Spotlight On: Starkville, Miss.
Small town service with big city charm
Costume Party in Starkville, Miss. is a niche boutique where they take fashion, even in costume, seriously. Featuring quality new contemporary and classic costumes, accessories and vintage items for rental and sale, this family business in a small southern college town was handed down from Connie Willsey’s mother to her and her brother and they keep a tradition of success going strong.
“My mom had a unique flair for finding remarkable items, repurposing them to send back to her family in Hungary and creating a fanciful atmosphere that drew people into her costume rental business for many years,” Willsey said. “My brother and I came back every year to help with Halloween. While my background was nursing, I’ve always loved designing, upcycling and transforming people, and Costume Party filled a creative need nursing did not.”
Now Willsey deals in fashion rather than medical emergencies, and her brother offers business and creative skills that have transformed their mother’s hobby into a thriving business offering small-town service and individualized attention.
Costume Party doesn’t buy large quantities of trendy packaged costumes — those will be all over the Internet and big box stores and they can easily do customized versions of those if they have to. Instead, they focus on the classics for packaged costumes and look for styles that could be useful all year, not just during Halloween season, such as Indians, Pirates, Decades, Disney characters and Renaissance.
The store is small, but they rotate the racks frequently to represent the season — Halloween becomes Tacky Christmas becomes Mardi Gras, then Luau, etc. They sort costumes by eras due to high demand by the local university that hosts period themed parties throughout the year (’20s, ’50s, ’70s, 80s and now lots of request for the ’90s). Willsey said the store offers a new experience every time you visit and that shoppers can expect expert attention and honest opinions.
“We want you to look good because you’re representing our store, and we love seeing people take chances in costume that they might not in real life and feel good about themselves,” she said. “We love to hear when our costumes win prizes, and we believe in providing top quality assistance by people that know the merchandise.
“Our customers are happy to rent a costume that consists of quality pieces at a fraction of the price one would pay to purchase,” Willsey continued. “We love to have the opportunity to create a custom costume for each person that comes into our store if they desire, but we have plenty of options for those who prefer something less elaborate.”
They focus on creating genuine characters with a full range of accessories kept in stock all year round. For example, the licensed versions of Duck Dynasty have only recently been produced. Willsey said if they had waited for the commercial version, they would have missed the biggest trend of the season this past Halloween.
“Most people already had their own camouflage but needed the essential accessories from us, so we stocked up on brown and grey wigs and beards and patriotic bandanas,” Willsey said. “People are willing to pay more for quality accessories, so we have a wide selection. For Gangnam Style, we ordered the sunglasses and matched these with our perfect vintage tux coats and wigs. For Honey Boo Boo, we had the high-end rhinestone tiaras, the sashes and lots of sequins or puffy dresses to choose from.”
Character mascot rentals do well for birthday parties throughout the year. When they rent their princess costumes, for example, they include everything — the dress, the petticoat, the shoes, the tiara, the jewelry, gloves and the wig for a completely authentic character.
The vintage items are also chosen selectively. Their mother traveled the nation collecting high-end vintage items — an obsession that pays dividends. She only bought quality items that would keep their character and remain classic over time, and this spring they sold a lot of their 1980s blue jean cutoffs, as this trend has come back around.
Looking past profit margins, Willsey said that renting and upcycling are environmentally conscious decisions that help mitigate negative effects of cheap, throw-away items. By making the decision to rent a costume or purchase vintage clothing, shoppers are helping to prolong the useful life of a garment, reducing waste and recompensing the cost of its manufacture upon the environment. They choose to advertise with a Sustainable Living organization in their town to highlight this important aspect of their business.
“We also emphasize the importance of buying from a local business,” Willsey added. “For every $100 spent at a national chain, $25 stays in your community. For every $100 spent at a local store, $75 stays in your community. In order to thank our community for supporting us, we often donate character mascot rentals to local schools or organizations for events, or donating rentals for important causes. We truly enjoy seeing the joy our business provides.”
When you own a specialty store in a small town, you have to think creatively and constantly change and improve to thrive 12 months a year. They take advantage of the resources at the local university in town by using their Career Center to post their seasonal job positions and maintain relationships with the Theatre Department, the Fashion Board, various dance groups and focus advertising to the general student population, especially the Greek organizations.
They work with the local schools and enjoy helping the same teachers every year for their annual productions. During Halloween season, they implement guerilla marketing by hiring a “costume squad” that consists of a group dressed in costumes that attends various local events to promote their business. Then the store and costume squad individuals Facebook or tweet their photos for even more coverage.
Willsey said they also believe in sharing in small-town fun with our community members.
“We get to experience the excitement of upcoming parties and help with every detail of each outfit, and sometimes the returns are memorable based on how or why their costume is ruined,” she said. “Last Halloween a Santa suit was rented and at return his costume was without the hat and a boot cover because Santa got into a little trouble for disorderly conduct at the train station.
“Another time a young man needed to be Michael Jackson for Halloween, but he was on a budget,” Willsey continued. “We offered him the opportunity of dressing up in the costume and performing the moonwalk down the sidewalk of our business storefront for a discount. He did it, got the discount and we all had a laugh and a memorable experience!”
Because along with fashion, they also take fun seriously — it’s simply a family tradition.