How the World's Biggest Costume Maker Cracked Halloween
Howard Beige, co-owner of Rubie's, knows your 10-year-old wants to be Jigglypuff. He knows you secretly want to go as Harley Quinn. He can even predict the next president—usually.
J.J. Abrams needs a favor. It's six weeks before Halloween and he's in search of a very specific Star Wars costume, in a very specific size, that's sold out online. Abrams may have directed last year's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but when a friend's daughter wants to be the warrior Rey for Halloween, he still has to track down a costume like a normal person. But of course a normal person wouldn't have an assistant who can call up Howard Beige, executive vice president of Rubie's Costume Co., the largest costume maker in the world and the manufacturer of roughly half of all the Halloween costumes sold in the U.S., including all the Star Wars ones. Abrams's assistant reaches Beige as he pulls up to the Rubie's factory in Queens, which is churning out rush orders for sold-out costumes. Sitting in his cluttered Mercedes with a drink-stained cupholder and a bag of Famous Amos cookies in the glove compartment, Beige notes the size Abrams is looking for and promises to have the costume sent over right away. He then walks into the facility, where 100 women are frantically sewing purple pants and blazers for Joker costumes from the 2008 movie The Dark Knight.
"They have their thumb on the pulse of what people want"
If you've ever dressed up as a movie or television character for Halloween, the costume you bought was probably made by Rubie's. The odds drop a little with generic characters like witches or vampires—plenty of smaller companies make those—but with more than 20,000 costumes and accessories for sale at retailers like Walmart, Amazon, and Party City, Rubie's has probably played a part in your Halloween festivities. What started in 1951 as a soda shop/novelty store in Queens has, over the past 65 years, grown into an international business that earns hundreds of millions. (It doesn't disclose figures, but the analytics firm IbisWorld estimates $251 million in revenue in the U.S.) Rubie's has 3,000 employees, contracts with 12 factories in China, owns four factories in the U.S., and runs six large warehouses, four on Long Island, one in Arizona, and one in South Carolina. Rubie's has also spawned 15 subsidiaries in countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, and the U.K. It sells Carnival costumes in Brazil, Day of the Dead dresses in Mexico, and Easter Bunny and Santa Claus suits around the world. But in America its bread and butter is still Halloween. The company and the holiday have enjoyed a relationship not unlike a happy marriage: The success of one fosters the growth of the other. "Halloween is not the same holiday it was even 10 years ago," Beige says, with a smile. "I like to think we had a hand in that."
Americans will shell out a record-breaking $8.4 billion on Halloween candy, costumes, and decorations this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That figure has jumped almost 70 percent in just 10 years, making Halloween the second-largest holiday in terms of decoration sales, behind Christmas. In the process, it's become age-proof. "What was once a kid's holiday has become something that most adults now participate in, too," says Lesley Bannatyne, a historian and the author of Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Nearly half of all American adults will dress up this year, twice as many as 30 years ago. Candy and costumes are cheap enough that Halloween is also largely recession-proof, as well; sales actually increased in 2008 because, as Beige puts it, "almost anyone can buy a $9 mask from Walmart."
But figuring out what that mask should be, and how many to make, isn't easy. More people are dressing up for Halloween, but they're doing it differently, picking costumes in early October based on news events, movies, or internet memes that went viral only a few weeks or months before. Rubie's tries to anticipate Halloween trends a year in advance, but it's constantly adjusting its plans as expected blockbusters flop (The Legend of Tarzan), beloved actors die (Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka costume will be popular this year), or millions of people get swept up in the Pokémon Go craze and Beige finds himself mass-manufacturing last-minute Pikachu costumes to fill thousands of back orders. Pokémon will break into Rubie's 10 best-selling costumes this year, which didn't happen when it was popular the first time around. "Thank God we already had the license and the designs for that one," he says. "Otherwise, it would've been a disaster."
