Volume 16 • Issue 22 | Oct 28 - Nov 03, 2003

Designing uncommon costumes in a Tribeca loft

By Kerry Savage

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Frankie Stein in her costume studio.

Eyes widen, jaws drop, and feet tingle when people enter Frankie Stein’s loft of costumes.

Childhood fantasies burst from the walls, hang from the ceiling and peek out of corners. “I want people to feel like they are on Broadway or in the movies,” said Stein.

The picnic, a wide red tablecloth skirt dotted with plastic purple grapes, small baguettes, yellow foam cheese and a half-bottle of George DuBouef Beaujolais, will be worn this year at the Central Park Conservancy’s Halloween Ball, Stein said. Also in attendance will be the queen of a chess set, decked out in white embroidered cloth with silver and gold trim and a large white and silver crowned hat.

Frankie Steinz Costumes has been open for a decade on the second floor of 24 Harrison St. in Tribeca. Stein designs costumes year-round for corporate clients, music videos and TV shows including “Saturday Night Live,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The View” and “Sex and the City.”

During Halloween, she opens her business up to the public and sees customers by appointment only. Her designs rent for $75 to $250 for 24 hours.

Stein emphasizes that her full attention to clients when choosing a costume is an integral part of her service. “I don’t like a costume that you put on and you look like yourself in a costume,” she said. “I can tell who people should be right when they walk in. I know what they are thinking. I have a telepathic connection with them.”

Stein, 50, is an enthusiastic, energetic woman. Her short dark brown hair is streaked with fuschia, and a fluorescent green shirt peeks out from her fitted black jacket and pants. Her black English bulldog, Trixie, nestles beside her while she talks or lounges on her yoga mat, basking in the light from the large loft windows.

Stein explains what sets her apart from other Halloween costume stores. “I’m really against broken heads and blood,” she said. “I like fantasy. I think that’s important. The costumes are not things that you get in a package. They’re made with great fabrics. And you get everything.”

She also has vintage costumes and rentals for children, including the Mad Hatter, a multi-colored, wide-stripped suit, and a half-boy/half-girl costume. “Packaged costumes teach commercialism and not creativity,” she said. Her children’s costumes rent for $35 to $70 for a week.

This year, Stein is going to a private Halloween party as a tornado, a design originally executed for a corporate client. It is a mix of dark colors: gray, green and blue paint covers wide rings and smooth pieces at the top the design, which gradually narrows to fit over one leg. The headpiece is stunning, a turban of black netting that wraps down and over the face and neck, with a house, a bike, and other items wrapped up in it. The costume is designed to move with the wearer, giving it the energy of a real tornado.

Many years ago, Stein was a C.P.A. in Rochester, N.Y. She took over the family accounting business, but always knew it was not what she wanted to do. She opened a costume shop, Treasure Hunt, and worked there for five hours a day while maintaining her accounting practice.

“I was in another world, in my heaven,” Stein said of her first store. “It was a total transformation. I just really hated doing accounting.”

In 1983, she picked up and moved “cold turkey” to Aspen, where Frankie Steinz Costumes was born and became a success. Jack Nicholson was a regular customer, she said. “He would come after hours at night in his Land Rover and buy weird things, gifts for Angelica Huston. It was a gift store for people. It was New York in Aspen.”

But the Aspen environment bored Stein. “Too many white people, too many mountains,” she said with a laugh. So, despite a petition by the people of Aspen to keep her from leaving, she packed up and moved to New York in 1989.

She spent some time in the art department at F.A.O. Schwartz, and later designed a line of children’s clothing, which won her a Best New Children’s Designer award from Ernshaw Magazine. But Stein realized that she didn’t want to do retail work anymore; she wanted to focus on one-of-a-kind design.

“I like building things. I love making big, conceptual pieces,” she said, using the example of a costume she designed for a corporate client: the year 2000.

“It was my futuristic idea,” Stein said. ‘You know, we all thought the world was going to come to an end, and that Y2K thing. It was very dark and gloomy, kind of scary, with things coming out of it. It had a mini-universe on it, but it wasn’t up top, it was towards the bottom, like the universe falling down.”

Her favorite materials are foam, rubber and plastic. “It’s different,” she said, smiling again. “I don’t like material unless it’s very odd.” She said she doesn’t have a favorite place to find fabrics and other materials, but it is clear from the more than 1,000 costumes featured in the loft that she spends a significant amount of time selecting just the right cloth and accessories to create and accent a piece.

Stein works mainly in her home, also a Tribeca loft, and her costumes can be seen online at www.frankiesteinz.com. The amount of time spent on each piece varies; the Queen Margaux costume she held out took about a month. She works on several different pieces at a time and will design either from artwork supplied by a client or from her own.

Like many small business Downtown, Stein’s has been affected by the slow economy and, of course, Sept. 11. “People are not in a spending mood or a party mood,” she said. “I’m lucky I’m still here. But we love it here. If I had to move out of Tribeca, I’d leave New York.”


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