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Costumes: John Kristiansen New York, Inc.

Michael S. Eddy • June 2021Theater Maker: Costumes • May 25, 2021


This story can be read by clicking the image above, or reading below, or in our June 2021 digitial edition

Custom costume shop John Kristiansen New York, Inc. (JKNY), located in New York City’s garment district is a one-stop-shop that covers dressmaking, tailoring, and costume crafts. The work of JKNY has been seen on Broadway, in regional theatres, national tours, films, dance performances, theme parks, cruise ships, concerts, and more. Principal John Kristiansen, along with his partner Brian Blythe, are two of the founders of the Costume Industry Coalition (CIC) which was created in May of 2020. Kristiansen, who was hospitalized and has recovered from COVID-19 himself, kindly took time to speak with Stage Directions about his company as well as about his and Blythe’s work with the CIC to support the costume industry. 

Tell us how John Kristiansen New York got started?
It’s been about 25 years. I got my start when I moved to New York in 1995 to be a designer. I discovered by working at Eaves-Brooks, and then moving over to Parsons-Meares, that this side of the industry existed in the first place. It was one that I felt really drawn to; so exciting to walk into that room. At the time we were building Sunset Boulevard and they were still doing some work for Starlight Express and Cats and all the big mega-musicals at the time. The crafts team there was fantastic. The painters were fantastic, and I just loved working there. It was such a dynamic environment that it was a good fit for me. Soon after I left Parsons-Meares, as I was tapped to be a draper at the Williamstown Theater Festival, that was in 1999.

I remember Susan Hilferty and Marty Pakledinaz came up to Williamstown see the show that I built, with Gwyneth Paltrow in the cast. Then Susan tapped me to do Dirty Blonde at New York Theatre Workshop. That’s when my shop started to grow. I travelled around with a team of freelancers and we were working quite a bit. That eventually led us into a shop situation without ever making a formal declaration that ‘here’s my shop’. Several years later, I got some good legal advice and incorporated and put all my people on insurance. That was the inception of the shop. Then it just grew from there. At the time of shutting down, a year plus ago, I was employing 52 people—a full tailoring team, two dressmaking teams, and a really fantastic crafts team.

What are the different crafts and services you provide at JKNY?
We do full head to toe looks. We offer dressmaking, tailoring, and crafts. Crafts could be everything from fabric, hair, wigs to millinery, to foam sculptures. You name it, we can do it. We don’t do shoes because those can be purchased or built by other people who have that skillset. But we do spats, gaiters, and all the things that you could do to make it look like what you want it to be.

What is it about costume work that you love?
I love that it’s different every day. It’s exciting. The people I meet are terrific and excited about what they’re doing. I’m a part of the process of the relationship between the designer and the performer. I’m right in the middle of everything that I like to be a part of. I feel like it’s my job to assist in the communication between all the different pieces and parts to make sure everybody’s needs are satisfied, and that people can do everything that they need to do to enhance the show.

What’s something you think people don’t understand about costume craft shops?
How many people are involved in doing it. My 52 people are simply who I hire and pay, but then we’re jobbing things out to the pleaters, and the painters, and the printers. Everything that we build has custom elements, even some of the thread. We could be having our fabrics woven at the place across the street. There is a whole ecosystem that’s involved in building the actual costume that you see on stage, which was developed out of the imagination of our designers. We build whatever their mind desires and we don’t stop until it’s done. That’s what’s compelling about it; it’s a group of very varied, sometimes eccentric, wonderfully terrific artists that come together to support the design.

There’s no magic 13th floor at Macy’s that sells costumes! Some people think that you just walk in and bam it’s there; just buy it. But we have a very tight timeline—as everyone does—to go from the dropping of the sketches at my door to the delivery of the costume for the dress rehearsals. It’s quick and it’s complicated to accomplish.