At 58, Beige has thinning gray hair and a smile that never seems to fade. He has retained enough of his Queens accent that when he complains about his waistline, his version of "yuuuge" sounds just like Donald Trump's. He co-runs the family-owned company with his older brother Marc and sister Maxine (another brother has retired), but while his siblings focus on finances and customer accounts, Beige plays the part of affable costume enthusiast, sweet-talking Hollywood studios into letting the company design outfits based on their movie characters, then persuading stores to carry them. "Howie is one of the most passionate people with regards to his company and the quality of his products of anyone I've ever met in this business," says Pam Kaufman, chief marketing officer and president of consumer products at Nickelodeon.
"They have their thumb on the pulse of what people want," says Danny Gurganus, co-owner of Danny's Trix & Kix, a 17,000-square-foot costume shop in Spring, Texas. He estimates that Rubie's accounts for 60 percent of his sales.
"What are we going to do? Not sell to Walmart?"
Rubie's is named after Beige's father, Rubin, who opened the soda shop and novelty store with his wife, Tillie, in the Woodhaven neighborhood of Queens in 1951. Rubin Beige had once worked for a furrier, so when he noticed that the funny masks and hats he carried were selling well, he whipped up a few costumes—cowboys, angels, witches—that people could rent for parties, theatrical productions, and of course Halloween. Soon he was selling them to other stores. "Years later I found out that there was a word for that: wholesale," says Howard, "At the time, we just thought of it as selling stuff around town."
By the time Rubin died, in 1972, the soda shop had become a full-blown costume company, pulling in $100,000 a year, most of it from high-quality rental costumes that cost stores about $300 to buy and people about $30 to rent. The newly widowed Tillie divided the company equally among her four children and told them that if they couldn't make it big enough to support four families, she'd sell it. "So that's what we did," says Beige, who was then still in high school.
Beige officially joined Rubie's in 1975. At just 17 years old, he spent the summer visiting costume shops around the country, selling his wares from a pop-up clothing rack he kept in the trunk of a Dodge Colt. He later upgraded to a motor home, which he toured in for another six years. He showered in campgrounds. He was robbed outside a Howard Johnson in Redwood City, Calif. ("Wigs all over the parking lot!") And he ultimately persuaded hundreds of costume shops to buy from Rubie's. "Howie used to park that thing in our driveway," says Terrie Frankel, 71, who owns Frankel's Costume in Houston and was one of Rubie's earliest customers, "and I'd bring him bagels and lox for breakfast."
Beige's motor home tours coincided with a significant shift in the way Halloween was celebrated. In the 1970s, people stopped renting costumes in favor of cheaply produced wear-once items. The top manufacturer of these disposable outfits at the time and into the '80s was Ben Cooper, a company that licensed movie and TV characters, then turned them into children's costumes that rarely looked like the originals. Star Trek, for example, became a $3 Captain Kirk mask and plastic jumpsuit with a picture of the Starship Enterprise on it. "I actually went to Paramount and said, 'This is ridiculous,' " says Beige. In 1989, he pitched the company's executives on an adult-size replica of a Star Trek uniform. "I showed them a beautiful reproduction of the actual uniform Captain Kirk wore with the pips on the collar and the patch. They said, 'What about the mask?' I said, 'The people who buy this costume want to be Captain Kirk but as themselves.' " He got the license the same day.
Rubie's began to pitch other rightsholders, picking up licenses for Barbie (1993), Star Wars (1994), Nickelodeon (2000), and Marvel (2014). It also gobbled up competitors: a by-then-struggling Ben Cooper (which came with Hanna-Barbera's and DC Comics' licenses) and novelty maker Forum. When Rubie's doesn't have a license, it produces look-alikes: Rival company Disguise carries the official Snow White costume, but at Rubie's you can buy a suspiciously familiar red-blue-and-yellow dress and go as "Cottage Princess."
