Costume maker puts spook, glitter, glam into Halloween


By Jose A. Lopez

While you think you got a head start on Halloween planning, the workers at Disguise Inc. were also getting ready for Halloween. Next year’s.

The Poway company is one of the world’s leading designers and distributors of Halloween costumes. For the company’s 104 permanent employees, the holiday is a year-round event, sort of what Christmas must be to the elves in Santa’s workshop.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend $5.77 billion on Halloween this year, marking one of the bright spots in the not-so-rosy economic picture.

“Our business absolutely doesn’t reflect or depend on what’s going on in the rest of the economy,” said Stephen Stanley, a La Jolla resident who is Disguise’s executive vice president of licensed business.

The fact that Halloween falls on a Friday this year means that more adult costumes will also be sold this year, he added.

Playing dress up

“Even adults want to be able to play dress up, forget their troubles and have a quality celebration,” he said.

Chances are that more than a couple of the costumes you will see this Halloween season had their start in the company’s headquarters, located in a massive building in the Poway Business Park.

There, behind what looks like any other building, costume designers are drawing, sculpting, sewing and putting together the costumes they think will be all the rage in one or two years.

Disguise, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, has exclusive rights to produce and distribute licensed versions of products from such outfits such as Marvel Comics, Mattel toys, Sesame Street and Disney.

During a recent trip to the facility, sculptors were creating templates for costumes inspired by movies that have yet to come out: “G.I. Joe Rise of Cobra,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

Iron Man on top

For this year, the company’s most popular boys’ costumes are Iron Man and - for the third year in a row, Spider-Man - while the top girls’ costumes are Hannah Montana and the perpetual favorite Disney princesses.

The company also distributes its version of what the National Retail Federation calls one of the year’s hottest costumes, political masks including those of Barack Obama and John McCain (For what it’s worth, the company made 5 percent more of the Democratic candidate).

The proprietary designs are top secret and heavily guarded. Think of the secrecy surrounding the recipes for Coca Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken and you’ll get an idea.

The truth is that for Disguise a lot is at stake in these designs. After all, Halloween is big business.

Disguise - a subsidiary of France-based Cesar Group since 1997 - ships about 12 million costumes a year. Last year, the Cesar Group made $185 million globally. About 66 percent - or roughly $122 million - came from the United States.

Its costumes - which are designed and created in Poway, manufactured in China and then shipped here to be distributed, can be found in all stores, from Wal-Mart to the smaller mom-and-pop stores.

“We sell to literally every store that sells Halloween costumes,” said Stanley.

Founded in 1987 with only 12 designs released in 1988, the company is one of the first to start using fabric to create more durable costumes, instead of the old plastic sheets and masks with rubber band approach of the old days.

The company is busiest in the summer, when it begins to ship out the costumes. During this time, it hires about 850 seasonal employees to help it pack and ship out their product.

The employees also get a chance to celebrate the holiday that they strive to outfit. On the eve of Halloween, the company closes early and throws what’s considered to be the mother-of-all Halloween parties.

“It’s a national holiday for all employees,” Stanley said.

The year’s top costumes

For Kids:

  1. Princess, 4.33 million
  2. Witch, 1.62 million
  3. Hannah Montana, 1.51 million
  4. Spider-Man, 1.44 million
  5. Pirate, 1.34 million
  6. Star Wars, 1.23 million
  7. Pumpkin, 1.06 million
  8. Batman, 985,000
  9. Disney Princess, 914,000
  10. Athlete, 774,000
For Adults:
  1. Witch, 5.86 million
  2. Pirate, 1.72 million
  3. Vampire, 1.30 million
  4. Cat, 997,000
  5. Fairy, Nurse 664,000 (Tie)
  6. Batman, Political 574,000 (Tie)
  7. Ghost 545,000
  8. Angel, 513,000
  9. Clown 483,000
  10. Wench/Tart/Vixen, 453,000
For pets (with percentages)
  1. Pumpkin, 9.5 percent
  2. Devil, 9 percent
  3. Witch, 4.6 percent
  4. Princess, 3.8 percent
  5. Hot Dog, Superman, 3.4 percent (Tie)

These figures, from September, detail the most popular costumes for 2008, according to a survey released by the National Retail Federation and conducted by BIGresearch. Figure denotes number of people expected to dress up in each particular costume.