These Skimpy Costumes Don’t Come Cheap

The West Indian American Day Parade, a four-mile march expected to draw more than one million spectators Monday, sustains itself through a miniature marketplace of seamstresses, headdress artists and other costume makers vying for sales, as Jackie Bischof reports for The Wall Street Journal. For the original report and a riveting photo gallery follow the link below.

Vacant storefronts in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights, East Flatbush and Brownsville are transformed into rhinestone- and feather-covered costume shops and decorating hubs every summer ahead of the event, which celebrates Caribbean culture.

But while the parade creates an uptick in business for nearby restaurants and retailers—generating an estimated $300 million in economic activity, according to the Brooklyn Borough President’s office—the artisans and organizers who engineer the colorful spectacle don’t focus on the bottom line. After paying for workspaces, costume materials and trucks to carry a fully-equipped DJ along the route, many parade entrepreneurs are lucky to break even.

“Most of the time you do it for the love of the culture, not necessarily as a moneymaking thing,” said Shola Thompson, a managing director of Caribbean Passion, a costume-design company involved in the parade.

Ms. Thompson, 32 years old, designed bikini costumes embezzled with pink and blue rhinestones, faux gold chains and colorful feathered accessories to be worn by a 60-member section of Natural Freaks, one of about 40 informal groups—known as bands—marching in the parade.

Ms. Thompson calls this year’s design Hypnosis. Prices start at $320 for the female version, an amount that includes a parade-entry fee.

All told there are 11 sections in Natural Freaks, each with its own distinct costume style meant to showcase a shared theme. The parade is structured as a good-natured competition between designers, who seek to lure marchers into their section with extravagant, risqué looks.

Ms. Thompson’s costumes take months to assemble and yield profits as scanty as the green bikinis she sells, but she believes all the effort is worthwhile. “It’s the most blissful and exhilarating feeling ever,” she says of seeing parade revelers wearing her designs.

Preparations for the Labor Day parade, which originated in 1930s Harlem and relocated to Brooklyn in the 1960s, begin before the start of summer. Bands, some of which swell to 1,000 members, announce themes such as “Caribbean Uniqueness” and “Exotic Avian” before selecting costume designers.

Each band sets up a temporary “mas camp,” typically in a rented storefront or basement, to serve as a combination retail outlet, registration center and costume-production factory. Parade participants go shopping and often join the band whose costumes they like best, spending up to $500 on the outfit. (Another big draw: having a popular DJ in the band.)

In the weeks leading up to the parade, these storefronts become costume-fitting centers, with Caribbean music playing and hot-glue guns running.

Natural Freaks spent at least $70,000 to rent its Nostrand Avenue store, truck and sound system, as well as buy insurance, said band leader Ray Bruce, 45. Some of that can be recouped with corporate sponsorship and participant fees, but balancing the books is more difficult as a result of the sluggish economy.

“If this was my primary occupation, I’d be in the poor house,” said Mr. Bruce, a home-remodeling contractor. “You gain something for the love of it.”

Maximin Nurse, leader of the Elegance band, expects to lose money—as well as sleep and her voice—in order to finance and assemble the costumes, DJ equipment and insurance for her 150-member group. Rather than raid her savings to cover costs of up to $30,000, she is cutting corners by using surplus materials in her costumes.

“Every year I say this is my last year, but when next year comes around and the fever hits you, you find yourself right back again,” said Ms. Nurse, 60, an escrow processor by trade. “I guess it’s kind of in your blood.”

Winston Khan, 69, has produced carnival costumes since he was a 15-year-old boy in Trinidad and Tobago. After running his own garment-making business in the Caribbean for three decades, he immigrated to New York and eventually returned to the parade-costume business. Now he is one of the primary wire makers, hired by several bands to manufacture parts of their intricate decorations.

He isn’t always pleased with the way costumes have shifted from depictions of cultural history to skimpy outfits. “I’ve seen carnival evolve in such a way, I can’t believe,” said Mr. Khan. “Today’s carnival is like a Las Vegas show—half-naked with lots of feathers. I don’t see a lot of creativity.”

Still, he remains awed by the visual splendor and effort that goes into the one-day production each year. “What ordinary people can do if they put their mind to it,” he said.

For the original report go to

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s