Ask a local to pinpoint the source of Carnival’s allure and you’ll likely hear about the spectacle of the parades, the catchy street rhythms or the infectious spirit of the crowds. All are magnetic ingredients, but the most potent element of the revelry may be the comforting feeling of anonymity.
A sense of facelessness can shed the inhibitions of the most reserved of partygoers, freeing their inner hedonist or, at the least, unleashing pent-up exuberance. But shedding one’s personal identity requires adopting a new one, which brings us to the most important facet of Mardi Gras: the costume.
“If I had my way, everybody would go out in costume every day during Carnival,” says Los Angeles native-turned-New Orleanian Wingate Jones.
The owner of Southern Costume Co. in downtown New Orleans, Jones seeks not only to open worlds of possibility to individuals searching for a fanciful temporary identity, but also to tap into one of the city’s fast-growing business sectors.
New Orleans has fostered many skilled purveyors of disguise over the decades, and while Jones is one of the newest costume designers in town, the knack for creative dressing is in his blood.
The son of a longtime president of leading Hollywood costumer Western Costume Co., Jones grew up immersed in the business of supplying character identities to the motion picture industry.
Thirty years ago he signed on with the wardrobe department at Universal Studios, where he helped dress the cast of such shows as “Magnum, P.I.” That experience led to work on a host of feature films and television projects, including Top Gun and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Jones landed in New Orleans as a result of meeting his future wife here in 1994. Following a couple of relocations and a career shift that brought a stint in the IT department at Entergy Corp., he decided to return to the work he knew best. Two years ago he began laying the groundwork for a local costume company that would not only tap into the demands of Carnival season, but also serve the region’s expanding movie business.
“I started with a trip to L.A. where I bought pieces from Western Costume and Warner Brothers,” he says. “I got a lot of hanging stock together in a relatively short time.”
He opened the doors of Southern Costume Co. early last year and continues to fill his racks with costumes that now number in the thousands. The looks run the gamut from pirates and devils to Southern belles and superheroes. Jones says his favorites are some of the costumes he snagged from Warner Bros. Pictures.
“The Last Samurai outfits are pretty cool, and we’ve got some Spartan and Roman gladiator outfits that are really cool,” he says.
He supplements the purchased stock with original looks produced by several Southern Costume employees. “For the most part, one must be able to sew in order to work here,” he says.
The company’s first onslaught of business came, predictably, just ahead of Halloween 2011.
“We started manufacturing in the summer time to get ready for Halloween, and somebody said, ‘Hey, it’s funny we don’t have any mummies,’” he recalls. “So we got to work and came up with two ‘guy’ mummies and two ‘girl’ mummies.” He says the costumes rented quickly.
Southern Costume went on to gear up for the big prize, the company’s first Mardi Gras. Jones landed costume contracts with several parade organizations, including the new all-female Mystic Krewe of Nyx. The company also produced the gown and collar to be worn by this year’s Queen of the Krewe of Iris.
Meanwhile, he expects to see plenty of individual customers stepping through the door as they look for their own ticket to anonymity during Carnival. “It’s our first season and we’re right on target in terms of what I was hoping to get for 2012,” he says.
Jones expects that Carnival will continue to be a key part of Southern Costume’s business strategy for years to come, but along with Fat Tuesday, his sights are set on the big screen.
Before opening Southern Costume, he worked on several locally shot films where he noticed that costumers lacked appropriate spaces in which to work.
“They need an office with a desk and a place to make phone calls; they need space to store all the clothes; and if they go to Saks and shop, they need a place to set up, fit the cast and get the costumes camera-ready,” he says.
He decided that his new company ought to address those needs. “Part of my business model is to provide the setup and prep space needed by costumers coming from out of town,” he says.
Jones built that production capacity into the 9,000-square-foot space he took over at the corner of Lafayette Street and O’Keefe Avenue. The company now offers three film crew office spaces that include dressing rooms, space for alterations and locked cages for storing wardrobes.
The company regularly serves local productions, and recently has done work for the films 21 Jump Street and Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, both slated for release this year.
“We’re kind of new on the map and people are just starting to discover us, but we’re already doing gangbusters,” Jones says.
Browsing alternative identities
The following are some of the local companies that offer costumes, masks, accessories or production services to consumers, Carnival krewes and others who have fanciful wardrobe needs.
Accent Annex, 651 Terry Parkway, Gretna, 834-2003, AccentAnnex.com
Beads by the Dozen, 333 Edwards Ave., 734-9966, BeadsBytheDozen.com
Broadway Bound Costumes Inc., 2737 Canal St., 821-1000
Carl Mack Presents, 223 Dauphine St., 949-4009, CarlMack.com
Le Garage Antiques and Clothing, 1234 Decatur St., 522-6639
Masks & Make Believe, 1 Poydras St., Level C, 522-6473, MasksAndMakeBelieve.com
New Orleans Party and Costume, 705 Camp St., New Orleans, 525-4744, PartyAndCostume.com
Southern Costume Co., 951 Lafayette St., New Orleans; 523-433, SCCNola.com
Uptown Costume and Dancewear, 4326 Magazine St., 895-7969