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Costumers' customers go for spiffier

The Super Bowl is behind the demand for fancier Gasparilla parade threads this year, say two partners who've been making them since 1987.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001


TAMPA -- The small shop and plain metal building next door give no hint of the magic being made inside.

Ordinary people come away transformed.

Bankers become swashbucklers, lawyers turn into damsels and wenches, all shucking the drab personas of day jobs to step out in creations of lace, velvet, satin, rhinestones, sequins and beads.

This is where marchers in the Gasparilla Parade come to be outfitted. Each krewe member spends an average of $500 to $600 on beads and a costume, although the cost can run as high as the customer's imagination and wallet allow.

"It's surprising what people will spend on something they like," said Duane Wendel, co-owner of Features Costumes and the Bead Barn.

This year, they're spending a little more because of the Super Bowl.

"A lot are spiffing up -- a new shirt, a better hat," said Wendel. "They want to look good for the out-of-towners."

Wendel transformed himself years ago from a master plumber to a costumer.

He and partner Joseph Stokes started small, making costumes for friends until it occurred to them that people might pay for them.

They opened in 1987.

Two full-time and four part-time seamstresses make the costumes. They work in two rooms. One contains bolts of cloth, paper patterns and tables marked for cutting and measuring. The other holds the sewing machines, a rack of threads in every conceivable color and a wall full of trims, braiding and laces, sequined appliques and a display case of five dozen fake eyelash styles.

Stokes, formerly an interior designer, learned to sew as a boy while watching his grandmother at her sewing machine in his Sumter County hometown of Webster.

Wendel, the former plumber, still doesn't know how to sew, but managed to construct a turquoise, white and black leather Village People Indian costume without any stitching. He used lots of snaps.

It sold for $700.

"I really didn't want to sell it," he said, recalling the time he toured Las Vegas in it just as YMCA was a hit. "I had a lot of memories from it."

Four years ago, the costumers decided to go into the bead business, as well. They ordered 100,000 strands from China.

This year, they ordered 2-million.

Although they stock up to 50 parades a year with beads, Gasparilla is their biggest bead event.

"I've seen people spend as much as $1,500 on beads," said Wendel. That buys more strands than anybody can wear around the neck, so they have to be divvied up to marchers all along the parade for throwing.

Despite all the work that goes into a Gasparilla costume (a gaucho vest can take eight hours), many end up on the rental racks afterward. Wendel and Stokes have 10,000 rental costumes, for rates ranging from $20 to $500.

Business is good, but what keeps Wendel and Stokes in it is the fun.

"It's not about the money, or we wouldn't be in this business," Wendel said. "We really enjoy creating beautiful things."

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