When Rachel Johnson closed Landes Costumes by Rachel in November of 2013 it was indeed the end of an era. Owned and operated by Rachel and her husband Steve, the company began as the Harry K. Landes Company and remained in the family until the Johnson’s purchased it in 1994.
Once the Johnson’s business closed, however, that left their main competitor, Costumes by Margie, founded by Margie Grimes in 1966 but operated by owner Cheryl Harmon since 2000, as the only remaining business of its kind in Indianapolis.
Harmon is the niece of Theatre on the Square founder and Executive Artistic Director Ron Spencer. For this article Examiner.com reached out to Spencer by email (he currently lives six months out of the year in Mexico). “Cheryl was my first niece. I babysat her frequently, changed her diapers, held her when she was crying and teething and fell in love with her from the start,” wrote Spencer.
Spencer said that Harmon’s interest in costuming began when, at Spencer’s request, she costumed “Chicago” during TOTS’s first season in 1988. “I believe that Cheryl did some of the finest costuming we have had over the years at Theatre on the Square. Perhaps because she and I are of like minds, it was much easier for us to communicate. I was always delighted with her costume choices and our collaborative relationship was always gratifying. She always surprised me which is not an easy thing to do since I have been at the business of theatre for a number of years.”
Finally, when asked what he thought of his niece the businesswoman, Spencer said, “I am not in the least surprised that her shop is successful. She cares more about the product than the profit. A trait that is invaluable in my opinion. She is a no-nonsense type of business woman who realizes that every costume that leaves her shop is a reflection on her as a professional costumer.”
Recently Examiner.com met with Harmon at Costumes by Margie, located at 3818 N. Illinois (near the corner of Illinois & W. 38th Streets) to chat about her uncle, the business and costuming in general
How much influence did your Uncle Ron have on you?
He had a huge influence on me. He is the reason I am sitting here today. Growing up together there was a 14 year difference. Because he is my father’s brother, he was somewhat of a built in babysitter through the years so we were always very close anyway. He was like a movie star so I was always fascinated to see him on stage in live theater.
How was it that you became interested in costuming?
Ron was the one who made that connection for me. I learned to sew when I was ten, from an Aunt, and I loved it. I also learned tailoring at Warren Central, back when they offered those kinds of things. The renovations at TOTS when it was in Fountain Square were going on and the show “Chicago” was getting ready to go on; Ron looked at me one day and said, “You know how to sew. Do you think you could costume the show?” and I said, “I don’t know,” and he said, “do you want to try?” and I said, “sure.”
How daunting was it?
It was very intimidating. I didn’t doubt my skills or my ability as far as obtaining or constructing the costumes. Where it was scary was the whole concept of 12 or 15 actors, the look and understanding of the time period. It became very much more about the research aspect of it and learning to trust my instincts and getting a feel for things.
How did it feel to see your costumes on stage that first time?
It was pretty incredible. The one thing I remember the most was opening night when the curtain came up and I saw the final product of what many hands contributed to and what many people were involved in. That was probably what sealed it me.
So let’s fast forward and talk about your business. How many members on your staff?
There are five of us, counting me.
How many costumes do you carry?
Five to 6,000 complete costumes, which means nine to 10,000 items when you consider all the pieces that come with some. For instance, a gangster outfit includes a shirt, tie, suspenders, jacket, vest, pants, spats and a hat.
How many high school and college theatrical productions do you costume a year?
Four to six in the spring and two to three in the fall. We occasionally do a college production, such as IUPUI. We recently costumed a Butler Music student production.
What about community theaters?
We rarely completely costume full productions, but have done ten to fifteen partials
Did you purchase any of Rachel's inventory? If so, how much?
Yes, about 300 pieces.
Any idea what percentage of Rachel’s costumer you inherited?
Not really. However, we acquired their phone number and we receive numerous daily calls from it.
To date, what are your most popular costumes?
For theatrical productions it’s “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Music Man” and “Annie.” For the public rentals it’s Elvis, 1920s and 1970s era costumes.
What are some of the realities of your business?
We all go through our highs and lows. Work is too much and too crazy. You question what you do and why you do it. Is it worth all the long hours and the hard work because here I wear all the hats. I don’t get to come here and play dress up or dress people up. I have to do the bookwork. I still have to make sure the floors are mopped, schedules made, taxes done and all of that. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. We just had three high school productions go out back to back and I just worked 10 12-hour days for four weeks in a row to get all those shows ready to go out the door.
What makes it all worth it?
The interaction with the customers. Rachel (of Landes Costumes by Rachel) always said “No one ever comes to get a costume for a depressing reason.” That is why she loved it and that rings true for me. When people come they are here for a happy, fun thing, like going to an event or supporting something. Whatever that might be. So there is always an uplifting reason for why they’re coming in so you get to deal with happy or enjoyable aspects of their lives.
What is your philosophy?
Here at Costumes by Margie, we want to serve our customers with genuine politeness. We also want to use our knowledge and creativity to transform them into their desired look, from the hat on their head to the shoes on their feet. When we rent costumes out, we always tell people. “Bring back pictures and tell us stories. We want to know this and we want to see that.” They tell us about their events and how much fun they had. We love it when our customers say “everybody asked me where I got my costume” because word of mouth is everything.
For more information about Costumes by Margie visit www.costumesbymargie.com
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