There is an age-old saying in show business, where despite any unforeseen or unmitigated circumstances, “The show must go on.” However, nobody could ever have imagined that a pandemic would close the lights on Broadway, and shut down film and television production for an entire year, thwarting the indomitable creativity of the entertainment industry.
One of those industries wearing thin from the shutdown was the costume industry. Brian Blythe, business manager of JKNY Inc., a custom costume design shop cultivated by his partner John Kristiansen in 1998 for stage, screen, live events, and private clients located in midtown Manhattan, recognized the need to keep independent industries and artisans thriving. He launched the Costume Industry Coalition (CIC) with Kristiansen in May 2020 to cinch the survival of New York City’s custom costume industry.
The mission of CIC is simple, to support its growing membership of 56 small, unique, costuming businesses by facilitating them in creating, supplying, and caring for costumes in every facet of entertainment, including theater, dance, television, film, cruise ships, concerts and theme parks. In 2020, CIC members collectively lost over $26.6 million in revenue. At the core of their concern was to keep people working. They currently collectively employ and represent over 500 costuming experts and artisans, including pattern makers, cutters, stitchers, tailors, milliners, hand finishers, craftspeople, embroiderers, sculptors, painters, dyers, pleaters, specialized vendors, and more.
Their designs are currently on display in the heart of Times Square with the new interactive exhibition, Showstoppers!, featuring an up-close-and-personal look at costumes from Broadway, Off Broadway, television, and dance. Blythe partnered with Thinc Design founder Tom Hennes, who designed the exhibition spotlighting Broadway costume designers such as Christopher Oram for Frozen, Julie Taymor‘s designs for The Lion King, Maria Björnson for The Phantom of the Opera, and Gabriella Slade for Six to name a few. From the world of film and television, you can see the costumes worn in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel by Donna Zakowska, and Black Panther designed by Ruth E. Carter.
Blythe spoke to Below The Line about the impact the shutdown has had on the costuming industry, on their shops, and employees. He discusses how Showstoppers! was conceived thread by thread and curated with the hopes of rejuvenating a well-worn industry to its former fashion.
Below The Line: What inspired you to start the Costume Industry Coalition?
Brian Blythe: Along with being the business manager of JKNY Inc., John (Kristiansen) is also my life partner and on March 12, 2020, he was supposed to go to the opening night of Six, but he went to the hospital instead where our Covid journey began. He’s fine now but we had a shop of 52 people and when he came out of the hospital, everything was shut down. Also, many of our staff had Covid, and actually lost one of our team members to Covid. I saw the Broadway League putting together task forces to re-open in April/May of 2020, even when they thought September 2020 would be the reopening. I knew that the costume shops would need to organize and mobilize to make some noise because over time the unions had lost their shops. There wasn’t going to be a seat at the table that included us if we didn’t say, “Hey, hey we’re over here.” We are these mini-factories with a large amount of equipment and for us to shut down and put stuff into storage, there would be no path back from that.
We had to figure out how to sustain ourselves through the pandemic so when they turn the lights back on we would be here.
BTL: What were the beginnings of the Coalition and how has it grown?
Blythe: We started with just the makers which are dressmakers, sewers, hatmakers, and craftspeople. But we have subs like the pleaters, the embroiderers, the fabric painters. Then we got a call from Bra Tenders, the makers of undergarments for Broadway and dance who wanted to join. Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing, a vintage rental shop in the city joined. One of the last to join in the beginning was Ernest Winzer Cleaners, a dry cleaner to Broadway who was shuttered. They are all part of the ecosystem. Now we have over 50 members that represent over 500 specialty artisans around New York City that make, supply and care for costumes.
BTL: How helpful were your contacts in the business to create Showstoppers!?
Blythe: I like to call what happened a series of fortunate events. I had met Tom Hennes, lead of Thinc Design firm, who offered us pro bono design services to put this together. When he said that I thought he would tell me where to put a mannequin and put a flashlight on it. He actually designed the Empire State Building observatory, the view experience which is amazing. We tried to get in there but financially it didn’t make sense, but through Times Square Arts, they connected me to Madison International Realty which opened their previous Modell’s space which is 20,000 square feet to us instead. We are located right next to Madame Tussauds, Dave & Busters, and the AMC movie theater. In three and a half months we put together an exhibition that basically would’ve taken two years.
