In 2016, Erik and Bonnie Johnsen moved from Massachusetts and bought The Costumer, a 100-year-old, full-service costume and makeup business with locations in Albany and Schenectady. The Johnsen’s are passionate about the positive impact of scholastic theater! Read on as Bonnie takes us behind the scenes at this creative — and mission driven — business.
How and why did you buy a costuming company?
Erik and I are theater parents. Our son, Tyler, was a very, very introverted little boy. Teachers tried everything to get him out of his shell. So, in fifth grade, he signed up for chorus, and he ended up with a solo. He blew us away! That was his stepping stone into theater, winning awards and leads in every show in high school. He just completely took off and it changed his life.
So, when Erik wanted to get out of the corporate world and saw this opportunity to buy a small business, we knew it was the right thing. We believe completely in this mission because know what scholastic theater can do for a young child’s confidence. It’s fabulous.
Tyler is 22 now and studied theater and business in college. He’s now getting his Masters degree, and helps us in the summers. We all love it. This business is truly something we’re passionate about.
What’s the history of The Costumer?
The business was started in Schenectady in 1917 by a woman named Anna White. She was trading handmade costumes in exchange for dance lessons for her daughter. Since then, it’s changed owners four times. The Sheehan family were performers and teachers, and they saw the niche of school productions. They believed that kids deserved Broadway-caliber costumes.at affordable prices.
Our head designer has been with the business for over 30 years, with experience from Broadway. She creates costumes for all of the new shows, and makes sure that they are shipable and durable, because they’re for kids. We’re one of the few businesses that customize our products for all ages, even elementary schools. It used to be that high schools were the main customers for high-end costumes, but now we see it for all ages, even young children. So, the costumes need to be tailored to suit.
What kind of jobs and careers are there at The Costumer?
There are a wide variety of jobs here, and most of us wear a lot of hats. For the costumes, we need seamstresses to construct new products and tailor the costumes for our orders. Everything needs to be laundered, pressed, and packed, so we’ve got people who handle all of that.
Plus, we’ve got a retail establishment, so there are others who meet and talk to customers. And, there’s of course the office and administrative staff, who are doing bookkeeping and a variety of other things. I handle some of the marketing, and social media is done by retail manager. We’re all multi taskers. At the height of the theater season and during Halloween, we’ve got about 40 employees on staff.
Many businesses and organizations have expressed a need for tailors and seamstresses. Have you, too, had trouble finding people?
Yes, it’s very difficult to find trained seamstresses. I think it might be because they’ve largely stopped teaching Home Ec in schools, and that’s the way that a lot of us learned to sew. It’s definitely become a dying art.
Thankfully, though, they do teach sewing in college theater programs. Tyler knows how to sew for his theater degree, and we’ve hired other people from his school. But the best source of seamstresses has been young people who are very active in the cosplay community (the practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game). Young people are making their own costumes. Cosplay and Comicon are absolutely enormous businesses, and sewing is a great skill for young people to have.
You’ve got a move in your future?
Yes! We are moving our retail location over to Mohawk Harbor, and are looking at an August opening. We’re very excited. The Harbor has got the whole “live, work, play” environment. There are restaurants and the casino and the amphitheater. It’s a fun place, and we’re a fun company. Our employees are excited about it, too, After a difficult year and a half, it’s nice to have something great to look forward to.