Photographer: Emiliano Granado for Bloomberg Businessweek
Costumes are big business for studios. Not only are they essentially free marketing—a little girl dressed as Rey reminds all her friends just how cool Star Wars can be—but they generate a nice chunk of change without requiring much work. "I mean, come on, we're a kid's network, we have to have Halloween costumes—it's the second most important time of the year for us outside of the [winter] holidays," says Nickelodeon's Kaufman. "Rubie's goes to great lengths … to make sure the right costume is available," says Kelly Gilmore, senior vice president for global toys at Warner Bros. Consumer Products. About 55 percent of Rubie's sales come from licensed costumes, which average about $20 for children and $35 for adults, although it sells plenty of elaborate get-ups for hundreds of dollars. About 8 percent of a costume's retail price goes toward studio royalties, which means the studios can expect to make tens of millions each Halloween. Warner Bros., for example, accounts for more than 3,000 different products. The largest individual license, DC Comics' Batman, has led to all-black Batman costumes from the Christopher Nolan films, blue-and-gray Batmans from the original '60s television show, gray-and-black Batmans from the Arkham video games, and even a line of costumes based on the 2009 comic-book series Blackest Night, in which Batman was a zombie. March's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice inspired 300 costumes, for infants through adults.
Rubie's plans its tie-ins about two years in advance. The day before Abrams's assistant called about the Rey costume, Beige had a meeting with Lucasfilm in which the studio presented him with the general plot, characters, and sketches for Star Wars: Episode VIII, which is scheduled for release in December 2017. Rubie's designers (who must adhere to a strict nondisclosure agreement and will not tell you what happens in the next installment, no matter how much you beg) will soon send its Episode VIII looks to Lucasfilm for sign-offs. "The studios approve concept before we start, then the prototype," says John Clausen, Rubie's general manager, who's been with the company since 1979. "And they do constant sampling of production in the process." Rubie's has already finished costumes for next year's Wonder Woman movie (sparkly wrist-cuffs!), Spider-Man: Homecoming (one of the costumes is designed to look homemade, like Peter Parker's first try), and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It's also planning a 2017 line of costumes for adults and kids from '90s Nickelodeon cartoons, such as Rugrats and Hey Arnold!
The studios have figured out the hard way that if they're too tight-lipped about upcoming movie plots, Rubie's won't know which characters to focus on. When Beige was planning the lineup for 1999's Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, Lucasfilm intimated that Darth Maul would be its breakout character, much as Darth Vader had been in the original films. "Darth Maul was about 50 percent of the assortment for Episode I costumes, but then he gets killed in the movie," Beige says. "We did not know that." Rubie's wound up selling only half of its Darth Maul inventory that year because people—kids, especially—don't usually want to be characters who wind up losing a lightsaber fight. Lucasfilm now tells him which characters live or die.
Rubie's used to manufacture all of its costumes in the U.S., because it was convenient. Halloween sales have a finite deadline, and products made in other countries often don't make it in time. In the early '90s most of the company's competitors moved overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor. And unlike regular clothes, which are subject to high import duties, most costumes are considered "festive apparel" and can be imported duty-free. In 1997, Rubie's petitioned U.S. Customs and Border Protection to change the rule but lost. As a result, the company says that to remain competitive it was forced to move about 70 percent of its production overseas, mostly to China. It wasn't an easy transition; in 2005 a Rubie's factory in Mexico that produced Barbie costumes was accused of flouting labor laws. A U.S. Department of Labor report found that the Mexican government hadn't inspected the factory in years, and a separate audit by Mattel uncovered a worker who was only 15 years old, legal in Mexico but too young to meet either Mattel's or Rubie's guidelines. Two labor unions, each backed by a different Mexican political party, fought for power within the factory. There were protests. Rubie's closed the plant. (Mattel and Rubie's still work together; this year kids can go as superhero, ballerina, or bride Barbies.)