Over the course of your career, you’ve created some fabulous pieces. What are one or two that you’re particularly proud of as costume creations?
Well, I have to say my first show that went to Broadway was with Ann Hould-Ward for Dance of the Vampires. We built the two henchwomen that were basically cut out at the show by opening, but the clothes were fantastic. It was just so exciting to be working with Annie and doing all this stuff that was sculptural and embroidered. It was just fantastic, a great experience. 

Of course, one of my big hitters are the Cher costumes that I just did in the year before the shutdown; that was just exciting. Working with an icon is always difficult and challenging, but wonderfully rewarding. She sells it like nobody’s business. We did Xanadu that David Zinn designed. That was a real big growing experience for me and the business, and the work was fantastic. I just loved doing it. The show ran for a while and had a bunch of replacements. I really cut my teeth on that production. We had a great time.

What was the most unique, bizarre, difficult, challenging piece that stands out to you?
We’re currently working on a workshop of a show, and that’s probably going to sit in that challenging category, but in a good way. It is exciting because these are clothes that light up, have animation, and UV elements that generate the emotions and the experience of the characters. That’s a fun one that’s coming up. Luckily, we’re getting to really work it out through the pandemic. We’ve been allowed to experiment a lot more than we probably would have had time to, if it was a more traditional production schedule.

Over your 25 years, talk about the change in technologies for costume fabrication.
I started with my first two shows that moved to Broadway at the same time. They were The Dead, that Jane Greenwood designed. It was a small show that we built through Playwrights Horizons with my team of freelance costume artists. That had beautiful fabrics from a fabric store called Hopkins in London that does period, historical fabrications. We went from that to—at the same time—Dirty Blonde that Susan Hilferty designed. It started at the New York Theatre Workshop. That was very literal corsetry. Now it’s printing textiles. I am a terrific fan of the printers of Gene Mignola. He’s my go-to for printing. His firm creates custom fabrics using digital printing as well as traditional screen printing for costumes. These people are geniuses and the tricks that they can do to the eye to make these things look exciting. There’s so many levels of tricks that we can do to make it look just as opulent as possible.

Are you still using traditional beading or are you moving into 3D printing or other methods now?
The computer is not my area of expertise—anything computerized—but I’m very lucky to have people at my fingertips. Mio Design Studio does a lot of 3D printing. Gene [Mignola] is doing dye sublimation and the different techniques in the burnouts and all that stuff. It’s unending, the growth of it all. So we keep on our toes and see what designer comes in with, what new experience that I have to dive into and try to learn. But mostly I trust my artists and my vendors to lead me in the right direction. I’m very clear in the beginning that it’s got to work, it’s got to last. It has to be the thing that is right and not just a stunt. My people are very reliable and that’s our goal.

What’s one or two things, if you were speaking with a producer or designer, you’d want them to know about your shop?
We take care of each other. I’m there to provide a safe workspace for all my employees. They get paid vacation, they get health insurance and benefits. They’re not all freelancers. They’re not getting rich, but we are doing our best to take care of them and make a business. And everybody deserves the right to make a fair living. I think that’s something that’s become a bit of a challenge as time has gone on. There has been a bit of stagnation in the amount of money that is budgeted; even though the technology and the expectation has grown, the price point is still staying the same. We have to figure out how to navigate that and it’s become a bit more of a challenge than it ever was before. That is one thing about the CIC, we are seeing a lot of the producers and general managers jumping on calls, gaining a better understanding of our needs as an industry. That helps us to feel valued. Now we have to work towards equity in the industry.

What’s something you’d want to say to the rest of the costume community moving forward?
It’s going to be a very long recovery, but I remain hopeful that we’re going to be okay. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction and we’re making good choices about opening the talent pipeline to make a more diverse community. We’re accepting every challenge that’s coming towards the entire theatrical industry. The costume industry has come together to start open conversations about standards, courtesy, and inclusion. I think we can get to a better place in general and solve a lot of the inequities that we were experiencing. I feel like we’re moving forward in a good direction. 

You can learn more about JKNY and see more of their work at www.jpkny.com 

 

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