Costume Hire Houses Are Under Threat

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Creative cities are expensive cities and the space required to store thousands of valuable costume pieces is in high demand from developers. Hero Frock Hire has been supplying the screen industry with costumes for 25 years but is now one of the last costume houses in Australia dedicated to screen.

Suzy Carter and husband Mark Lucas started the company in 1992 after buying an existing inventory. Their collection has been seen in Moulin Rouge, Australia, The Matrix Trilogy, Australia, The Pacifiche Great Gatsby, Alien: Covenant and Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Quality and Volume

Carter told IF Magazine that at the time they started Hero, the Australian screen industry lacked costume hire facilities that could cater for smaller productions. “[There were] just a few little private collections people had in their spare room or their storage. We needed something to match what they had overseas. You just couldn’t do your job as a buyer without some decent resources, and I was very aware we didn’t have the resources here that people expected us to have. You can’t really just go and buy that in the volume that you need for all the extras. So that’s what we specialise in. A lot of it is daggy stuff that everyday people wear, as opposed to the fashion which you can buy in a vintage place.”

Hero Frock houses more than 70,000 items of clothing from 1800s to the present in its 600sqm warehouse, sorted and divided by decade. They also have a strong collection of workwear and uniforms as well as everyday clothing from the past 300 years. Only about five per cent of their collection has been purchased while the  majority has been donated.

The Art of Costume Hire

“In the early days I was strategic about [purchasing] insofar as if collections came up, we’d go to the auction and pick the eyes out of it in so far as we were cashed up to do so,” Lucas told IF. “We have definitely changed the climate of encouraging production companies to donate. Also commercial production companies tend to keep a closet of things and then eventually get fed up with them and send them off to us. They’ve very happy now to donate to us, because they know that next they’re doing a production there’ll be a resource they can use. It saves them a lot of money. Sometimes they’re in our collection for years. Because it’s a small industry, often buyers are coming through, or the designers and they’ll say ‘Do you realise what this is?’”

But typically when main cast or other seemingly key costumes come in, Carter will try to assess what the potential archival value is likely to be and save them. “It’s not fair to the designer if their work is in somebody’s TV commercial. So I always try to work out what’s significant and I keep that aside,” she says, noting she has in the past gifted costumes back to actors.

Priced Out

The House of Representatives is running an inquiry into the sustainability of the Australian film industry, which Carter said is too reliant on utilising short-term industrial spaces to save costs which puts the practice at risk of being priced out by developers. “Large film companies such as Fox and Warner Bros have built studios but we lack the in-house facilities available in Hollywood and the UK. Support facilities are critical in maintaining credibility as a film production destination,” said Carter. “Having seen other collections disappear [it is concerning]; we’re the last of them essentially, especially now the ABC’s gone. Everything else is a commercial costume hire business or a vintage dealer. There’s no way this could ever be replicated if it went bust and had to be broken up, because there’s no one to take it on and no real estate to house it. It is something of concern to us, because we’re not getting any younger. We’ve been doing it 25 years and we keep growing – as a business like this will as every decade passes.”

“This is prime land. It would cost us $100,000 to move and that would wipe us out. So there’s no way that’s happening,” says Lucas, who noted that historically costume houses have closed when forced to relocate.

Image: Suzy Carter