Recently, Rubie's has become frustrated with U.S. Customs again. It claims the agency is applying its festive-apparel rule inconsistently. At issue are Santa Claus suits, which Rubie's says fall into the festive category and Customs classifies as outfits and subjects them to high taxes. According to Customs, the difference between a costume and apparel is in how it's made. Anything "flimsy" (Customs' term) is tax-free. The agency has decided that the company's more elaborate costumes count as regular clothing and can therefore be taxed, sometimes by as much as 30 percent. "You can have a skeleton costume and, if it's well made, with nice tight stitching and finished edges, it counts as apparel. The exact same design, but cheaply sewn, is a costume," says Arthur Bodek, a partner at Grunfeld, Desiderio, Lebowitz, Silverman & Klestadt, a law firm that specializes in international trade laws.
"If you say costumes are subject to a tax of X amount, we'd know what to do. But you can't tell us one year our products are apparel and another year they're festive," says Marc Beige, the company's CEO. Rubie's is still fighting the reclassification of the Santa suits in court.
The company's four U.S. factories spend most of the year making small batches of high-end costumes, such as a $1,000 Darth Vader costume that sells to the cosplay/Comic Con crowd. The year-round convention circuit has given Rubie's a sizable boost in its non-Halloween sales; the company has a booth at nearly every major sci-fi/fantasy convention, where Beige can talk to fans about what brands he should be licensing. Because Comic Con–goers will spend a lot to mimic their favorite characters, Rubie's can afford to make those in the U.S. In August, though, even the U.S. factories switch to the cheaper products, so Rubie's can take advantage of the shipping convenience. The smallest factory, behind Rubie's retail shop in Queens, holds 100 workers—older women, mostly—who churn out a few thousand costumes a day. It's not enough to service Amazon's needs, but it's more than enough to replenish a favorite at the mom and pop stores a week before the holiday.
Last-minute orders are still the biggest challenge for Rubie's. "I can FedEx something to an independent store's doorstep, but with Amazon and Walmart, it has to go to their distribution centers and then out," Beige says. Rubie's gives big-box retailers a cutoff date of mid- to late September for shipments; smaller shops can order until the day before Halloween. But that doesn't mean the heavy hitters don't try to squeeze in a few late requests. In the last few weeks Rubie's has received a wave of orders for creepy clown masks, and its South Carolina plants are currently working to fill Walmart's frantic request for more Pokémon costumes. "People might get mad if they know we're doing that for Walmart," Beige says, "but what are we going to do? Not sell to Walmart?"
The relationship between Rubie's smaller and bigger customers hasn't always been pleasant. The company used to prioritize orders based on quantity—until it realized that Amazon would always get its orders filled before everyone else. "If Joe Independent pre-ordered all his costumes in January, but Amazon comes in with an order in June that wipes us out, Joe wouldn't get anything," says Tom Tinari, who manages Rubie's more than 1 million square feet of warehouse space. The company now uses a computer system that balances quantity with the timing of an order to ensure the little guys don't get left out.
Small costume shops are still important to Beige, and not just because of people like Terrie Frankel, who know him from his motor home days. They give Rubie's on-the-ground consumer insight that large corporations just can't provide. Every January, Rubie's hosts an annual meeting in Las Vegas with its oldest independent clients. Representatives from about 400 stores attend. Beige debuts the company's upcoming product line for them and asks if they've missed anything that customers have been requesting. "Last year, we had people ask for [the horror-themed video game] Five Nights at Freddy's, which wasn't a costume anyone made," says Gurganus, the costume shop owner in Texas, "When we had our meeting in January, I told them about it."
"I'd never heard of the game before," admits Beige. Rubie's picked up the license and now makes a line of creepy, misshapen, stuffed-animal costumes based on the characters in the game. (This year, the '80s-vintage, Stephen King–inspired Netflix series Stranger Things took Rubie's by surprise; kids hoping to be the telekinetic hero Eleven will have to resort to Etsy, until next year. The same goes for Ken Bone, the undecided voter whose mustache and red sweater provided the only feel-good moment in the second presidential debate.) The company also maintains three retail stores in New York—each the size of a city block—that it uses as test laboratories for costumes it has yet to put on the market.
