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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Role Reversal : Increasingly, Families Buy or Rent Costumes Rather Than Make Them, Giving Merchants a Reason to Celebrate


Sarah Young of Malibu remembers the Halloweens of old, watching her mother, hunched for hours over a sewing machine, making costumes for the kids.

It's not a role Young relishes.

"It was an arduous task," she said. "Our mother was always busy sewing the kids' costumes. My mother was at home. I don't have time to do that."

So before Halloween, Young takes her son and daughter to a Santa Monica costume store where they assemble their outfits '90s-style--with a professional costume designer who takes their ideas, makes a costume and rents it to them for about $50 for the weekend.

That's fine with 11-year-old daughter Sarah, who is going to be a spider this Halloween.

"It's really cool," she said. "It's one-of-a-kind. You don't see people walking around in spider costumes."

And if her mother also has to drop by a hardware store to pick up some chains for Sarah's brother, a ghoul, that's OK. It's all in the Halloween spirit.

"It's still a family thing because we do it together," she said.

Halloween has changed with the times. Increasingly in recent years, families have rented and purchased costumes rather than stitching and cutting their own ghoulish garb.

A major reason is that fears of crime have pushed Halloween indoors, says Fredrick Koenig, a professor of social psychology at Tulane University in New Orleans--the nation's costume capital.

"We don't trust each other any more," Koenig said. "We don't know our neighborhood."

With the trend toward indoor parties, costumes that would have been fine for a night of trick-or-treating might look a little tatty.

An increase in adults donning Halloween attire is also spurring business for children's costumes, said Michael Bernacchi, a professor of marketing at University of Detroit Mercy in Michigan.

"If you (rent or buy costumes) for yourself, the chances are you would do it for your kids or grandkids," said Bernacchi, who puts out a newsletter that in a recent issue addressed Halloween sales. "Guilt-buying is big business."

In recent years, costume sales have jumped about 10% annually, he said. That's only part of the good news for merchants. And, because of the new emphasis on indoor celebrations, Halloween is not only the biggest day for candy sales, it's now in the top five for beer and soft drink vending.

The result, Bernacchi said, is that Halloween has become an important bridge for retailers between back-to-school sales and Christmas. "Holidays are the impetus to our retail economy," he said. "It behooves us to go from holiday to holiday."

Although sales and rentals of fancy costumes are contributing to the growing market, less expensive costumes sold by a variety of stores are also playing a part. Bernacchi said one drugstore he visited was crammed with paper-and-glue costumes selling for $20, twice what he'd expected.

That's bad news for upscale costume dealers like Ursula Boschet, owner of Ursula's Costumes at 9069 Venice Blvd.

"Everyone sells them now," Boschet said. "They shouldn't do that. We don't sell groceries."

Like it or not, she's competing with grocery stores, drugstores and countless other retail outlets to sell Mighty Morphin Power Ranger outfits, which are easily kids' favorite this year. At Ursula's the suits go for $24.

"They go nuts for it--a weird little karate show," she said.

Boschet has much less competition at the top of the market. For example, she has a robot costume going for $49 and a boys' King Ferdinand costume, complete with hat, medallion and all the trimmings, for $70.

She can do even better for customers who don't want something off the rack. Some Hollywood stars and other clients have her design custom children's costumes that sell for a few hundred dollars, she said.

Parents who put down that kind of money might have more in mind than stylish trick-or-treating, Koenig said. "It's not unusual to use your kids as a display of your affluence," he said. In some cases, he added, parents think, "I can't have my kid going out there in a drugstore costume."

But Boschet says custom costumes aren't just for Halloween. They'll survive the clothes washer and be hanging in the closet when kids want to dress up on other occasions during the year, she said.

Young said she decided to rent custom costumes from Make Believe Inc., 3240 Pico Blvd., after buying her daughter a cheap bear costume a few years ago.

"It ripped," she said. "It was very uncomfortable and hot."

Make Believe makes many of its children's costumes for the stage, said co-owner Ruth Talley. The store then rents out the durable outfits, which range from Oliver to Little Orphan Annie.

"People want quality," she said. "It's not just for Halloween."

Many of her packaged costumes are also made to last, she said. The $53.99 Faerie Princess is popular with grandparents who want to buy a dress that won't be thrown away after Halloween, while boys who want a tough cowboy outfit can pick up chaps and a black leather vest for around $40.

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