UIX: Costume couture takes on different roles in West Michigan

Skill is important in costume design, as is the need to master a variety of techniques. Drafting patterns, draping, cutting, dying, fibre knowledge, embroidery, weaving, felting, embellishment, millinery shills, leather work, cobbler, jewelry, and couture sewing are just a few of the essentials. It takes a lot of work to craft a quality costume, and West Michigan is home to a handful of creative makers who define that standard in different corners of the field. 

An old joke about penguins goes like this: two of them are standing on an iceberg, and one of them says to the other, "you look like you're wearing a tuxedo." And the other one replies, "How do you know I'm not?"


There's a measure of years between a popular fashion going out of style and becoming vintage. At several points in West Michigan, that span of time is held in much greater contrast, and shows off a critical slice of our region's fashionable imagination.


For Peri Olson, owner and founder of Flashback on Leonard, the West Side’s answer to costume fashion since 1998, finding and designing stand out style to stock in her shop involves both imagination and restoration.

Peri Olson, owner and founder of Flashback on Leonard

“I started collecting vintage clothing and jewelry for myself in the late 70's,” Olson says. “I moved to Grand Rapids in 1980. An antique mall opened and I had a small booth located in the mall.”


Olson found work as head of visual merchandising in a clothing store at Woodland Mall. Prior to that, obtained a degree in Fashion Merchandising at Grand Rapids Community College, an undergraduate degree in fine arts at Northern Michigan University, and took classes in graphic design at the then Kendall School of Design.


During her first year of school at GRCC, Olson was asked to design and sew a garment, plan a fashion show, and model the piece. The assignment wasn’t far off from what Olson currently administrates today at 450 Leonard, but that was yet years down the road.


Olson leveraged her fashion expertise for a job in the Buying Department at Steketee’s department store in downtown Grand Rapids. Later, a knack for vintage couture blossomed into a job managing the long-time staple of dated and dead stock garments, Scavenger Hunt, in 1995. Olson left Scavenger Hunt in 1998 before the shop moved to its last address on South Division, and about a decade later closed its doors. That same year, Olson opened Flashback with the help Tim Garrod, owner of Captain Bizzaro's Treasure World.


Flashback has since remained in the black, although it’s faced its share of trendier reds. Given a time machine and a round-trip ticket back to the mid 90s, Olson says she would tell her younger self to save and stockpile startup money instead of “winging it.”

Olson's artistic credibility has been enough to function as a business plan, however. She draws inspiration for vintage styles from fashion magazines like “Vogue,” interesting videos on YouTube, movies, books, old pin up magazines, and even thrift shopping herself.


“Most inspiration for me comes from my wild imagination,” she contends. “Vintage clothing is unique, and is inspiring to me because of it's quality, and design. It is part of history, and reminds me of the past.”


The looks may be dated, but her methods are as relevant as ever. Olson has been using photoshoots to market the items she brings to Flashback for years, and the Internet and social media have only helped amplify those images. Flashback can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and even eBay, where Olson has found success in reaching customers who live well outside the 616 area code.

“I love when people bring in whole collections from one person,” she says. “I acquired a hat collection that blew me away. They were all in their boxes, and I did a photoshoot in homage to the collection.”


Along with hats, Olson has incorporated steampunk and comic strip character motifs in her work, among others, incorporating her pieces in a way that truly speaks to the depth of imagination she puts into each display. Whether or not fashion forward individuals are looking for a costume or just something for a night out, Flashback is where they’ll find both.

Since 2017, Flashback has been located at 1136 Leonard NW.

Stepping Out

October isn't the only time you're going to see costumes in West Michigan, and depending on your definition of style, it may not be the only time you look for one.



For Gayle Vaartjes, owner of the The Kostume Room, costume fashion signifies a triumph over cancer, and a source of strength. She uses her shop as a wig bank, working with the American Cancer Society.


Women going through cancer can visit the Kostume Room for a free wig.


"To watch these ladies come into the store knowing what they are up against and so scared," Vaartjes says. "I give my all to them and do my best to give them positive thoughts and leave the store with a fantastic wig and much stronger thoughts then when they walked in. "


Vaartjes' first interest in costuming came when she made her daughter her first costume.


"I learned how to sew from my mother, she was such a talented seamstress," she says. "Before this, I would make most of my clothes for work too. It was just something I enjoyed doing."


After 14 years in customer service, Vaartjes decided to stay home with her daughter. Along with her sister, Tammy, who shared a love of making costumes, the pair put their talents together and made $200 through selling their handmade garments. The bought more fabric with that money, and it toward making children's costumes.


"We put them in a consignment store to sell and it went well," she says.


Then in 1994, The Kostume Room was born. For the next 6 years Vaartjes and her sister rented a temporary space in a mall during the Halloween season and sold costumes along with makeup, wigs, and accessories. Their mother worked there, too.


