So you’ve decided to dress up as a pirate for Halloween. But have you given any thought as to whether you’d like to be a bloody pirate, a pirate captain, a captain’s mate, a cutthroat pirate, a Caribbean pirate maid, a pirate man, a pirate mistress, a pirate maiden, Lady Hook the Pirate Wench, a sea dog, a sea scoundrel, or Will Blackthorn? If you live in Philadelphia, and you’re plagued by these sorts of questions, you’re probably already a customer of Pierre’s Costumes in Old City, which has been in its current location near the Wexler Gallery for more than a decade and in the costuming business since 1943, when the Philadelphia Mummers came ringing at this former medical and restaurant uniform-supply shop.
But for the uninitiated — like Sight Unseen’s editors were when we stumbled into the store quite by accident midway between Halloween and Christmas last year — Pierre’s is something of a revelation: a labyrinthine, two-floor facility housing thousands of rentals, professional mascot costumes, Santa suits, make-up kits, wigs, and accessories, with a workshop in back where seamstresses and tailors work furiously on repairs and custom designs for everyone from Fruit of the Loom to Bam Margera to Toys ‘R’ Us, for whom they’d just completed a rush job of 750 Santa suits at the time of our visit. It’s the type of old-guard costume shop that hardly exists anymore, catering to the pros but welcoming to the public — in other words, the perfect place to inaugurate our new Back Room column, which goes behind-the-scenes at art galleries, museum archives, and other spaces that are typically off-limits to the average person.
Our tour guide that afternoon was Rich Williamson, who bought Pierre’s in 1994 and hired all of its current staff, including head tailor Maria — who learned to sew in Italy at age 14 — and head designer Bobby. All three are some breed of costume savant: “Everybody who works here has degrees in theater or fashion design,” Williamson says. “If you work here, and you have to go to the library to research a character, you’re in the wrong business. People come in and ask if we have any Cher costumes. We just say, ‘Which year?’ It’s that thorough.”
It’s also that fun. As you might expect from a place that carries six sets of Tevye costumes and a whole row of furry plushie suits, it’s an awfully joyful place to work. “We do e-commerce as well,” says Williamson, “and on Cyber Monday, we put on elf hats, drink beer, and sit in shipping until it’s over. I get up every morning, and I love what I do. We just get to play for a living. You’re lucky if you can do that.”
When Philadelphia adman Steven Grasse talks about his 20 years at the helm of Gyro Worldwide, the successful agency he shuttered in 2008, his assessment is as blunt as you might expect from the man who invented Bikini Bandits, a video series about strippers, guns, and hot rods: “I was the asshole who did the Camel ads,” he says. “At Gyro, we had this ‘I’ll fuck anything that moves’ philosophy.” That all changed in 2008, when he sold Sailor Jerry — the rum brand he created before going on to help develop Hendrick's Gin — to William Grant & Sons for “more money than I ever made in advertising,” he says. Grasse quickly changed the name of his agency to Quaker City Mercantile, and transformed its mission completely. “Now we only work on brands that we create and own or with clients I truly like personally,” he says. The most personal of those projects is Art in the Age, the Old City store and liquor brand Grasse began working on the day he sold Sailor Jerry.
It’s a wonder that Jim Drain isn’t a hoarder of epic, A&E-worthy proportions. Sure, nearly every corner of the 3,000-square-foot Miami studio he shares with fellow artist and girlfriend Naomi Fisher is crammed full of stuff — chains, knitted fabric scraps, yarns, paint cans, talismen, toilet tops, costumes, books, prints, past works, and parts of past works that have been dismembered, all jockeying for attention. But considering Drain has worked with 10 times that many mediums in his nearly 15 years of making art, fashion, and furniture — often incorporating junk found in thrift stores and back alleys — hey, it could be a lot worse. “My dad will find something and go, I got this weird thing I think you’ll like, and my friends do it too, and I’m like, I’m not a trash collector!” he insists.
When Sarah Illenberger picks up the phone, the first thing she does is apologize: There's a loud, repetitive popping noise going off in the background of her Berlin studio, which turns out to be the firing of a staple gun. She doesn't say what her assistants are constructing with the staples, but judging from her past illustration work, it's likely they'll be built up by the thousands onto a substrate until their glinting mass reveals some kind of representational image — a skyscraper, maybe, or a ball of tinfoil. Almost all of Illenberger's work involves using handicraft to manipulate one thing into looking like something else entirely, and almost all of it entails such a meticulous construction process that there's no time to silence it for interviews.