From our small wooden table in the window of the Starbucks on 14th and Carson Street, we can clearly see the building where Spotlight Costumes first opened its doors in 1988. It’s tiny and now called The Decade, a light faded brown, looking like it stepped out of a sepia toned photograph. Kim Brown and her close friend and co-founder, Anne Oates, moved down the street to a building twice the size, fortunately also doubling their business intake, just five years later.
“A job transfer is what brought me to Pittsburgh, but when I decided to start my own company, I quickly got work in part because I have a masters degree in costume design. Many people who own costume shops in the U.S. are former dance teachers, people who inherited or bought a business or people who only do retail and Halloween.”
Together, with their combined skill, and Anne’s drapery talent for designing her own patterns, Spotlight brought something “new to the table.” Brown and Oates cultivated a diverse array of professional, amateur, and educational theatre. They had the pimp costume from Austin Powers out in the trade shows before the larger manufacturers did, because while it flopped in the box office, Brown knew it would explode once it hit VHS. They have served clients like Disney Theatricals, H.J. Heinz Corporation, Pepsi Cola Corporation, Keebler, and even actor Bruce Willis.
“Anne and I had an adventure,” she says, reminiscent. “Our relationship worked because we trained together, went to class together, critiqued each other. We knew the good, bad, and the ugly about each other before we worked together.”
They are now the go-to costume professionals in Pittsburgh, offering costumes for wholesale, retail, and theatrical purposes. It was never without its difficulties, though. In 2005, Anne Oates lost her eight month battle with brain cancer.
“I was always an appreciative person. But there’s a difference between appreciation and gratitude. Appreciation is about good things. But gratitude is that you’re grateful for good and seemingly bad. I don’t think I understood gratitude until I lost my business partner.”
“When Anne died, the Post-Gazette called to do a story on her, and I was really offended. The real story was when she was alive and she could tell her own story. Then I thought, Kim you can’t really be that way, now you have to tell her story. So I did. Then the woman said, ‘You know if someone more famous dies, she’s going to get bumped.’ Well no one did. So Anne had a six-column story when she died. But the real story was when she was alive.”
Kim Brown’s own story is full of setbacks and accomplishment. Spotlight Costumes remains a very strong and busy business, though now Brown is faced more regularly with the familiar problem of gender bias as she is often accompanied and helped, in the day to day, by partner, Ron.
“It was very difficult because I didn’t know what gender bias was. Sales people will still call on that store and speak to Ron like he’s the owner. People assume a man is the owner. When we’re at a trade show, people talk to him first before they talk to me. It doesn’t matter what we’re wearing, I could be in a suit and he could be in a T-shirt and they’ll still talk to him first. I don’t know what it is.”
Kim claims she gave up worrying about it a while ago, because her father had warned her about it. He was her mentor, always giving her life lessons, especially as she started Spotlight Costumes. She speaks of him with admiration, saying that as an independent appraiser, he was still correct 98% of the time when he sent his paperwork to an outside source for confirmation. Her mother still gets phone calls looking for him.
“He was very open. I was never a daddy’s girl or princess, but I always thought girls could do everything boys could do. I miss that. I miss the people who were my safety net. But that’s all part of the process. We’re all salmon swimming upstream and we have to try not to get eaten by the bear. It’s all about planning and goal setting. And I firmly believe what you tell the universe can happen. Words have power, thoughts have power. You have to understand that it’s all learning and not get beaten down by it.”
Kim Brown learned this at an early age. She did not come from a theatrical family and didn’t have a sewing machine in the house growing up in Toledo, Ohio. Yet, obviously, this hurdle didn’t throw her very much.
“I always wanted to be a costume designer from the time I was adopted at the age of six and my adopted grandmother would make Barbie doll clothes for me. We also watched The Lawrence Welk Show together and I was fascinated by all of the costumes. My grandmother also taught me how to embroider and sew.”
It’s not like they made sewing machines sized for children, she reminds me, so instead she did a lot of handiwork, like embroidery and knitting, as well as a lot of reading and drawing. She says she remembers the day and moment when she couldn’t play with Barbie anymore. She was devastated. She was a very serious child. This logically emotional, savvy, and creative background makes me peg her for a Ravenclaw.
“It’s part of a life lesson and I had to process that. Whenever you have people who are damaged, if you don’t get counseling or therapy, they tend to repeat patterns without some type of healing. You’re always going to have that scar or reminder, but you can heal.”
