part of the fun of costume shopping is walking in and seeing what options there are,” says Miss. Claudia’s owner Claudia Baumgarten. Photos Cheryl Gerber
After a few years, her original shop closed its doors but Baumgarten returned in 2003 with a new resolve and a new name for her business.
“I thought I’d go with my name,” she says. “That’s what they do with a lot of art galleries and it seems to work well, so I thought I’d try it.”
Miss. Claudia’s has since become a costume staple in the city; she currently helps outfit all of the female dance krewes (Baumgarten herself is a member of the Pussyfooters) and offers them all a 10 percent discount on any purchase.
“Every year I’m seeing an increase in sales — costuming is definitely getting bigger,” she says. “There’s so many more costumed events now than when I started. It seems like everything has a theme now. I do a lot of bachelorette parties, and then of course there’s themed weddings, murder mystery parties, and I’ve seen a lot of 1920s-themed parties lately.”
Baumgarten says she has no problem with inventory.
“I have a ton of merchandise that I pack into a small space,” she says. “People are always bringing in things that belonged to their grandmother, or a tuxedo shop might come in and offer me some of their stock.”
While the clothing may come to her, that doesn’t mean there’s no work involved. “Every item has to be washed, pressed, priced and hanged,” she says. “It’s a big job.”
On the costume side, Baumgarten carries a mix of commercially produced items and unique handmade options.
“We have these incredible turbans made by someone in Las Vegas that you just can’t find anywhere else,” she says.
In her store, at least, she says the old favorites just aren’t what people are looking for.
“Last year I sold a witch hat for the first time in five years,” she says. “When people come in here they have an idea in mind — an original creation. We work with them to help it all come together.”
“There’s so many more costumed events now than when I started. It seems like everything has a theme now.” – Miss. ClaudIa
This kind of hands-on professional customer service, she says, is what sets Miss. Claudia’s apart. “I tell people all the time, if you go buy things online just to save a few bucks, that’ll drive us out of business. And then of course people are always coming in because they bought something online and it didn’t fit, or it was the wrong color, or it didn’t show up in time. Part of the fun of costume shopping is walking in somewhere and seeing what the options are. Here you don’t have to guess if something will go with something else. We have all the elements right here.”
In a city renowned for creativity and celebrating those who march to the beat of their own drummer, Miss Claudia’s advertising fits right in.
“We try and make sure that everything we do is funny and interesting,” she says, of her regular ads in the Gambit. “And of course I pose in about 90 percent of the ads myself. I mean, I’m Miss. Claudia, who else would it be?”
With only one employee for most of the year — six during Carnival season —Baumgarten is hands-on in all aspects of the store.
“I design and decorate all our window displays,” she says. “I put hours into each one and change them out every month.”
There’s one thing, however, that she says she can’t just do herself.
“I’d love to have someone show up and make me a great website,” she says. “That’s not one of my skills.”
Right about the same time Baumgarten was opening her first shop on Magazine Street, Marcy and Ryan Hesseling — then-recent San Francisco transplants — opened their store, Fifi Mahony’s, in an 800-square-foot space on Chartres Street.
“We opened right around Halloween in 1997 with a song and a prayer,” Marcy Hesseling says of the costuming and wig store. “The community response was immediate. It wasn’t long before we were overnighting orders because we were selling out of things.”
Hesseling says the first challenge was how to keep sales going all year long.
“That’s when we started carrying regular wigs and things to cater to those affected by hair loss or undergoing cancer treatments,” she says.
Named for the Hesselings’ former French poodle, Fifi, and Mahony’s, a shop in Atlanta that the couple love, Fifi Mahony’s was a name that quickly spread through town. Things were going well until 2001, when their building was sold and they were forced to leave.
“We didn’t want to go, but it ended up to be a blessing in disguise,” she says. Fifi Mahony’s soon found its current 1,700-square-foot location at 934 Royal St. inside the former home of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, a Confederate officer during the Civil War.
Now, with almost twice the space, Hesseling says business continued to grow.
“Every year we’ve seen an increase in sales,” she says, noting that 80 percent of her stock is costuming and fun wigs. “I used to sell about 50-50 regular vs. colorful wigs,” she says. “But as of about two years ago, people began buying the more colorful wigs for everyday use as well. I sell a lot of pink, purple and blue.”
TOP LEFT: At Fifi Mahony’s wigs aren’t just for costumes. TOP RIGHT: Located inside the former home of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, Fifi Mahony’s has a distinct NOLA vibe. BOTTOM LEFT: Hesseling says the store’s busy time starts BOTTOM RIGHT: In 2013, the store added it’s own onsite salon. Shown here is store owner Marcy Hesseling. around Labor Day and doesn’t end until June. Photos Cheryl Gerber
Recognizing that a lot of customers were coming in to try on wigs in order to see how they would look with a hair color change, Hesseling decided to make Fifi Mahony’s a one-stop shop.
“In 2013 we added a salon,” she says. “Now you can walk in and try out a hair color and if you like it, we can go ahead and do it for you right there.”
Hesseling says the salon has been a success. “It helps, of course, that we already had the infrastructure and customer base in place,” she says. The salon is adding its fourth stylist this fall.
Whether it’s a temporary or permanent change, Hesseling says hair and wigs are a great way to start creating a look.
“Nobody looks at your shoes during Mardi Gras,” she says. “It’s just not a complete costume without the right hair. If you think about it, it’s such an easy way to transform yourself into an identifiable character.”
Hesseling adds that she’s already buying up Donald Trump and Caitlyn Jenner wigs. “I’m anticipating a lot of ‘Game of Thrones’ and Day of the Dead looks again this year as well,” she says.
Wigs at Fifi Mahony’s range from about $30 to $250. “On the high end you’re paying for a hand-tied wig,” she says. “It’s a really time-consuming process, but the result is a wig that looks just like it’s growing out of your head.”
Hesseling knows all about what it takes to make a good wig. She and Brooklyn Shaffer construct all the shop’s custom wigs by hand. Their creations make up 90 percent of the store’s online sales.
“Once I have an idea of what someone wants, we send them back a price quote and time schedule,” she says. “Then we photograph the completed wig and send it to them before we ship it. That way everyone knows what they’re getting.”
While most of her wigs are purchased from vendors in California and New York, Hesseling says she’s proud to offer items like hats, headpieces and jewelry from various local artists. “Most tourists want to buy something from Louisiana,” she says — an important factor considering that about 75 percent of her business comes from out-of-towners.
“Nobody looks at your shoes during Mardi Gras.” – MARCY Hesseling
She has gleaned another bit of wisdom over the years — “Always have something for $10,” she says. “People will come into your shop and want to take a piece of it home with them, even if they don’t have much money to spend.”
Thanks to a year-round tourism season and no shortage of costumed events, Fifi Mahony’s busy season starts on Labor Day and doesn’t let up until June.
“You can definitely feel it when June hits,” she says, “but by that time we’re ready for a little break.”
With all the success, Hesseling says she’s been approached about expanding Fifi Mahony’s reach.
“We’ve looked at expanding to other markets, but I feel like anywhere else we’d just be a costume shop that people only think of one time a year,” she says. “New Orleans is different that way. We belong here.