North Hollywood’s United American Costume Company has been dressing Hollywood since 1977. The company counts costume designers Sandy Powell, Arianne Phillips and Ellen Mirojnick among its clients, and has provided outfits for “Yellowstone” as well as “American Horror Story.” But with the writers and actors on strike, the business is in danger. “I could survive probably five months, but I would be left with nothing,” says the company’s owner, Diana Foster.
Across Hollywood and beyond, acute economic uncertainty is facing Foster and her employees and many other businesses. The shutdown doesn’t just mean that members of the actors and writers guilds are going without paychecks — in many cases, it’s left below-the-line workers out of work or fearful they may soon be jobless. For the people who provide the ball gowns and suits of armor that actors wear onscreen, the situation is growing more dire.
Foster’s father founded the company, and over four decades, United American has dealt with other strikes. “We were preparing for it,” says Foster, who started letting her staff know in February that a possible strike was looming. “I alerted them because you started seeing the slowdown,” she says. Foster began cutting back on her overhead as much as possible. “When the writers went on strike, you saw a slowdown of new productions, but the ones that were still working, they continued as long as they didn’t have any rewrites,” she says.
As that was happening, Foster was being contacted by costume designers and studios facing dilemmas of their own. “Do they return the clothes and pay for shipping and ship it back when they’re up and running? Or do they pay the extended rental?” There was no way to tell how long the strikes would last.
“I’ve laid off over half my staff,” Foster says. She’s trying to find work for the employees she has retained, so they don’t lose their medical insurance. But she can’t help everyone.
Foster points out the situation differs from the pandemic for small business owners, who were able to access government loans during the COVID production shutdown. But now, “There is nothing like that. The Motion Picture pension and health plan still requires me to pay in 56 hours a week as a controlling shareholder, even though I’ve taken myself off the payroll,” she says. “There are funds for SAG actors. The below-the-line craftspeople are not striking. We’re all out of work. We don’t have people donating millions of dollars to help us.”
The strikes has hit other Hollywood suppliers hard as well — 111-year old Western Costume is among the businesses that are temporarily closed.
Kiki Stash, who owns Kiki’s Stash Vintage Collection, felt the hit as far back as last year. Stash, who has provided vintage outfits for HBO’s “Love and Death” and Hulu’s “How I Met Your Father,” works mainly with costume designers looking to deck their characters in retro wear. She explains, “A lot of the shopping is done before a show starts.”
This would typically be a busy time for her. Instead, business is at a complete standstill since she doesn’t work in commercials, which make up most of the productions currently shooting.
Stash moved to a new, bigger location in Glendale just as the strikes were beginning. “I’ve more than doubled my room and haven’t had work since I moved in,” she says. “I’ve gone through all of my savings and this is the last month of rent that I have,” she confesses.
Shon LeBlanc, a costume designer and co-owner of North Hollywood’s Valentinos Costume Group, says his business has dropped by 80%. With the lack of production, he has had to cut his staff of eight down to four, and he asked his landlord to reduce rent by $10,000.
LeBlanc, who has worked in the business for over 38 years, has seen fellow costume designers set up GoFundMe pages. “NoHo Arts District has grants so we’ve been going after that, but it’s scary,” he admits.
A costume designer set up a GoFundMe to help La Cienega Studio Cleaners make it through the production shutdown. The go-to dry cleaner and fabric dyer to the studios has a skeleton crew for the reality shows that are still patronizing the business because they are not impacted by the strike. “We have been working on ‘The Masked Singer’ and ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ but they’re not big cleaning shows for us,” says owner Dmitry Tokar. He’s had to whittle his staff down from 56 to 28 employees, and he thinks more cuts are in store.
Tokar says his business has dropped by 93%. “I don’t want to completely close the doors at this point, and I don’t want to completely lose the business,” says Tokar, who has taken out a second mortgage on his home to keep afloat.
“We understand that it’s not going to last more than two to three months. I think i can maintain that, but if it’s going to last another year, every business-related motion picture industry will close its doors,” Tokar predicts.