New Yorks clothes closet to the Stars
New York — The lobby is far from impressive. For one of the world's largest costume rental and manufacturing companies one would expect a foyer done in all natural fabrics at least. Instead, a rush of turquoise and brown vinyl chairs set against imitation wood grain paneling greets the visitor's eye here 10 stories above a deserted West 55th Street. But this modest decor doesn't seem to faze the bronzed stare of founding father Charles Geoly, an Italian immigrant, whose likeness is mounted against the particleboard just opposite a neon-lit portrait of William Shakespeare.
Such is the Eaves Costume Company. And such is Bernice Zigas -- director and/or manager of the company.
"Call me anything you want; I've been here since 1949," she says in a throaty New York rasp. "How big are we?" she responds to the question of size. "At 500 ,000 costumes, who's counting?"
But someone obviously is, for Eaves Costumes has put shirts on the backs of everyone from Kojak to Captain Kangaroo to the Elephant Man. It has, for instance, outfitted such Broadway shows as "Evita" and "Macbeth" and such films as "Raging Bull" and "Fort Apache, the Bronx." It also made the breeches and puffed-sleeved shirts for "Roots" and the prison wardrobe for the television movie "Playing for Time." And somewhere in this gargauntuan clothes closet are racks of spangled and sequined skating skirts for the Ice Follies "Holiday on Ice" and Walt Disney's "World on Ice." In short, Eaves is to costumes what Singer is to sewing.
"We are the largest in the US and might even be the largest in the world," Bernice casually asserts. "Look, for a long time we all said we were the largest," she adds, referring to the other two large costume manufacturers in the United States -- Western Costume in Los Angeles, and the New York-based Brooks Costume Company. "But since we took over Brooks [this part February] we are the largest!" (Max Adler, the president of Western Costume Company, however, would dispute this, claiming, "There's nobody bigger than us.")
The 117-year-old company now reigns as the undisputed king of the wardrobe on the East Coast, however. There are hundreds of smaller houses that manufacture costumes for a one-time sale only. But what separates Eaves from the rest of these costume tailors is the rental half of their business --the 500,000 costumes that cover two floors here and fill another warehouse out on Long Island. It is the rental of the innumerable costumes for "Brigadoon," "Kiss Me Kate," and other favorite shows that really keeps Eaves afloat.
For all those high school, collegiate, and summer-stock thespians, the rental of Eaves costumes is the answer for the annual production. Bernice refers to these educational requests as the "bread-and-butter accounts, because this is where you make a buck, and it keeps comig back year after year." The costumes, after dry cleaning and alteration, are "rented and rented and rented." The average shelf-life of the more sturdy outfits -- those that can be invisibly reinforced underneath with layers of extra-strong material -- may be as long as 20 years.
This reusable stock allows the company to cut costs for big shows, such as "Shenandoah." By selling or renting a good number of the costumes as used instead of new, Eaves can successfully undercut other manufacturers who sell only commissioned goods.
Ironically, it is the "prestigious accounts" -- the bigname Broadway shows such as "Evita" and the recently opened and closed "Broadway Follies" --that do not turn much of a profit for Eaves. But they do generate an enviable string of credits for the thriving company. More recently, the company has sewn up big markets in the television and film industries. While Western Costume has traditionally gotten most of the California-based television and movie accounts, that is changing. Eaves has outfitted such television specials as "The adams chronicles," "F.D.R.: The Last Year," as well as several daytime soap operas. Toss in the Macy's thanksgiving Day parade, and Bernice boasts, "There is literally nothing we can't do."
Beyond the "bread-and-butter" educational accounts, the biggest buyers of Eaves's wares are the ice shows. The entire 12th floor is home to those flamboyant orange and fuchsia, silver-sequined skaters outfits that look perfectly normal from 25 rows away but rather outrageous so close at hand.
Eaves has done the wardrobes for the ice shows off and on since the early 1970's. The costumes for each show take about six months to complete and are designed to last through two seasons of wear and tear. The gamut of material and technique runs from delicate hand-beading of sequins to reinforcement with wire hoops. Costuming costs can run up to $1 million dollars per show, as in the most recent Ice Follies production -- a full one-third of the entire production budget.
Here in the domain of the ice show costumes, the workroom resembles an archetypal Santa's workshop. Desk-top-sized pieces of fuschia polyester are strewn across long wooden tables, over which hunch 15 or so seamstresses, who hail from Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, and Italy.
"You've got the whole UN up here," Bernice says with a sweep of her arm. "There is no apprenticeship program at Eaves. Therefore, all the women here are professional members of the Ladies Garment Workers Union."
Bushy-browed Francis Gatell is one of the few men in the department. A "draper", or pattern-cutter, for Brooks for 11 years before joining Eaves in February, Mr. Gatell originally worked as a tailor in Spain. "I come from Pamplona -- you know, the place with the bulls," he says. His job this month is to transform menu-sized cardboard sketches of costumed Linda Fratianne into beautiful, durable, gold-and-turquoise dresses that will fit like a glove.