BTL: How did you sub-connect with your clients to participate in the exhibition?
Blythe: It was pivotal having our clients support us so much. Literally, for some of them, it was like, “I have this costume in my closet. Is it helpful?” Others, like the Broadway shows, said we could have it as long as they didn’t need it. Disney Theatricals have been nothing but supportive since we started. (President) Tom Schumacher was one of the first people in April 2020 that I reached out to and he said the shops have been on his mind since the beginning. He has been both personally supportive but also connecting me to all that he can to help. He drew in Anne Quart, who is head of production, to get us the Disney assets for Frozen, The Lion King, and Aladdin.
BTL: Did you deal directly with any of the costume designers to procure your exhibit?
Blythe: I remember Catherine Zuber for Moulin Rouge, her associate was here but she’s in Australia. We were putting together the display, taking pictures, and sending it to her. Every person we worked with wanted us to take advantage of the assets they had available and were extremely supportive.
BTL: What are some of the featured exhibits?
Blythe: There is a whole section of costumes devoted to those shows including Wicked, Moulin Rouge, Come From Away, Mrs. Doubtfire. There is a huge display from Phantom of the Opera which came from one of our members Parsons-Meares, Ltd., who designed those costumes. Our coalition also does dance, television, and film, cruise ships so when you walk in the door there are eight showgirls from Norwegian Cruise Lines which is a huge impact. Then you see costumes from The Cher Show, Six and Dear Evan Hansen. There’s Dora Milaje from Black Panther which is from Disney’s California Adventure. The biggest display exhibition is from American Ballet Theater because Whipped Cream is one of my favorite shows so, I knocked on their door and got it out of their warehouse. There is a piece from an opera company in Brooklyn that is the most striking thing you have ever probably seen. To have that small obscure exhibit next to a Disney theatrical costume shows the best of what we do. We do have costumes from Respect that Jennifer Hudson wears in the new Aretha Franklin movie, which is playing right next door at the AMC so, there’s an opportunity to cross-promote.
BTL: How is the exhibit interactive?
Blythe: As much as we can, we are going to have people on-site. One of the things we try to do with the exhibition is always connect the products, the process, and the people, because the true magicians of all of this are the artisans that work out the back door, down the block, and around the corner in a shop where you’ll never see their face. So we have four different shop areas that are set up where people will be there working. For example, there will be someone patterning from the musical Six, the knitter or the milliner, or the embroiderers might be there. You can actually talk to them and it’s an opportunity to learn more.
BTL: Ultimately, who would you like your audience to be for Showstoppers!?
Blythe: Tourists are great but I would love for New Yorkers and those who live in the tri-state area to come back to New York to be tourists and take that moment to come to 42nd Street which you haven’t seen for a few years. John and I have four children and we brought them, and we realized it’s actually for 10 and over. The eight-year-olds got bored after the first two minutes which was a good barometer for us. I do feel like the tweens and the teens that love the arts and are creative can learn more about the process behind it. Does anybody even know what a vacuform is? (It’s a rectangular piece of hallowed plastic, made with high heat and connected by an elastic band for a mask that covers the front part of the face). For a kid to go, that’s cool and I want to do that as a career, would be great. We have 3D printing for kids who are into 3D design. The hope is that parents will bring their children to see a career path that they had never imagined.
The Showstoppers! exhibit will run through September 26th. Tickets are now priced at $29.00 for general admission and $24.00 for students, children, and seniors. You can go here to purchase them. The exhibition is a fundraiser where ticket sales will go to the CIC Recovery Fund administered by The Artisans Guild of America. Its mission is to financially support the CIC members, ensuring their artisans will have artistic homes to return to once the live performance and television/film industries return to full production.
All images courtesy Rebecca J. Michelson. Click on images below for larger versions.