Spotlight On: The Costumer

The Costumer

Longtime owner celebrates The Costumer’s 100th anniversary by passing baton to next generation 

By Zeke Jennings |

(Click on image for photo gallery)

When seamstress Anna White started her Schenectady, New York costume-making business in 1917, she didn’t even have the right to vote. This is something Kathe Sheehan — longtime owner of The Costumer, the very business White started — likes to point out to put the shop’s longevity in perspective.

The Costumer will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year and will do so by welcoming just the fourth owner in its long history. Sheehan, who bought the business with her late husband, Jack, in 1974, recently sold it to Erik Johnsen. Sheehan plans to stay with the company for about a year to assist Johnsen with the ins and outs of running of The Costumer, which has a staff of about 30 full-time and dozens of part-time employees at its two locations.

“I am taking the baton pass from Kathe, but she has graciously agreed to stay on as president emeritus,” said Johnsen, who is becoming a business owner after a career in technology that took him all over the world. “It’s going to be the best of both worlds.”

Opened long before the rise of trick-or-treating and dressing up for Halloween, The Costumer’s roots lie in supplying costumes for the performing arts, whether it be vaudeville, civic or high school theater or dance shows. While retail, which does include online sales, is an important part of the operation, costume creation and rental has always been the bread and butter.

High school theater is actually how Jack and Kathe Sheehan, both teachers by trade, first came into contact with The Costumer. In 1974, Jack went to the shop to pick up a policeman’s uniform to use in a production of “The Case of the Lost Petunia,” at which time he remarked to the clerk if the store ever was for sale to let him know. A week later, the Sheehans bought the place from Jack Davis, who had purchased it 10 years prior when original owner Anna Davis retired.

The Sheehans dedication to theatrical arts and the role they play in the education system has never wavered. The Costumer’s inventory consists of 150,000 costumes, making it one of the largest inventories in the country. Their busiest season is early spring, when high schools around the country stage their annual spring productions.

In 1985, the Sheehans opened a satellite location in between Albany and Schenectady, which is now the primary retail outlet. The inventory of rental costumes, most of which have been made in-house through the years, remains at the original downtown Schenectady location.

Awards and honors

The Costumer is part of the fabric of the Capital District in upstate New York, and Schenectady specifically. Their interaction with community and school productions goes beyond just supplying costumes, but working with directors to make the productions as good as possible.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. When Jack died from cancer in 2006, the Northeast Ballet Company dedicated an entire season of “The Nutcracker” to his memory. The Costumer has won countless awards, including being inducted into the Proctor’s Capital Region Entertainment Hall of Fame, among many others. Kathe was chosen to be the grand marshal of the Schenectady Downtown Christmas Parade in 2014.

The Costumer’s connections to high-profile celebrities and organizations also are seemingly endless. Past clients include The Rockettes and rock band KISS — they even shipped makeup to band members while they were on tour.

It’s been a long and eventful ride for Kathe Sheehan, but she’s looking forward to turning over the reigns to Johnsen and eventually moving someplace warm. “Making fun can be a lot of work,” she said, “but it is always satisfying when all goes well.”

A lot of things went well for The Costumer over the past 100 years. New owner Erik Johnsen is looking forward to the next 100.

  • WHAT: The Costumer
  • WHERE: Two locations. The downtown Schenectady location serves primarily as a warehouse, but also houses a retail area. What is now the primary retail location is located 7 miles away in between Schenectady and Albany, making it easily accessible for the entire Capital District area.
  • WHAT THEY SELL: Costumes, accessories, makeup and props. Rental is a huge part of The Costumer’s operation, as it supplies costumes for theatrical departments around the country.
  • ONLINE: and Facebook.

Q&A with Erik Johnsen

How did the acquisition of The Costumer come about?

I have always hoped to own my own business and began an exhaustive search after deciding that I had enough of the corporate world. … I wanted something where I could involve my entire family and be focused on a mission that is fun while serving a greater good. It also had to have enough moving parts and business lines to be a challenge.

What made the business attractive to you?

I was immediately intrigued when I read a nameless and stripped down description of a 100-year-old business that serves the needs of scholastic theater programs nationally, and a substantial retail presence in the Capital District. Once I learned more about The Costumer’s business, its history and met its longtime owner, Kathe Sheehan, I was excited to say the least! I have enormous respect for The Costumer’s long history, mission and success. I recognized not only a great business and industry leader, but an opportunity to be a custodian of a great business tradition.

Where does your love of costuming and theater stem from?

I don’t have extensive experience in costumes and theater, but I have seen first hand the impact scholastic theater can have in the lives of students. Our son, Tyler, was a highly introverted and insecure grade-schooler that was transformed over the years through the performing arts. He is now a confident high school senior, A cappella director, lead in various musicals and gave a TED Talk on how performing taught him how to conquer his fears. Whether he chooses to pursue theater as a career path or not, the experience has left an indelible mark and will serve him for the rest of his life. When you couple this transformative mission with delighting retail customers in your own community with costumes and fun, it is truly a win-win.

Originally posted Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017

Tags: profiles, shop talk