By Diana Limbach Lempel, Design Annex
If you were at Fluff Festival, then you’ve seen what Liz Perlman of Costume Works can do. The costume company made the Pharaoh of Fluff headpiece, and that’s only a taste of the incredible characters that Costume Works brings to life. I visited Perlman at her workshop, just outside Union Square, in the run up to Fluff, and was blown away by how active and creative this business is. Just like all the Somerville businesses I meet, Costume Works is committed to working by hand, producing high-quality products, and working closely with clients large and small, local and national. I think it’s a great one to get to know.
Visiting the Costume Works workshop is like stepping into another world. Perlman’s eight employees are consulting designs, sewing costumes, cutting fabric and making patterns, and there are period costumes and wild cabaret outfits hanging from the ceiling and pretty much everywhere else. It’s an independent costume shop, which means that it’s not affiliated with a particular theater or performing organization. They work with theaters and costume designers from Boston, such as the Boston Lyric Opera, Cambridge Revels, and Hasty Pudding Theatricals, as well as Disney’s cruise ships and theme parks, and the Big Apple Circus. This means there is always something fun and new going on, from sequined 70s disco drag queen outfits to 19th century peasant dresses, and Liz Perlman keeps busy.
DA: So, how did you get into costume making in the first place?
LP: I was involved in the theater in high school, so in college at Harvard I decided to get involved in the costume shop. This became a job at the Loeb Drama Center (now the A.R.T.), and after that I became a freelancer. Running my company involves production management and technical expertise, which I learned at the A.R.T. and freelancing, and in my subsequent job working for another independent shop. Now, the staff and interns I get are often already very experienced technically, having come from specific training programs in costume fabrication.
DA: That makes me curious: how are costumes different from home sewing?
LP: Well, first of all, performers have to wear their costumes everyday, sometimes multiple times a day under bright lights and sometimes under physically demanding conditions. So costumes have to be much more durable. Second, it’s more than a garment ; the designs need to communicate something about the character the performer is portraying, so often there is more fabrication than design required. Third, there are several different people that I am listening to while making costumes. There is the performer, the designer, the director and the producer of the show. It’s hard to communicate the time, labor, and fabric costs of custom clothes that all of these things require. It’s all made by hand, one at a time, with lots of craftsmanship, and everyone is paid a decent wage and benefits. We’re committed to this level of work so it’s more expensive for our clients than ready-to-wear clothes.
DA: What makes Somerville a good place for your business to locate?
LP: I’ve lived in Somerville since 1982, right in Union Square. The artistic presence in the city is so strong, and I was really excited to find this location mostly because of the warehouse space itself. It’s fantastic, with lots of natural light. I really wanted access to the T when I started here. We’re now we’re well-served by bus lines. If the Green Line does ever actually come, then I’ll have everything I want here. It’s close to stores, 93, downtown, the airport, has on street parking, and it’s a reasonable rent for a lot of space, which is one of the big factors in helping us stay afloat, and helps us keep prices lower than, say, shops in New York. We love being in the Boston area because of the community of other costume shops that’s here. We’re more flexible because we’re independent, but the spirit between all the shops is very collaborative. And the internet has changed the way we source all kinds of materials, so we can get fabric, materials, jobs from beyond our current location.
DA: What’s the most exciting thing happening at Costume Works now?
LP: We just finished a job over Labor Day for the Big Apple Circus, which is our newest client. Circus costumes were a whole new thing for us because there is a range of acts where the costumes have to facilitate the extreme body things that circus performers do. It was a very unusual set of designs — very sophisticated, operatic in scale, and we learned a lot along the way. We’ve also got a new project for a Disney cruise ship, and we love the designer. We’ve worked with him before, so were excited about that. We’re also very excited to have so much work at this time! Our regular clients have scaled back a bit, but are still with us! These new projects and national clients keep us even busier.
DA: What do you want Costume Works to be known for in the future?
LP: I want us to be known for producing a high quality product with a capable client interface. We spend a lot of time with our clients, so our process is very collaborative. We have to fit the performers to make sure the costume moves with them — that’s part of the creative process. It’s completely tactile. So you really can’t outsource easily. It’s an unusual business in that respect.
DA: Is there anything else you want to share with us, that you’re especially proud of?
LP: That’s a tough question to answer. I’m proud when the sketch comes to life. It’s all in the photos: when we go from sketches to a product, and see the final result, and know that we nailed it.