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Industry Advocates: Costume Industry Coalition

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

On March 12, 2020, all Broadway theaters in New York City shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The shutdown hit all theater suppliers like dominoes and the theater costume craft industry in NYC was hit very hard. As the shops sat idle, these mainly small bespoke firms of artisans tried to figure out how to cover rents, salaries, and overhead without any income. In May of 2020, John Kristiansen and his partner, Brian Blythe of John Kristiansen New York (JKNY), along with other industry partners, formed the Costume Industry Coalition (CIC) to advocate and lobby for this unheralded portion of the industry. They wanted to make their voices heard and their issues brought to the table as relief was sought for the theater industry. 

To date, over 56 independent costume creation and supply businesses and artisans have come together under the CIC umbrella to advocate for its survival. Who are the CIC Members? Blythe explains, “Our Members feed the NYC costume industry, and fall into four categories:  Costume Shops (dressmakers, tailors, milliners, propstume, and crafters); Costume Crafts & Artisans (pleaters, beaders, embroiderers, glove makers, wearable illumination, fabric painters, dyers); Specialty Vendors (ranging from dancewear to specialty undergarments to costume dry cleaning); and Rental Houses (vintage apparel for stage and screen).”  

Skilled Artisans
Employing hundreds of artisans the costume industry puts millions of dollars into New York City’s economy through rent, payroll, taxes, and additional expenses. They are an important part of the $14.7 billion Broadway industry, as well as other entertainment industries like television, film, dance, opera, concerts, theme parks, cruise ships, and more.  In turn, they economically support NYC’s Garment District’s local vendors purchasing fabrics, trims, notions, and equipment. Maintaining these costume industry businesses is a vital part of the economic and cultural reemergence of New York City and in fact theater across the country.

The CIC has effectively partnered with stakeholders like designers to help raise awareness of what they do—and more importantly—what they contribute to the economy. They are also involved in lobbying efforts and in raising awareness about the costume industry with policymakers and government. In terms of fund-raising, the CIC has partnered with a fiscal sponsor, the Artisans Guild of America (AGA). It’s a non-profit dedicated to perpetuating the American tradition of the artisan workroom. All donations are tax-deductible through the AGA, with the majority of the CIC Relief Fund being used to cover rents, employee health insurance, and utilities. You can donate to the CIC Relief Fund at https://www.costumeindustrycoalition.com/donate.

Blythe adds, “We turned to private donations because in speaking to the Mayor’s office, State Senate, and Lieutenant Governor, I kept being told they are waiting for federal relief. While the overall arts and culture sector add $877 billion value added to the U.S. economy, employs 5.1 million people, and is 4.5% of the GDP, it is often overlooked in federal relief packages. And as arts organizations start to fold, the local restaurants, hotels, parking decks, gas stations, dry cleaners, fabric stores, hardware stores will all be impacted. We may be focusing our efforts on New York, but we can’t forget the arts and culture sector is hemorrhaging nationwide.”

Forming the Coalition
“On March 12th, I went to the emergency room with symptoms of COVID-19,” said Kristiansen. “When I was released on March 18th, not only was my shop closed, but my whole industry was shuttered indefinitely. We were compelled to get the CIC together to safeguard our livelihoods—as we are one tentacle of the entertainment industry that cannot pivot to a telecommuting model. We simply can’t build costumes via Zoom.”

“I saw in April 2020, that the Broadway League was putting together a taskforce to reopen,” Blythe explains. “For the costume shops in particular, 99% of us are non-union. I knew as the League was starting to have their talks, we wouldn’t necessarily have someone representing the costume industry at the table. So, I reached out directly to them in April 2020. And at that point, everyone thought it was going to be a couple of weeks—now over a year later and here we are.”

In May of 2020, Blythe noticed there was an advisory council to the Mayor’s office on arts and culture, and the Broadway League was on it. “So, I just decided to reach out to other costume shops,” says Blythe. “It’s a very small community and we consider ourselves cordial competitors. I wanted to get an idea of how many employees were out of work at that point. When we started putting it together, I was focusing mainly on the makers. It was Sally-Ann Parsons from Parsons-Meares who said, we really should include more people, because we have our subcontractors who are our embroiderers, our pleaters, the painters, the printers. We started to reach out to all of them. Some people saw what we were doing and said, ‘I need to join’, like Lori [Kaplan] from Bra Tenders, who is the undergarment supplier for all Broadway and dance, Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing, which is the last vintage costume rental shop in the city, and Ernest Winzer Cleaners, the cleaner to Broadway that has been open for over 100 years.” The CIC now includes some 56 Members covering work from concept to care; everyone involved in the New York City costume industry.

