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When John Kristiansen started his costume shop in his apartment in 1998, he had a staff of two: himself and a stitcher named Martha. By March 2020, his name was on the door of his own Garment District shop in Midtown Manhattan, and he employed 52 artisans from around the world. His life partner, Brian Blythe, had joined as business manager. And Martha was still a crucial part of the team.
In the course of more than 20 years, they’ve build costumes for every major Broadway show you can mention, as well as for theme park shows, national tours, dance performances, TV, film, and cruise ships.
In early March, John was hospitalized with what he thought was a bad flu. It turned out to be COVID-19, and by the time he got home, his business was closed indefinitely. One of the hardest things he’s had to do, says Brian, is tell their staff – who are like family – that, with Broadway unlikely to return until spring/summer 2021, he can no longer support them.
John and Brian now fill their days with homeschooling their four children and organizing the Costume Industry Coalition, to campaign for the hundreds of artisans whose skills may be lost forever – the people who are responsible for the Schuyler sisters’ corsets; for Aladdin’s harem pants; Lola’s red sequin mini dress in Kinky Boots.
“We have pattern makers, cutters, stitchers, tailors, milliners, hand finishers, craftspeople, embroiderers, sculptors, painters, and dyers,” says Brian. “Millions of dollars are infused into the New York City economy by our members through rent, payroll, and taxes. They also support the Garment District by buying materials (fabrics, trims, notions, equipment) from local vendors.”
“We’re building couture garments for performance. These are built to spec … and to last the rigors of an eight-performance week.”
“We’re sort of a cottage industry,” he explains. “A designer walks in with a two-dimensional sketch and it’s the shop’s job to translate that into a three-dimensional, living thing. We’re building couture garments for performance. So it’s not just for a fashion show, where they walk down a runway for one day and it’s over. These are built to spec, to the sizes that are necessary for each performer, and they are built to last the rigors of an eight-performance week. They’re built to be danced in and they’re built to be doing all sorts of tricks.”
And because these are all small, independent businesses, they share the work, all playing in the same sandbox. “It’s rare that one shop will be doing the whole show,” he says. “One’s going to do the principals. One will do this track, this one will do the ensemble number. And they mix it up so that everyone can have some healthy business going on. So we’re very used to working with one another separately and collaboratively.
“But as we built the Costume Industry Coalition, we realized there’s an ecosystem beyond the shops that assemble the costumes. We have a pleater that we use; Sally Ann Parsons uses a different pleater. We use this embroiderer, she uses a different one. The painters are a huge part of costumes. If they want it to look weathered, we’ll build a beautiful costume … and they’ll rip it apart and paint it to make it look like it’s been out in a storm for years. We have the fabric printers, and that’s a big trend right now, having specialty fabrics.
Donna Langman, whose company has created costumes for Damn Yankees, On the Town, The Lion King, Kinky Boots, Aladdin, and Hamilton over the last 35 years, has been closed since March 12. “At the time, my staff of 10 (shopper, administrative staff, cutters, drapers, stitchers, hand-finishers) plus a lovely intern from Italy who immediately fled back to her home country, were busy with the new LA company of Hamilton and the new HBO series, The Gilded Age,” she says.
“We are all currently out of work. I don’t expect theater commissions to return for a very long time and am hopeful that television and film work will be able to resume sooner.”
Eric Winterling and his 45-strong staff have built costumes for Frozen, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. At the time of NY pause, he too was working on The Gilded Age, along with the new Britney Spears musical Once Upon a One More Time.
“We finished off everything that could be finished off, but now we have very little to do,” he says. “There are no orders coming in and the future of Broadway is uncertain. We think that film may start up in the next few weeks but the thought that we will bring back all of our employees on the same day is out of the question. We are forced to conserve all of our funds and only bring people on as they are needed. It is a very unfortunate time we are in.”
“All of these companies are small, independent businesses,” says Brian, “but we’re all interdependent. And these are skills that have been built over a lifetime. I don’t know how we’re going to replace these people. To get fully back to where we were as of March of 2020, it’s probably going be about four years.”
The Coalition has come up with a six-point action plan:
Connect with local and state politicians to generate awareness of our contribution to the economy and promote rent postponement or forgiveness, along with mortgage and tax relief for landlords.
Connect with stakeholders in the entertainment industry to remind them of our contributions and to seek assistance so we can be ready when they reopen.
Get a seat at any table where any other performance-related union is negotiating about the reopening of NYC.
Prepare a comprehensive shop safety plan in line with CDC, OSHA and NYC guidelines to create industry-wide shop standards.
Compile transition information for our employees to assist them as they become unemployed for an undetermined time.
Seek financial support for members and affiliates facing financial hardship.
“We’ve come up with a tally,” says Brian. “It’s $4.5 million dollars of rent and overheads that Coalition members have to cover between July 1 and December 31. Because, if you’re telling me that I’m going to start up sometime early next year, and I’ve got a huge mountain to climb out of debt, I know that some of our members are closing their doors and locking them.”
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