The sun shined downtown Vancouver on a recent weekday, illuminating the windows of Center Stage Clothiers, a small costume and vintage shop on the corner of Main Street and East Mill Plain Boulevard.
A mannequin dressed as Frankenstein, along with his bride, stood motionless on top of a raised platform in the large windows that face Main Street.
“My husband built me this stage. Frankenstein and the Bride of (Frankenstein). Jim and I wore these costumes about 30 years ago. We wore this before we ever got married. We made these costumes,” said owner Diana Kirkpatrick, 56.
Business of Halloween
Only open since January 2018, Kirkpatrick is taking on her second Halloween season — a holiday that about doubles business for a costumer.
“This is only my second Halloween, but we probably have 30 things on hold already,” Kirkpatrick said. In the back room is a small space that she and her one part-time employee use for a break room — as well as a place to sew and store reservations. Two racks of mystery items wrapped in white plastic hang waiting for their next wearer.
But Halloween isn’t Kirkpatrick’s only source of business. Racks of clothes and accessories of all types line the store — from over-the-top prom dresses to vintage dresses from the 1960s.
“Most people think it’s only Halloween that people dress up. We have eight schools that rent from us now. During the year, they keep us busy and rent a whole rack of clothes at a time. But there are so many more themed weddings, themed fundraisers. Now there are more dress up occasions for adults than there are for kids anymore. It’s really gotten popular,” Kirkpatrick said.
In the back, she was working on finishing a pirate jacket for an upcoming production of “Peter Pan” at Evergreen High School, Kirkpatrick said. One customer visited that morning, the owner of the Kiggins Theatre — to drop off an item worn recently at a fundraiser — the theme was “Back to the Future.”
“I found all the pieces to make Marty McFly and Doc Brown,” Kirkpatrick said.
Ups and downs
Custom sewers and costumers are professions on the decline; the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 6 percent reduction of jobs in the next decade. One of the largest costumers in the area, Helen’s Pacific Costumers in Northeast Portland, closed in 2017 after 127 years. Online retailers, pop-up shops and party stores have eaten away at many costume store’s profits.
But the drab job outlook didn’t dampen Kirkpatrick’s spirits. After working in a mind-numbing secretarial office jobs for more than 20 years, she was ready for a creative adventure.
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“My whole job was numbers and reports. I wanted to be sewing,” Kirkpatrick, a Gresham, Ore., native, said. She particularly was enthused about movie set life; she found work locally on some faith-based films, she said, as well as an extra on shows like “Portlandia” and “Grim.”
“That’s my dream — to have my store running with responsible and trustworthy employees, and I can be working on movie sets,” she said.
At 47, she went back to school at the now-defunct Portland Art Institute and continued to sew in her spare time.
Later, while working part time mending clothes at Give and Take, a Portland consignment shop, Kirkpatrick said a man came in wanting to give away a large collection of costumes that had belonged to his late wife, Kristin Jager, who had been the costumer for Central Catholic Jesuit High School in Portland for almost 20 years. The shop couldn’t take them, but Kirkpatrick saw an opportunity.
Then, at the urging of her husband, she cashed out her IRA to start a business. She took the thousands of garments originally owned by Jager and were being kept in storage units near the Portland International Airport. Kirkpatrick also received about $3,000 worth of donations from Helen’s Pacific Costumers when it closed, she said.
Surrounded by costumes of her own making and artwork painted on the walls to give the shop an old-Hollywood vibe, Kirkpatrick said she believes the store was a “God wink.”
“I know this was put together for me. Kristin’s costumes were behind doors, people couldn’t see her life’s work,” Kirkpatrick said, as tears welled up in her eyes. “When I’m feeling like, ‘Oh I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make rent,’ I get one of the school’s calls — I’m getting choked up. It always works out.”
She recently won a $1,000 grant from a contest for small businesses by the website Nav.com. She used some of the money to help with advertising to more schools in the region, as well as snatch up more clothes from the 1920s. Since it will be 2020, Kirkpatrick is expecting a lot of themed parties from that decade.
Behind the counter, Kirkpatrick keeps a photo of Jager on the wall, and a photo of her and her husband dressed up in the Frankenstein costumes all those years ago.
“Being here six days a week, it’s not like I don’t love it here. It’s not like going to my desk job. It makes a difference when you love what you do,” Kirkpatrick said.