Costumes on Haight Making Fantasies Come True
It’s hardly surprising that a costume store on Haight Street in San Francisco would be wildly successful. What is surprising is how the internet has affected the business and its customers. The business is Costumes on Haight. Oddly, it is not in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood with tattoo parlors, hippie memorabilia stores, and a taxidermy shop. Instead, it’s almost a mile away in a residential neighborhood and sticks out among run-of-the-mill businesses like coffee shops and corner grocery stores.
When you first walk into Costumes on Haight, the experience can be overwhelming. The store is so crammed full of costumes and accessories that you don’t know where to look. When your eyes finally adjust, you see a wall of more than 50 wigs of all colors and styles and on the opposite side of the store, a wall of Halloween masks. In between, there are racks and racks of costumes organized thematically, everything from Roman togas to Renaissance gowns to space suits.
Costumes on Haight attracts customers from all over the world. Obviously, Halloween is its busy season, with customers coming in a month or more in advance to find just the right costume. But it could not stay in business if people only shopped for Halloween costumes. This being San Francisco, there are always parties, festivals or drag queen contests that people need a costume, accessories or make up for. This is according to Sarah Hill who has worked at the store for three years. Hill, a small woman with shoulder-length platinum blonde hair, displays an apathetic expression as she describes her job.
Besides Halloween, there are two other big events that send customers flocking to Costumes on Haight: Bay to Breakers in May and the Burning Man festival in August and September. “It’s pretty amazing that we get a season from something that’s that far away,” store manager Chuck Nicklow, a burly man who talks passionately about the store and its customers.
Costumes on Haight both rents and sells costumes. For Halloween, people mostly rent costumes. The most popular costumes are decade-oriented, especially the 1920s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
Superheroes and Star Wars costumes are also very popular. Other costumes are only in vogue temporarily. When an artist dies, like David Bowie or Prince, there is a spike in demand for their costumes. Pop culture also influences which costumes are the most sought after. In 2016, the big costume was Alexander Hamilton, based on the Broadway musical.
In addition to those shopping for Halloween costumes, customers include people who want to dress up for a party or festival. According to Nicklow, these customers include, “creative types in here who are doing some kind of project, they need something specific for a project. Maybe they’re doing some kind of film shoot or photo shoot, some kind of production like. ‘Oh I need make up, or I need a wig.’”
Some regular customers include burlesque dancers and drag queens who come in for makeup and false eyelashes. “There’s a gentleman who does drag and he rollerskates by and comes in to say ‘hi,’” Hill says. Others come to buy “quirky fun fashion things that they wear contemporarily,” to work or school, according to Nicklow.
Costumes on Haight is more than just a place where people get costumes. “I like that we get to be a part of so many people’s’ fun experiences. We don’t go to the parties or anything like that, but we’re a part, for a lot of people, we’re a part of what makes San Francisco fun for them,” says Nicklow. “It’s really gratifying to put a customer, who never expected to like a costume, put them in something and know that they are going to go and have fun somewhere. And that’s awesome.”
But Costumes on Haight is facing new challenges. Not surprisingly, the internet has changed its business and, in some ways, it is struggling to keep up. It used to be that Costumes on Haight did not allow people to take photos in its store. The idea was to give people their privacy. “We wanted this to be a safe place for people to come in and try on weird stuff,” said Nicklow. In 2011, Costumes on Haight abandoned its no photos policy. “We got really tired of those confrontations,” Nicklow confesses. Plus, now that most people have a smartphone, it was a losing battle with people texting photos of themselves to friends from the dressing rooms.
Nicklow gave several reasons why the internet is threatening Costumes on Haight’s business. It is losing customers to online websites, which can offer people a wider variety of costumes than can be stocked in a store, sometimes at a lower cost. With the internet, people can get almost the same kind of instant gratification when they order a costume online since it can be delivered in a day. Cassi Hayes, a no-nonsense woman with short gray hair whose arms are covered in tattoos says, being able to buy costumes online makes people less creative. Hayes, who is the store’s costume tailor, laments, “They won’t put it together anymore either. That was a thing that they used to do. Is that you could improvise a lot with customers and put things together and it didn’t have to look exactly like something — they would use their imagination more.”
Despite the threat that the internet poses to it, Costumes on Haight should survive and maybe even thrive, because it offers something the internet can’t. At Costumes on Haight customers can browse centuries of costumes in a matter of minutes, try them on and text pictures of them to their friends. That’s something you can’t get at Amazon.