Brown earned a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics, from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. It is very rare, even for today’s university curriculum, to find an undergraduate degree in Costume Design, and she tells me plainly that she had no interest in majoring in theatre, as she was not a performer or strictly a technician. So, she chose a B.S. in Home Economics, specifically fashion merchandizing, and a surprise pair of minors in Journalism and Business. Imagine her surprise, therefore, when the OU Department of Theater offered her a scholarship to stay on for her M.F.A. in Production Design and Technology.
“My masters degree was a tool for me to become a costume designer. It was something I had to work very hard at; when you go from Home Ec to Theatre, you have to learn a lot on your own.”
For her application to the School of Theater, she felt terrified for submitting a fashion portfolio. She walked into the interview thinking she was going to get grilled by the department head, the late Robin Lacey.
His first question, “Can you tell me why the university spells the School of Theater with an ‘e-r’ instead of an ‘r-e’?”
Her first answer, without hesitation, “Probably because it’s the first accepted spelling in the dictionary.”
She was the first person to get that question right in twenty-seven years of him asking. That’s why she got into her M.F.A. program in the Ohio University Department of Theater.
“He saw something in me, something different, like I pulled Excalibur out of the stone. It was just logic from my journalism background!” she says with her eyes grinning, though exasperated, “Most people said they didn’t know. I learned very quickly that with him as a professor, you could never say you didn’t know.”
Saying you don’t know is not playing fair, because it’s not playing at all. It immediately eliminates the choice. When dealing with high-level fine art, your level of objective scrutiny is heightened in credibility by your willingness to own your subjective artistic opinion. Giving your self the option to be wrong is the only way to grow. Kim Brown knows this, and repeats to me, several times during this interview, that life is all about learning.
It’s also about being impressively organized. Her handwritten planner takes up over half of the little Starbucks table when she plunks it out to silence her phone. It’s color coded by day, task, and written in by the hour as well as at a month at a glance. It’s magnificent. And meticulous. I’m curious, how many shows can this woman design or wardrobe at once?
“I don’t know. I don’t keep count. It would probably scare me.”
To name just a few, her most recent works include: Kinetic Theatre Company’s Sherlock’s Last Case; Throughline Theatre Company’s Medea, and The Ruling Class; Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center’s Grand Night for Singing; and both Urinetown and Mary Poppins for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera Academy. Brown is also the resident designer for Pittsburgh Musical Theatre, Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, Prime Stage Theatre, Front Porch Theatricals, designs the Gateway Clipper cruises and has also designed opera and the costumes for theme parks. Currently, her design work can be seen until August 30th in Front Porch Theatrical’s The Light in the Piazza directed by Stephen Santa.
“Some of what I think has helped me was that I started out in fashion merchandizing. I didn’t just do theatre. It wasn’t always about the character, it was about who was going to wear this first. In fashion, they have to think about who’s going to buy this. I always have to think about the actor first.”
“Usually I find, like when I did Patrick Cannon in The Light in the Piazza, [that] he just walked into his clothes. Now, because I’ve done this for a long time, I knew his skin coloring and I knew what he would look good in,” she waves this skill away as a trifling of the trade.
“I told him, ‘You need to wear vintage. That’s where you need to go. It’s the cut of the clothes; things today are too boxy, that’s why they don’t look right on you. They’re not going to look right on you because they’re not tailored for you.’”
“He told me, when he was [in another production], they must have tried twenty suits on him before they found one they liked and fit. So, now this actor has a vision of himself that’s: ‘Oh, I have a weird body. Nothing is ever going to fit me.’ You never want an actor to think that!” she decries. I think to myself of what my college wig artisan peers and costume professor must have went through to never let me find out that I have an unusually large head. Bless them.
In college, I always felt calm once I came to the costume shop. My great-grandmother would say that when the hands are busy the mind is free. She was right and so is Kim Brown: more so than the activity of costuming, for actors, especially, the role of a costumer is one of a comforter. They really have to get you, and anticipate your needs.
“A lot of what costume design is, Natalie,” Brown explains, unequivocally, “is psychology. It’s psychology more than anything else. Nobody tells you that, while you’re in school studying the history of costume, going: ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to memorize all this stuff; I’ve got to come up with all of these new ideas; and I have to come up with something that’s really original; I have to make the director happy; I have to deal with sets and lights and sound and everything else. It isn’t about that at all. It’s about how you deal with people. It’s about people’s feelings.”
In addition to masterfully conceiving an entire casts’ design, you must master an entire casts’ perspective while collaborating with the producers, directors, designers, technicians, and thinkers outside the box. There is no time for your own feelings or ego as a costume designer. Luckily, however, Brown has always had the gift of multitasking and regaining composure, or as she puts it, “You have to have your shit on lockdown.”