To the inexperienced eye, the sketches look terrifying wispy and vague. But, like all of Eaves's pattern-cutters, Mr. Gatell translates the idea of the costume into the actual pattern pieces, slashing away uninhibitedly at his seemingly casually drawn brown-paper pattern. From here, the pattern will be cut from inexpensive muslin and fitted over a dressmaker's dummy for a final fit and approval. Only after an official OK from the show's designer and producer will the actual polyester and satin be cut and assembled into the final costume.
"In this business, the ultimate decree is the sketch," cautions Bernice, adding that the costume "must look like the sketch, or you can lose your shirt" if it isn't what the designer ordered. The high cost of the material prohibits mistakes.
In addition to the everyday tasks, such as hemming and inserting zippers, one of the women here underwires the big pink skirts to stiffen their hoops. Another, who sits crosslegged on a stool, is carefully turning silver strips of sequins into shoulder straps. It takes about an hour to complete a set of two by hand.
"Now over here we have the ice show milliners," says Bernice proudly, physically propelling the visitor into a smaller side room. Reggie Augustine, a small man with red hair and a close-cropped beard, sits comfortably atop one of the ubiquitous stools. He is coolly at home with the cone-shaped hat molds that litter his desk and the two-inch long needle he wields. With a practiced stich that would make a grandmother proud, he wraps and folds and invisibly sews flashy, red-spangled cloth onto the molds. The red row of completed hats looks like disco headgear for a branch of the Shriners.
Reggie is relatively rare among Eaves employees. For one thing, he is young. For another, he was born in this country. And while most of the Eaves seamstresses and drapers got their experience in small European or Asian tailoring shops, or on New York's 7th Avenue, Reggie holds a degree in costume design from Ohio State. Eventually, he would like to return to the full-time designing that he did for two years after his 1978 graduation. But he admits that it is beneficial to spend some years with a costume house such as Eaves, while doing free-lance design on the side.
"All the people in this business want to be the designers. They want to be the Indian chief," Bernice drawls. "But this is a competitive business, and there are only about 10 designers on Broadway who really get the work. Eaves doesn't need designers. They come with the show -- hired by the producer. We only execute the design," she concludes, punching the air with an Oreo cookie for emphasis.
Few of Eaves workers have cut as many shirts as chief draper Tony Paglia. The slight Italian has been with the company for some 50 years. He started when he was 16, after seeing his father work here with the second generation of the Geoly family. He has kept at it "because it's not a bore like civilian clothiers." His tenure hasn't been without its rewards. He was once personally congratulated by Paul Newman, who dropped by after making his film "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" to say that Tony's costumes were the best he had ever worn.
But a new breed of drapers is arriving. The older, European- and Asian-trained tailors and seamstresses are not as common any more. And so Americans, like Reggie and Michael Alonzo, a beefy young black man who stands with scissors poised over a pattern shaped like a leg-of-mutton, are coming into the trade now. Michael concentrates on his cutting while swaying to the music in his stereo headphones.
"This is a dying art," Bernice laments, "because 90 percent of the workers are foreigners, and most Americans don't like to work with their hands." There is also a problem of finding enough skilled workers for such a unique trade. "But so far we've been able to get the people we need."
The core staff of Eaves -- the ones who survive the occassional layoffs during the slack season -- is made up of about 30 seamstresses and tailors. At peak times, the number jumps to 200.
One final department demands inspection. "This is our miracle department," says Bernice, pulling the visitor around a partition enclosing what seems to be acres of multicolored linen, wool, velvet, and satin bouffant dresses, skirts, and jackets. Here is where the reusable costumes are stored and refurbished. In the midst of this colossal walk-in closet, a girl stands facing a dressmaker's dummy draped with an aged finchgreen satin dress. She methodically adds beads and lace, transforming the shopworn garment into an elegant gown for some highschool production. The big season for school rentals runs from October to November and from February to May.
This is also the department that handles personal requests for costume rentals.
"Halloween is a big time for us, too. To be a queen would cost about $75 for a weekend," Bernice says. But she cautions: "We don't do Nazis or nuns or policemen for personal use. We have to know how those costumes are going to be used." Eaves doesn't want to be responsible for outfitting an unofficial police squad or a new religious order. Only organizations may request these particular outfits.
A last lap around the workroom floor ironically concludes with a stop in the research library -- where it all starts. "This is where the designers can look up the styles before they even begin to sketch," says Bernice, fondly patting a fat and dusty bound volume of Vogue, 1940. The sagging shelves hold not only ancient Vogues but also early bound editions of Glamour magazine, Life, and even a collection of Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs "to see how the less-than-rich people used to dress." Accuracy is undeniably one of a designer's best friends, and such research is indispensable.
Everything having to do with costume execution -- from the initial sketch to the final hooks and eyes -- is done here at Eaves. Only wigs and women's shoes cannot be found within the spacious confines on West 55th.
Is it difficult being one of the biggest costume houses in the world? "Oh no ," Bernice says, waving another Oreo. "We're very good. We're professional. We're not amateurville."