“It is specialty vendors, rental partners, and costume caretakers,” notes Blythe. “We represent over 500 specialty artisans and costume experts, in terms of the people that are employed. The goal is we all have to stay afloat while there is the industry wide shutdown. Everyone keeps talking about turning the lights back on. But if we aren’t here, if our sub-contractors aren’t here, if the ecosystem is not alive and at least breathing, there’s going to be trouble. There may be supply chain issues. If one of our shops goes down, then the creative capital is lost. The people who have been working on some costumes for years, won’t be around to pick up where they left off. There’s a lot of creative capital that has been invested in these shows—that knowledge will be needed to get these shows back up and running. We’re just trying to ensure that everyone can stay afloat. Going forward as an industry we cannot afford to lose the experience, knowledge, and skill of many of these artisans and experts.”

Massive Economic Impact
The CIC polled its Members and calculated that the lost gross revenue from the pandemic shutdown is a loss of over 26.6 million dollars. These are small businesses and that’s a huge loss. “For example, we at JKNY normally have about 18 to 24 projects going on at any one time. I’m down to three in the shop today,” says Blythe. The Coalition organized with its 501c3 fiscal sponsor, Artisans Guild of America, led by Ernie Smith, principal of CIC member, Penn & Fletcher, to start taking donations. “When we polled everyone last August, there was going to be $4 million dollars worth of debt just to keep the doors open with nothing happening,” Blythe explains. “We knew we had to raise funds and we’ve raised $500,000 so far, which means that our Members could now apply to a grant program that the fiscal sponsor has set up and just get some relief. The government has not stepped up to the degree that it really needs to for the creative economy. Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright, said, we really shouldn’t have to GoFundMe an entire industry, but that’s where we are. We’re doing our best to stay afloat by relying on the generosity of our supporters.”

Raising Awareness
The CIC continues its lobbying efforts and a big part of that is explaining what this part of the industry does. They are showing the real economic impact of these costume businesses and the irreplaceable value the artisans employed.  “We knew we needed to bring in our stakeholders—the costume designers—to get their help since they know what it really takes to create a couture garment for the stage. Because it wasn’t just lawmakers we needed to make more aware of our work, it included a lot of producers and general managers. Some had no real idea of all the shops and people who work on a costume until the CIC. So it has been stakeholders, like Tony award-winning designer, Ann Hould-Ward, who said we needed a commercial and that led to the Page to the Stage video which runs on our website.” Using the opening look of Moulin Rouge! The Musical’s Satine, the CIC asked designer Catherine Zuber and actress Karen Olivo to speak about the innumerable specialty artisans who brought this design to life. “We calculated all the labor time that went into that one outfit,” points out Blythe. “All told, it’s about 900 labor hours and there were so many different shops that were involved, just for one look. We also calculated the total number of artisans working on the whole show and it was almost 200 artisans, who took 33,000 labor hours to get Moulin Rouge up and running. We then used the information as a calling card to show that this is the labor force that is working in the shadows that no one sees.” Blythe continues, “I don’t think people quite appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into these costumes. I would love for more producers and GMs, to come for a walk through, tour these shops, see the spaces, see what’s going on, see how they’re made.”

The CIC has continued to think creatively to raise funds launching interesting projects and partnerships with its stakeholders. They have worked with costume designer Paul Tazewell, who designed a Hamilton-inspired Spencer jacket, from which a pattern was developed and is now available for purchase on Etsy.  A video on how to sew the jacket was created by Bernadette Banner, a New York-based dress historian and YouTuber known for reconstruction and study of period clothing. They’ve sold almost 3,000 patterns worldwide. The CIC recently partnered with The Actors Fund to successfully auction signature costume pieces from Broadway shows and stars. Hamilton creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda also made a video for the CIC, as did Hillary Clinton, among others.

When asked about what he hopes the industry takes forward when theaters are back open and shows are once again running, Blythe says, “Art 100% feeds the soul. It enlightens us. It helps us put a mirror up to us as humanity. But arts are also an economic driver. I think one thing about the CIC is that we are raising awareness—our Members create jobs, we employ specialty artisans, and we are a major part of how stories get told through costumes. We need to start stepping into that value and standing up for that value. We need to be asking for what we’re worth and being paid what we’re worth. For everyone to start realizing we as artisans are worthy—and worth something. We don’t need to struggle. We don’t need to be starving artists anymore. It really isn’t necessary.” 

Learn more about the CIC at: www.costumeindustrycoalition.com. 

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