“When Anne got sick, that was immediate. Not a candidate for surgery, start making other plans. That really taught me that you have to have your shit on lockdown. Because the show still has to go up. When my brother died…I had to get an opera up in Cleveland. It wasn’t easy, because the costumes for La Boheme went to Texas by mistake, but you’re organized. You have to be organized. You’re not helping anybody if don’t have your act together.”
Without a doubt, Kim Brown’s motivation, for her ungodly timeliness and organization, is to help others. Or else I don’t think she could be as dedicated as she is. Not that she ever thought of herself as a teacher, she just meant to fill in at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, but before long she was the school’s resident designer, while teaching theatrical make up and costume design.
She cares deeply about what she does at that school. When she had emergency back surgery, after a chiropractor herniated one of her discs, she didn’t know if she would ever walk or sew again. Four days after her surgery, though, you better believe it: she was at Lincoln Park’s dress rehearsal. She tells me that she wanted to prove to them that you can come back after any adversity. The director thanked her, saying, “‘I got a different performance out of them tonight. Now we’re ready to open.’” They just needed that, because you’re like a mom, you know?” she said, believing, rightly I’d say, that she’s teaching them a love of lifelong learning.
Every Friday, she asks her students, ‘What’s the best thing that happened this week?’ Every night, before she goes to sleep, she tells me she asks herself the same thing. “Then you don’t go to bed thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to get up’ or ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to go to work.’ Because if you go to bed thinking about the best thing that happened, you’re going to wake up the next day anticipating the next great thing that’s going to happen. I’ve never been the type of person who says ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to get up.’ I’m the type of person who says, ‘I wish I didn’t have to sleep.’ Because there is so much to do.”
If people were all part of that mindset, she says, it just creates a better community. When she first opened Spotlight Costumes, in 1988, she explains to me how Pittsburgh’s South Side was very different: store owners lived above their stores; grocers and milkmen delivered to their neighbors; shop keepers had a small band of loyal customers who lived nearby. Though plenty of excellent growth has happened in Pittsburgh that brings it into contemporary times, and many new little theatres have opened that brings Brown more business, she is still nostalgic for the way things used to be. I think it’s hard not to feel this way if you’re an educated costume designer, having fallen in love with learning of the many different fabrics and styles and hues of the past. We commiserate together for while at the lost art of tailoring.
“People don’t know how to sew today. They throw something in the trash or away. Taking it to Goodwill or a Salvation Army is even too much effort; they take it to a landfill or whatever. People don’t sit at home anymore waiting for grandma to finish their school clothes.”
That’s accurate. Our clothing comes from larger corporations who outsource to independent manufacturers, Made in Wherever Most People Haven’t Been or couldn’t find on a map, by people we’ve never met, who work under conditions we’ll never understand or may never want to. We all know this. What Brown wants and suggests to me isn’t an isolated 1950s world, but a world of transparency and accountability, where everyone knew where his or her goods and services came from. Today, while we know there’s corruption within all of the middlemen, most of the time we say let’s not even talk about it. We accept it as a reality. It’s a by-product of an all too overwhelming world. Still, there sits Spotlight Costumes, not even a block from where it started on Carson Street, making community connections and costumes that few people appreciate. I ask her, isn’t that discouraging?
“No,” she’s emphatic, and I can almost hear her heart pounding as she looks at me through those funky round tortoiseshell specs and her blonde-haired bob.
I laugh out loud, like an idiot. Why not, Kim?
“Because I’m not doing it for them. I’m not doing it for the general public. I’m not doing it for the actors. I’m not doing it for the audience that comes to see them. I’m doing it for myself because that’s the talent I was given. I was not smart enough to be a brain surgeon, but I also know – from having done this for thirty years – that I’m pretty good at what I do.”
Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe she belongs in Gryffindor. I’m amazed at how one person can look at the world, and all of its complex political, economic, and humanitarian crises, and not feel useless, sometimes, for choosing a fleeting career in the theatre making art that does not last.
Perhaps therein her ability to amaze and inspire lies her success.
“I don’t think I’m the best. I’m the best Kim Brown.”
Regardless of everything she’s accomplished, she stills thinks she has so much to learn. Never satisfied. For the record, I’ve never interviewed someone for just an hour and a half who made me laugh and cry and leave with a spring in my step. As she says herself:
“At the end of the day, Natalie, you just have to answer for yourself. Nobody else is going to answer for you. I’ve been to plenty of funerals, and nobody talks about what somebody wore. Unless it was something funny, like ‘they always wore a hat.’ But nobody’s talking about your material anything at your funeral. They’re talking about your character and they’re talking about what you did that impacted other people. If you don’t try and make it easier for someone else…I just think that’s what it’s all about.”