Costume Ordering Made Easy
Secrets to fitting, fees and alterations
For more than 20 years, Denise Hawkins of Denise’s Dance Academy in Overland Park, Kansas, has allowed her studio parents to choose the costumes for spring recitals. “It sounds crazy, but parents feel they have a hand in the costumes they’re paying for,” she says. But Hawkins, who orders about 1,500 costumes each season, does manage the process. For instance, she never lets parents see the catalogs. Instead, teachers of each class select a few options, and then the parents pick their favorite from photographs.
While this system works for Hawkins, costume ordering isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Between selecting the look and ensuring that garments are on time, paid for and accurately fit, it’s a daunting task. The key to successful ordering is staying organized, calm and ahead of schedule.
Choosing a Style
- Regardless of who makes the selection, reserve final approval. Chris Collins of Chris Collins Dance Studio in Alexandria, Virginia, asks his teachers to choose costumes. He gives the final OK after making sure every costume is age- and body-style-appropriate.
- Measure each dancer, and use each manufacturer’s size charts for consistency. In the past, Collins—who has 450 students—left the measuring task to his teachers, but that left room for error. “I now have all measurements done by the same person,” he says. “As a result, we had only a handful of exchanges in the last few years.”
Rita Ogden of Ovations Dance Studio in Oaklyn, New Jersey, holds a special week for measuring. She announces the dates in her registration handbook, and all of her 250 students must attend. A good rule of thumb is to have all measuring completed two weeks before the ordering deadline, in case there are stragglers. “Missing a deadline because you don’t have all the measurements means losing money,” she says. If costumes don’t fit properly, it costs extra to make an exchange.
- Order early for quicker shipping, and take advantage of discounts. Many manufacturers offer discounts on orders placed ahead of schedule, and with large orders, money saved means more for your recital budget, studio repairs or even teachers’ wages.
“If I’m close to qualifying for a discount, sometimes I get basic hairpieces, canes, hats, even if I don’t need them,” says Ogden, who typically orders about 1,000 costumes per season. “If I’m $100 short, and they have beautiful rhinestone chokers or barrettes, I order enough to use as gifts for graduates. I may spend $200 more, but I’ll save $1,000 in the long run.” She saves the invoices that include the unused merchandise in her storage closet, so she knows the full price to charge when used in the future.
- When the shipment arrives, carefully inventory the contents. Hawkins once received an incorrect shipment in which adult and child sizes were completely flipped, and another with an entire class receiving the wrong style. She now carefully inventories costumes upon arrival and immediately calls the companies to resolve any errors. Garments do not leave their studios until paid in full; there are no exchanges once students take costumes home.
- Consider the time of year for collecting fees. After getting complaints from parents about paying for costumes near Christmas, Hawkins’ studio parents now pay half at enrollment and the remaining cost by October 15. If students join in January, they’re charged an extra $10 per costume for shipping. Students who drop out receive a refund if they leave before costumes are ordered or if new students replace them. (Otherwise, they’re responsible for payment.)
- Establish and communicate your markup policy. “I state in my parent handbook that the costume fees include shipping, taxes, exchange fees, alterations and other costs associated with costumes,” says Hawkins, whose set costume fee covers two costumes and a pair of tights for $110. Her studio parents understand that she marks up costumes 20 percent from the retail value. (Costume fees account for as much as 10 percent of her yearly revenue.)
At Collins’ studio, all students pay an equal deposit by October 30 and are billed in the winter for the balance. Balances often range between $20 and $50 per student, depending on age and level and costume style, and parents receive an itemized balance statement. Collins makes a small profit from every costume (he orders approximately 3,500 per season), which goes back into the studio or toward production costs. With 37 years in the business, he’s learned that parents will pay a little extra, knowing that he takes the time to measure and fit the students well enough so they won’t have to pay a larger fee for alterations or exchanges.
- Take control. Don’t assume dance moms can handle minor sizing alterations. After a few years of straps being sewn on wrong (over the shoulder instead of crisscrossed, for example), Hawkins began hiring one or two parents as seamstresses who barter their work for discounted tuition. They keep track of the alterations, and the totals typically amount to roughly three months’ tuition. “It has worked out so much better, and the other parents are happy to have costumes that do not need any additional work at home,” she says.
- Consider function as well as fit. Ogden has added strips of coordinating fabric to conceal bra straps and applied grip tape to the palms of acrobatic long-sleeve costumes to prevent dancers from slipping. She agrees that skilled seamstresses should make the alterations, not individual moms. “There are always parents who think a costume should be tighter, shorter, longer than I prefer. Then there is the parent who will accidentally use 1,000 rhinestones instead of the requested 100,” says Ogden. “If you want a uniform look, have it done yourself. It’s that simple.” DT
USING AN ORDERING SERVICE
For the past three years, Shannon Wilson of Westwoods Center of Performing Arts has used a costume ordering service, CostumeManager.com. “I used to place all orders during the break in December,” says Wilson. “So it wasn’t a break for me.” Now, she says, when the costumes come in, they’re bundled by class and dancer, labeled and ready to hand out. “My staff and I save hours of sorting through mixed batches of garments.”
The studio selects the costumes and accessories that parents must order. Wilson recommends the sizes for each student, based on the manufacturers’ size charts. “Parents are free to order whatever size they want, but we let them know that if they don’t order the recommended size, it’s not going to fit,” she says.
There is no charge to the studio: The service collects the costume fees, plus handling charges, directly from the parents, who can choose when to order and pay. Wilson receives reports showing which families have ordered and paid for costumes so she can remind stragglers as deadlines approach.
Though she maintains a hand in the process, Wilson acknowledges that relinquishing any control to parents is not easy for many studio owners. Trusting that they will order all the necessary pieces on time can be nerve-racking, and in some cases when an order isn’t correct, parents blame the studio. “We are the face the parents see. If something is wrong, they come to us,” says Wilson. “But this has saved my studio time and money.”
Courtney Rae Kasper is a former Dance Teacher editor. Photo courtesy of Rita Ogden