Costumes, Beyond Halloween

Increasingly rare stores like Costumes on Haight pride themselves on being open year-round.

A frightening clown greets customers of Costumes on Haight Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (Photo by Ida Mojadad)

Pop-up stores like Spirit take advantage of creepy dead retail space, cash in on Halloween, and then, a few days into November, check out, leaving piles of crumpled cellophane and cheap tutus in their wake.

But in places like San Francisco, residents always have something to dress up for — drag shows, art exhibit openings, Burning Man, Bay to Breakers — and few year-round places are left to accommodate the demand.

“San Francisco is such a quirky and vibrant city,” Fantasy Clothing owner Lisa Serdengecti says. “Any day of the week a person can find an opportunity to put a costume on.”

While retail faces a looming nationwide crisis spurred, in part, by online shopping and changing spending preferences, Fantasy Clothing expanded into San Francisco from San Rafael nine years ago when a SoMa warehouse opened up. The original store opened in 1982, Serdengecti says.

Even with dress-up demands unique to San Francisco, soaring rents and internet shopping have posed a problem. In order to survive, Serdengecti says they need to stay on top of current affairs and costume trends, while creating their own products and offering vintage items.

“It makes a store owner stay on their toes and ‘stay different,’ ” she says. “The key is being unique with your own personal touch.”

Indeed, people seem to recognize something different about permanent specialty stores like 27-year-old Costumes on Haight, judging by the lines out the door in the days leading up to Halloween. The charismatic store manager, who professionally goes by “Your Pal, Gordo,” says they don’t like more than 12 people in the store so they can give people proper one-on-one help.

This creates a personal shopping experience, where Gordo says employees help turn nebulous ideas into expert-looking costumes by starting with questions like: “What’s the situation? Are you going trick-or-treating? Are you going to a work party? Are you trying to get laid?

“Are you trying to be offensive? If so, let’s get you something that’s offensively scary,” he adds.

Year-round stores like Costumes on Haight are, as Gordo puts it, “Halloween professionals” that employ adults who have years of expertise in wig fittings, makeup application and designing costumes. As the retail landscape changes, the store is evolving into more of a boutique.

“What we do here is so different that people aren’t used to it,” Gordo says. “Maybe people’s tastes have changed.”

For example, younger consumers seem to be accustomed to ordering online, figuring it out for themselves, not trying on items, or buying something cheap, Gordo says. While Walgreens makeup will wear off two hours after partying, Costumes on Haight is specially authorized to carry Hollywood-grade makeup like Ben Nye.

“We call it kid stuff,” Gordo says of Walgreens makeup. “We’re adults. We carry adult stuff.”

Costumes on Haight’s founder Danny Tague had stores in Sacramento and Davis in the 1980s, Gordo says. And while there are year-round stores in cities like Los Angeles and New York, they seem to be more focused on serving the entertainment industry.

Like Fantasy Clothing, Costumes on Haight makes its own hard-to-find costumes for pop culture staples like HBO’s Westworld. Piedmont Boutique and RAE Costumes also focus on costumes year-round, while stores like Fantastico and S.F. Party piggyback selections of stock party decorations and craft supplies.

In recent years, Costumes on Haight has added novelty items like a Game of Thrones dragon cuff and X-Files notebooks to expand interest. People pick up wacky items, like bolo ties and medieval rings, for everyday life.

But this year’s Halloween trends are too early to determine, Gordo says — though Hugh Hefner and Wonder Woman will likely be more popular than in the past. A celebrity death or viral video often catches Halloween suppliers by surprise, like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in October 2012, which sparked an immediate demand for blue tuxedos.

The lines may go down halfway down the block the weekend before Halloween celebrations start, but Gordo says they appease customers by adding entertainment like clown performances, horror movies, and free candy for the wait — which hardly ever takes more than half an hour.

“The experience starts when you show up,” Gordo says. “Before you set foot in the store, we have ideas for you.”

Check out more stories in our feature on costumes here:

New SoMa Extremity: Stereo Argento at The Stud
Halloween gets especially ghoulish at a drag-and-movie night with plenty of Italo disco.

The Best Duds in Town
From Daenerys to Daisy Buchanan, A.C.T.’s vast costume rental department has you covered.

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