Frankie Stein transforms people for a living. At her aptly named costume shop Frankie Steinz, she turns New Yorkers into Marie Antoinette, Luke Skywalker, Mad Hatter, or whoever they desire to become. Available by appointment only, Frankie has a reputation as a costume maker extraordinaire. She’s designed attire for a myriad of clients including television giants Nickelodeon and HBO ans corporations like American Express, as well as for non-profit organizations’ charity galas. Her work can even be seen in major films like “One True Thing” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” In her Tribeca studio she keeps a large inventory of rentals in every character imaginable, but if something is not in her collection she’ll make it.
With Halloween quickly approaching and New Yorkers dutifully searching for their perfect ensemble, we recently spoke with Frankie about her work, the costume requests she’s been receiving this year, and why getting into character makes people so happy.
Why do people love dressing up and becoming someone else?
Because most people are inhibited in their daily lives in many ways. They can’t wear certain clothes to work or have a certain hair color. I think when they get into a costume, they’re able to live their fantasies where they’re not usually able to do that.
What makes a successful costume?
You feel really comfortable wearing it.
You used to crunch numbers as an accountant. What inspired you to make this career change?
I’m an artist. I was always kind of different than everyone else when I was younger. I dressed differently; I’ve always had pink hair—it’s never been any other color. I didn’t fit into accounting. It was the business my dad was in and I took over the family business. But I’m really happy about it since it allowed me to become amazingly organized, and that’s something you need to be a successful artist.
I actually had first opened a store in upstate New York where I sold my own designs, antiques and collectibles, and that was my “ah ha” moment. I would work at my accounting practice in the morning and then the store from 12-5 every day. As soon as I opened the store, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I sold my business and continued my new pursuit in Aspen, Colorado, and then from Aspen I came to New York in 1990.
After arriving in New York, what were the first few years of business like for you?
I worked at FAO in the art department creating in-store props and doing window displays. It was my first gig in New York City before opening up my store in my loft in Tribeca. I carried that love of window displays into my own shop where I would create window happenings such as “Mommy Dearest,” “Queen for a Day,” and “Book Fair Day.” In each of my window displays, my mascot Frank (Frankenstein) would be included in the drama. The windows were a glimpse into my world and people were totally engaged in that. I feel it was a stepping stone to my success today.
When you receive a request, how do you go about putting the look together?
I have a questionnaire about it and they fill that out. I am instinctive and I can just see a costume on that person. I have that knack. I just look at the person and know how they want to look. I am a costume psychiatrist; they say a few things and I get it. It has more to do with feeling than just putting anything on. You have to feel like you make that metamorphosis.
At any given moment, how many costumes do you have on hand?
We have a whole rental collection of one-of-a-kind costumes. I have over 2,000 costumes and props in my collection. We can alter pretty much anything. Some of my favorites are The Eyeball costume and matching Eyeball suit, Mr. Peanut from 1950, Fly Costume, Picnic, Frida Kahlo, Baby Jane, “The Birds” costume, siamese twins, and Marie Antoinette and Louie.
Are there multiple approaches to some costumes. For example, are there multiple ways to become Marie Antoinette?
We always have the classic Marie Antoinette, a movie replica, and a sexy type. There are always multiples of a certain theme.
What is the most elaborate costume you have provided?
I had to recreate the World Trade Towers in costume form. The costume was made of foam and was hand-painted in an exact likeness of the Twin Towers and then prominent events in NYC were airbrushed onto the costume. It was done in 2008 and it was used in a tribute to New York City.
I’ve provided a lot of really weird things to people. One of them was a tornado, which was one of my favorite things I have ever done. Another thing I did was these table costumes where people got underneath them and came out through a hole in the middle decorated as fruits—that was for Joan Rivers’ AIDS society benefit, AmFAR. I’ve done big giant eyeballs. I actually do a lot of work with pharmaceutical companies.
With Halloween around the corner, how busy are you at the moment? What types of Halloween requests have you gotten?
Very. We are really, really busy. People have to have custom orders in by July. Costumes from major movies that are out are always in demand. This year people want “Star Wars” costumes, and Napoleon and Josephine.
TV, movies, politics or anything in the news will be an idea that will provoke a costume request. For instance, we’ve had people ask for Kim Davis, Trump costumes, and even a fake penis so that they could be Lenny Kravitz when he has his wardrobe malfunction in concert and his pants ripped. “American Horror Story: Freak Show” characters are a popular request. I’m working right now on a Bette and Dot Tattler costume for one of my clients. It is going to be amazing. I love macabre requests. But really, I like when someone wants to do something different or something I have never done.
Has anyone asked for a costume that was truly outside of the box?
Most of the time, people want to get most elaborate for parties. Right now, I am working on “mashables.” That has been kind of popular–where people want to put two genres together. It could be a Disney character, say a Mickey Mouse, and he would be Han Solo or some kind of mash-up.
What will you be dressing up as this year?
I never tell, but I really have to up myself every year because I go to Bette Midler’s Hulaween Ball. My favorite costume from a previous year is “Best in Crow” where I was a crow inside of a birdcage. I actually made a bird cage for my face and most of my torso.
For New Yorkers who have yet to select a costume for Halloween, do you have any recommendations?
I think people come to a conclusion on what their inner fantasy is and that’s where they go. That’s why we have a list on our website and we try to suggest. I’m really big on feelings and costumes. Anyone can put a costume on and just be in a costume, but not everyone can really be their costume. That’s why I have my saying, “Be somebody.” If you don’t feel it, you can’t be it.
Besides Halloween, is there another busy costume season?
We do a lot with the Jewish organizations at Purim; that’s a really big time for us. The Venice Carnivale. I have pretty steady business all year round. I do have private customers who have events all the time. New Yorkers like to dress in costumes because New Yorkers are party people and they like to show off. They’re a different breed and I love the fact they get so into it.
What does helping people transform themselves through costumes mean to you?
Being an accountant was always sad. I’m very happy to be able to be in this business, and be able to make people happy. I love, love, love when people are transformed and are so happy with the results. For me, it’s my most rewarding moment when I get it right; someone puts a costume on they don’t want to take it off. They become that idea they wanted to be. They are that person they wanted to be, but never could be in their real life. They’re happy, and they’re so free.
[This interview has been edited]
- New Yorker Spotlight: Behind the Scenes and Screams with Clinton Hill’s Halloween Queen, Janna Kennedy Hyten
- A History of the Village Halloween Parade: Puppets, Performers, and NYC Pride
- NYC Trick-or-Treat: The Best Neighborhoods for Sweets and Scares
Neighborhoods : Tribeca