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Student Blog: An Interview with Costume Industry Coalition and Showstoppers' Brian Blythe

"What Showstoppers has done is open their eyes to the craftsmanship that it takes to get a costume from page to stage. Everything starts as a sketch."

Student Blog: An Interview with Costume Industry Coalition and Showstoppers' Brian Blythe

In early December, I had a chance to speak with Brian Blythe, one of the creators of the Costume Industry Coalition and the Showstoppers exhibit that ran until December 5th in Times Square. We reflected on the creation of Showstoppers and how the costume industry has been impacted by the pandemic, as well as what theatre fans can do to help the industry recover. Enjoy!

Kat: How was the idea for Showstoppers first conceived?

Brian: So Showstoppers started as sort of a seed of an idea because we started the Costume Industry Coalition to advocate for the survival of the New York City costume industry. And everyone kept saying, "Put on a show!" And I met Tom Hennes, the lead of Thinc Design, a world-renowned design firm that designs exhibitions, aquariums, museums, and all sorts of things around the world. We then met someone through the Time Square Alliance. There's an organization called Times Square Arts, which is about bringing art to Times Square. At that time, they were doing window fronts, murals, things where they were trying to uplift the area that had gone dark. There was one landlord who said that if anyone wanted to do a walkthrough experience, they could connect with them. So I connected to Madison International Realty. It was April 1 of this year that Tom and I took a tour of the space that they had available, which was an abandoned Modell's on 42nd Street. And I remember standing there with Tom and he was like, "I can't think of a reason not to do it! Let's jump in and see what we can make happen." So it was an organic thing. But ultimately, Showstoppers was meant to not only raise awareness but to raise some much-needed funds. After the impact of the pandemic on our industry in 2020, we calculated $26.6 million in lost revenue. And we remain about $3.5 million dollars in debt because we had to keep our facilities open while nothing was happening. When everyone decided to get back, we had to be ready. And thankfully, we were, but it has put a huge financial burden on our industry that was unintended.

Kat: Can you tell me more about the Costume Industry Coalition?

Brian: The coalition launched out of the pandemic - There was no organized effort with the cost of industry. I'm the Business Manager of John Kristiansen, one of the largest costume shops in the city with John, who is also my life partner. In about April of 2020, we decided that we should start talking to the other shops. The ecosystem in New York City is that there are the makers which are your dressmakers, your tailors, your milliners, and your craftspeople. Then we have subcontractors like your painters, printers, and embroiders. But then there are other parts of the ecosystem as well. As we kept reaching out to other members of the ecosystem, we all started to coalesce because we were all in the same spot. Over time, the unions have left the shop, but we needed to have a seat at the table. So we started the coalition to raise awareness that our businesses couldn't shutter - We couldn't go to a Zoom model, which a lot of other people in different industries were doing. We needed some help. We partnered with a 501c3, a non-profit organization, and started raising funds because the government supplements being offered just weren't enough. When we were dormant for a solid 16 months, our work was trickling, where normally I would have around 20 projects going on at one time. So the coalition started with the goal of raising awareness. And I think we've done a good job of trying to explain to our stakeholders who we are, what we do, and our contribution to creative endeavor. So the coalition is now 55 small businesses. Pre-pandemic, we represented over 500 specialty artisans, who were our employees. And we wanted to ensure that we all had an artistic home they could return to once the pandemic ended. But apparently, the pandemic is not ending. It's just gonna keep going forever.

Kat: How did you get involved in the costuming world?

Brian: Because of John! I was actually a theatre administrator, director, choreographer, and performer, but I had left my job in 2011. And then I just started working part-time. Then we got our first kid. And now we've adopted the balance between family and business. Because I had a theatre background, I could speak the language. I always tell the story that people outside of theatre, when you say, "I've got to strike this" suddenly they're like "There's a strike? What's the problem?" "No, no, we're striking this out!" You understand the language, you understand the world. My background was also in non-profit which helped us with the coalition because I realized we could find a fiscal sponsor in order to raise money and have a grant program that would help us to survive.

Kat: What was the process like bringing all the costumes together into one exhibition?

Brian: It was really about contacting our asset partners. It's all our clients. I called Norwegian Cruise Line and I asked if I could borrow their costumes. We talked to Feld Entertainment, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Rink, and Marvel Universe Live, and they sent us stuff. All of the theatre companies that we work for, the Broadway houses, we got stuff from them. American Ballet Theatre, Martha Graham, any of those people - We were just like, "What do you have? What can we borrow?" and it organically sort of developed. The puzzle pieces came together as we were getting assets. We put together the exhibition in around three and a half months. And Thinc Design and Tom Hennes offered pro bono design services. I actually had a full team of people! When he said pro bono, I thought it was just going to be a couple of ideas here, but it was a full team. And they gave us world-class. It was a world-class exhibit. And they even brought in a flow consultant for the choreography of going through the space, mapping it out. So as we were getting assets, we were really trying to figure out the narrative, the flow, and everything that came with that.

Kat: Do you see Showstoppers becoming a permanent or traveling exhibition in the future?

Brian: That's a great question. It had a four-month run, which was was wonderful. Because of the nature of our shoestring budget, we didn't have a robust marketing campaign. But we had over 14,000 people come through, and that's nothing to sneeze at. I think that if Showstoppers were to become either a permanent or future thing, we would have to get some partners on board to help make that happen.

Kat: Are there any ways that readers of BroadwayWorld can help the costume industry as the pandemic continues?

Brian: They can go to our website, https://www.costumeindustrycoalition.com/. There are ways to get involved, like giving to our recovery funds. But honestly, in these times, when everyone's dealing with whatever they're dealing with, it's really about getting involved, like following us on social media. The coalition is all volunteer-run, everything that we've been doing for the last year and a half. Nobody has been paid within the coalition. If people want to volunteer, we have some opportunities for remote help that we need help with.

Kat: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Brian: For a lot of people, what Showstoppers has done is open their eyes to the craftsmanship that it takes to get a costume from page to stage. Everything starts as a sketch and then it takes hours to get it realized to be on stage. But also, if you have any creative inklings, this may be a career path for you. We wanted to make sure we were opening as many doors as possible, so that people could see the potential of different career paths within the entertainment world that don't necessarily have anything to do with being downstage center. You could actually be behind the scenes somewhere and still be creative. So that's what I encourage people to do.



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