A family business in Queens, New York, is behind most of the biggest costume trends. Here's how it cornered the market with lucrative licenses.
Halloween is a big business. U.S. consumers spend $7.5 billion a year on the October holiday, according to IBISWorld. It's second only to Christmas for spending per U.S. consumer.
If there's one company at the heart of Halloween boom, it's an unlikely one: A family-run costume company called Rubie's, tucked into the middle-class neighborhood of Richmond Hill in the New York City outer borough of Queens.
But this business run by three siblings along with four of their children is no small affair: Rubie's is a more than $100 million business operating in 15 countries.
It's a company that has grown and evolved right alongside with the holiday of Halloween--and in many ways it's shaped the holiday itself, through innovative licensing and global expansion.
Rubin and Tillie Beige started the business as a retail costume shop in 1951, and it started to grow when it began manufacturing costumes, according to Howard Beige, Rubie's executive vice president, son of the founders. "Today worldwide, the company has over 3,000 employees, but we second-and-third-generation family are still here every hour of the day,” he says.
The international growth strategy began 25 years ago, when the company expanded to Canada. Mexico followed shortly after, and in 1995, the company headed to Europe.
What fuels growth in the United States, Canada, England, Australia, and Japan--where Halloween is fairly widely celebrated--is very different than what drives it elsewhere. It isn’t just the obvious distinction of Halloween disguises vs. decorative costumes for Mardi Gras or Carnivale, which are popular in other parts of the world. The growth driver for Halloween sales is Hollywood.
One reason Rubie's is the largest costume company in the U.S. is that it excels at striking deals with the music, film and television industries to license costumes from characters or outfits from musicians or celebrities. It's the owner of licenses for costumes based on Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson. It has Elvis and Barbie and three different Shreks. Want an official Walking Dead costume? It'll be made by Rubie's.
When we caught up with the Beiges this week, the business was in full-on holiday-rush mode. While stores around the world are stocked with Rubie's costumes, many still place re-orders throughout the week leading up to Halloween. Rubie's gets them to customers within 24 hours.
The Beiges are always thinking ahead. About two-and-a-half years ahead, to be exact.
"Not only are we pretty much done with all the 2014 licenses, but we've already wrapped up some of the 2015 licenses," Howard Beige says. "We already have lined up the biggest licenses for 2015: Batman vs. Superman, The Avengers II, and Star Wars: Episode 7."
But how can a company predict when a pop star will rise, and make sure her most iconic outfits are on the shelves of, say, Wal-Mart (Rubie's biggest customer)? The short answer is: It can't. But the long answer is, it can try.
The trick (or treat) is forecasting which films will be blockbusters, based on what the large studios are banking on and which large-grossing actors have signed on to. Take Batman vs. Superman, for instance, which has a potentially massive audience across generations and a star-studded cast of Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburn and Amy Adams. The star-power, plus the choice that Batman is usually in the top-five selling costumes, means Batman vs. Superman-inspired outfits are obvious choices for 2015 costumes.
The music industry is a less-reliable licensing zone. That's because actors and musicians--there's plenty of crossover in the starlet territory--are unlikely to license their full likeness. That matters little, says Beige, for a surprising reason: Women do not buy masks.
"Only men are foolish enough to put a mask on. If you think about it, the only mask you'll ever see a woman wearing is a little eye mask," Beige says. "No woman is going to put on a rubber-latex a mask on."
Rubie's has sold masks of women's faces in the past, for example, Hillary Clinton sold well a few years ago. But Beige adds: "Let me just say, that mask was not worn by women."
That doesn't stop the company from licensing outfits worn by celebrities and pop stars: It sells several outfits similar to those worn by Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, for example. But it did not create a particular Miley Cyrus costume this year, her music-award getup that resembled a goofy bear on a swimsuit, which is proving popular already.
"Occasionally you do miss one now and then," Beige says. "Rubie's would have considered designing a Miley Cyrus costume based off her VMA performance. However, time did not permit to create a licensed-approved, quality product."
Another trend the Beige family was watching this year was the economy. Their company strives to make sure costumes are affordable to families so they don't have to think to think too hard about adding them to their carts.
Because the economy is still recovering, the company chose to introduce costumes that were at a moderate price point," Beige says. "So a simple thing like that--making sure our price points were what the consumers were looking for, meant many more of our introductions this year were between $19.98 and $29.98."
But Beige seems to be anticipating a recovery--and the company is already looking ahead at what consumers will be looking to buy that's not only more elaborate, but also created with higher-quality materials and more eye toward detail.
"In years when the economy is better, if I'm doing a pirate costume, I'm sure to not just do the basic costume, but also add a hat, have hooks available, have boots available, have makeup, eye patches and earrings," Beige says. "And we will focus on even better-quality accessories to go with the costume."
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CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is senior writer at Inc. @Lagorio