It's tricks like these that have helped Rubie's stay more or less in step with what people want. This year, Beige has noticed that more people are buying costumes as a group. Families are dressing in themes. (Rubie's isn't the only company to pick up on this: Children's clothier Chasing Fireflies also offers several upscale Halloween costumes for families.) Millennials never really stopped dressing up for Halloween, Beige points out, and now that they're starting to have their own kids, their parties have become less about getting drunk and more about family fun. "It's the biggest change I've seen in a generation," he says. And it's causing Rubie's to rethink the way it sells certain types of costumes: "Anything that can be a theme—superheroes, Star Wars, Wizard of Oz—is getting more popular."
For all Rubie's attention to cultural shifts, some of its costumes are fairly retrograde. Target may have eliminated gender designations from its toy aisles, and the Disney Store's online shop now calls all its Halloween costumes simply "for kids," but the "girl" versions of Rubie's outfits still have flirty skirts, even when they're creatures that don't wear clothes, like Pepé Le Pew, the Looney Tunes skunk. Women's versions of superhero costumes are often skintight Lycra dresses, worn in its catalog by models in stilettos. There has been some pushback on the gender type-casting; women have started going as male superheroes instead of their feminine (and often less famous) counterparts. "We now make a female Iron Man costume, even though there isn't really a female character in the movie," says Beige. "Of course, sometimes they just buy the men's version anyway." Sexy schoolgirls and kittens, which peaked in popularity in 2006, started falling out of favor during the recession and have never recovered. Rubie's still holds the Playboy license and offers everything from French maid outfits to a black-and-white-striped minidress that passes for a very unrealistic football referee—but every year they become a smaller part of Rubie's business.
This year's presidential election falls just eight days after Oct. 31, and a certain orange-faced candidate has upended costume trends. Beige used to claim that during election years he could determine the winner based on which candidate's mask sold best. Bill Clinton's beat George H.W. Bush's, George W. outsold Al Gore, and almost nobody wanted to be John Kerry or John McCain. This year, though, all bets are off. "Two things are happening that make this election different. One, people are dressing up as Trump to both make fun of him and support him," says Beige, who likens the Republican nominee's costume-related popularity to the plethora of Sarah Palins in 2008. "Two, women don't generally wear masks—they'll do face paint—and how many guys are going to go as Hillary?" As far as masks are concerned, Trump is beating Hillary in a landslide.
His bloated, rubbery face hangs above the door at Rubie's retail shop in Queens, next to Bernie Sanders, Chris Christie, both Clintons, and a now dated Bernie Madoff. But among the families and couples shopping on a Saturday evening less than a month before Halloween, Trump inspires little more than the occasional snicker or finger-point. A group of college-age dudes don't even notice him; they're too busy triggering the motion sensor that animates a man sizzling in an electric chair, one of the mechanical decorations peppered throughout the store for ambience. The figure spasms as terrified people scurry by. There's also a 15-foot-tall giant that cackles, a cigar-wielding clown that sings classic rock, and a head-spinning Linda Blair in mid-exorcism.
"Honey, that's not Supergirl, that's Catwoman," a mother explains to her daughter, who's dragged her by the hand into the children's superhero aisle and is eyeing a stretchy black bodysuit with accompanying eye mask — one of the few girls' costumes that doesn't have a skirt. "You said you wanted to be Supergirl."
"But I want to wear this!" the little girl says.
"You don't even watch anything with Catwoman in it," her mom says, perplexed.
Nearby, pre-teen girls swarm the Pokémon display while a couple bicker over which superhero duo they're going to be. (He wants them to go as the Joker and Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad. She hasn't seen the movie and thinks they should be Superman and Wonder Woman.) A family of five contemplates matching Minion costumes from Despicable Me.
The aspiring Catwoman is still begging. Her mother sighs and takes the costume off the shelf. "Are you sure about this?" she asks. The girl nods. They walk to the register. Behind them, two 12-year-old boys hug a lifesize Batgirl mannequin then, embarrassed, quickly run away.