"It was the best time of our lives sharing all of this with her," she says.


Off season, the family team worked in Tammy’s basement providing costumes and accessories for theatre, holidays and other events. And Vaartjes continued her study of the field, taking classes and reading books to learn more about the costume industry.


In 2001, the Kostume Room found a permanent home on 36th Street in Wyoming. Vaartjes mother has since passed away, and Tammy had gone on to other pursuits. She has managed the shop with her husband since 2008, and employs one other full-time employee, with extra help hired around Halloween.


Vaartjes says she draws inspiration for costumes from attending various Halloween shows, keeping an eye on popular movies throughout the year, and most importantly, listening to customers.


Interests may change slightly over the years, but Vaartjes can easily tell what's going to last, and what's not.


"I have been in this business so long that nothing surprises me anymore," she says. "Sometimes being a seamstress I expect more from the people that design these costumes. But to keep costs down I know they can just do so much."


Economic pressures are certainly felt by all those working in the garment industry, even more so by small family owned businesses that get squeezed in a market flooded with pop-up franchises every October. Amazon offers no small source of competition, either.


"To purchase locally is so important to so many small businesses if our customers want places like The Kostume Room to stay in our town," Vaartjes says.


Stage Presence


Fashion is an industry, and it can be a business. It's functional, just as it is empowering, and speaks in a language all its own. For Kateri Kline-Johnson of Theatricks, it's as much as a necessity as it is a field of work.

Kline-Johnson was studying theater in graduate school at Illinois State University when she got a call from Grand Rapids Civic Theatre Managing Director Paul Dreher.


"I had worked with Paul at Civic, and he was a mentor to me," she says. "Paul wanted me to establish a professional protocol for Stage Management at the Civic Theatre, which became an internship."


A stage manager is an expert organizer as well as a jack of all trades, Kline-Johnson explains, the heart and circulatory system of many a successful theater company. Returning to the theatre in Grand Rapids in the early 1980's, she was confronted with a need for many of those trades to be plied. A lack of common theatre supplies or a specialty shop in town made show preparations challenging.


"During my internship I and other technicians lamented, or cursed, the difficulty and time involved in obtaining supplies, always needed at the last minute," Kline-Johnson says. "This was before the internet."


The arts scene in Grand Rapids was alive and growing, and work was available, but the frustration over a lack of supplies grew, and pushed Kline-Johnson another stage technician to open their own theatre supply shop, Theatricks.


Their plan was to carry those supplies that they were so frequently without - color media, stage lamps, gaff and spike tape, stage makeup, and special effects.


"We were known by word of mouth to the theatres," she says. "But within a few weeks we had a high school director coming in inquiring about costumes for an upcoming production. A person came in asking about costumes for a historical re-enactment. Clowns came. In October people came in asking about Halloween costumes. We found ourselves with a growing stock of costumes.


"When we saw a void, we tried to fill it."


Kline-Johnson and Theatricks continues to fill that void through constant learning and research.


"We all have to be historians as so many shows are specific as to year and place," she says. "We have to get the details correct. The time frame to put together a production in Theatre is always too short. Never enough time to build the set, never enough time to build costumes."


Skill is important in costume design, as is the need to master a variety of techniques. Drafting patterns, draping, cutting, dying, fibre knowledge, embroidery, weaving, felting, embellishment, millinery shills, leather work, cobbler, jewelry, and couture sewing are just a few of the essentials.


You also need to know how to repair a sewing machine.


Challenges aside, Kline-Johnson says she can't imagine doing anything else than running Theatricks.


"The daily variety challenges me constantly," she says.


Her earliest memory of the theatre dates back to about 5 or 6 years old. Her parents were involved in a local production and she was fortunate enough to spend time backstage, "seeing the nails and muslin, the old grease paint tubes and hard mascara cakes, the racks of costumes outside grubby dressing rooms, and then sitting in the house watching the magic on stage."


Today, Kline-Johnson and the rest of the world have access to instant inspiration, any time of day. She finds hers in historical over fantasy, constantly working on improving her spinning, weaving, and period embellishment skills. And attending other performances, of course.


"Ballet, opera, stage, circus, puppet...it doesn't matter," she says. "Each production will inspire me in some way. And I am thrilled whenever I can visit backstage after attending a performance. Technicians love to share what they have done. Very educational."


Styles come and go, and not all of them are candidates for second terms. Working in the costume fashion industry both on and off stage requires a keen eye for the language those styles speak. It takes dedication, and long hours. Not everyone is cut out for the job, but then again, the job can be cut to fit a number of sizes.


"My advice to a younger self - 'sleep more', you make less mistakes when not tired," Kline-Johnson says.


For those looking for eye opening styles this season, you now know where to go.


Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]


Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.