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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

How The Costumer in Schenectady Is Costuming Christmas

At 105 years old, The Costumer has 150,000 costumes—including an impressive Santa suit collection—and a pair of owners whose dedication to their cause runs deeper than velvet, bows and sequins.

Santa Clauses flood our malls, parades and chimneys every December, but where are all these jolly Saint Nicks storing their bright red suits for the rest of the year? From decked-out, professional mall Santas to low-budget, slightly tipsy, pub crawl Santas (and everything in between), if you see a Kris Kringle this holiday season, odds are his iconic red regalia came from one local business: The Costumer.

 “We like to say that we’ve been Santa’s tailor since 1917,” says Erik Johnsen, who co-owns the Schenectady company with his wife, Bonnie. It’s true—the local business has been providing the Capital Region with fine disguises and custom-made costumes since the early 20th century, with the Johnsens being The Costumer’s fourth owners. 

 “Historically, we rent more than 100 Santa suits a year,” says Bonnie. “On the retail side, we carry close to two dozen Santa suit styles at a variety of price points.” That includes everything from affordable red suits for your casual SantaCon attendees all the way up to high-end, custom-made Saint Nick duds that can cost as much as $1,000.

 “We design the iconic, unique and bespoke costumes ourselves,” says Erik. “We’ll start with hand sketches and take that process all the way through our own patterning and on-site construction.” The Costumer even works with some long-standing clients who “half-own” their Santa suits, bringing in the outfits during the off-season to be cleaned and stored. 

But Mr. Claus isn’t the only client bringing in big business. The Costumer operates out of two locations in the Electric City: a rental warehouse at its downtown headquarters on Barrett Street and a brand-new, 7,100-square-foot retail space in Mohawk Harbor. Between those two locations, The Costumer has an incredible 150,000 costumes for every occasion or celebration, and that number doesn’t include accoutrements such as props, hats, wigs, theatrical make-up and cosplay accessories. The inventory also comprises the complete costume sets or “plots” of more than 400 popular plays. We’re talking full wardrobes for big productions such as Beauty and the Beast, Frozen and Shrek the Musical, as well as such holiday classics as A Christmas Carol and Elf the Musical! 

(Nate Seitelman)

While Halloween or the holidays might seem like the most hectic time for the Johnsens, things are actually craziest in March. That’s because, nationally, more theatrical events take place on the third weekend in March than at any other time. In fact, the bulk of The Costumer’s business is costuming scholastic theaters across the country—about 1,000 shows every year—including middle schools, high schools and community theaters. 

“Out of those 1,000 shows, just over 32,000 costumes will go out and come back to our headquarters in Schenectady,” says Erik. “And we’ll do a lot of things in the name of customer service that other costume shops won’t. For instance, for very small or large actors, we will pull all costumes by player and tailor them to that particular player. We’ll make that on the fly in order to have that actor be a part of that production.” 

Incredibly, the Johnsens had no costuming experience prior to taking over The Costumer in late 2016. Erik worked in corporate banking, and Bonnie was a market researcher for consumer magazines and then later a special education teaching assistant. “We have two sons, one of whom, Tyler, was a very shy, introverted middle-school kid,” says Bonnie. “He really found his voice in scholastic theater and went on to double major in theater and business.” Tyler served as the Johnsens’ inspiration to buy The Costumer, and now he even works for the family business.

 “We came at it as stage parents,” says Erik. “We are deeply committed to The Costumer, having witnessed the positive impact that performing has made on our son’s life.”

(Nate Seitelman)

The Johnsens’ personal connection to the world of performing arts is more than apropos considering The Costumer’s rich theatrical history. The business was started more than a century ago by local dressmaker Anna White who initially bartered her costume creations for her daughter’s dance lessons. She later gained acclaim as a costumer on the vaudeville circuit, especially through Proctors Theatre, back when Schenectady was a hub for that kind of entertainment. According to Erik, silent film legend Lillian Gish even once stopped by The Costumer to fix a “wardrobe malfunction” before a performance in town.

Over the decades, the Capital Region’s costuming fixture has grown and reached the stars: The shop has done costume work for KISS lead guitarist Ace Frehley, supplied medieval costumes for Bud Light’s early (and strangely catchy) “Dilly Dilly” commercials, and has even costumed for Saturday Night Live. (If you watched a hilarious Lion King audition skit from a few years ago, you were looking at the fine work of The Costumer.) The local company’s work also extends into film and TV, most recently appearing in Tell Me a Story, a dark, fairy tale–inspired series with Kim Cattrall portraying a costume shop owner. “It’s not even that they’re always getting worn,” says Erik about the outfits featured in Tell Me a Story. “Sometimes, like in that show, they’re just a stage prop.”

This fall, the Johnsens celebrated six years at The Costumer, as well as the fact that business is finally picking up again after two years of Covid. “We acquired the business in October 2016, which is a pretty heady time to walk into such a seasonal business,” says Erik. “Fortunately, we had some wonderfully talented and patient team members to show us the ropes. In the end, it turned out to be a wonderful way to get immersed in the business and understand its seasonal dynamics.” And so the couple are ready for this hectic holiday season—Santa suits and all.      

Jeff Dingler
Jeff Dingler
Jeff Dingler is a contributing writer for Capital Region Living.

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