Recycle, reuse: how the largest theatrical costume collection went green — and stayed that way

Twice a year, students on their way to class at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, Queens, in New York City walk past a motley crew of adults lining up at the gates of Kaufman Astoria Studios for no apparent reason: well-dressed artistic types hauling empty suitcases, older women in out-of-date broomstick skirts, obvious schoolteachers in khakis and button-downs and hipsters, all sporting stick-on name tags and eyeing each other suspiciously for who might be trying to budge.

They're likely there because each scored one of the hardest tickets to get in New York City, to a certain set: The right to attend the semi-annual bag sale of the Theatre Development Fund's costume collection, which is housed in the basement of the Kaufman complex.

Mannequins at the costume collection bag sale

The costume collection is one of the programs of the nonprofit Theatre Development Fund, the mission of which is to sustain live theatre and dance, and it is the only program focused on making productions themselves affordable. The collection, which is 100% reliant on donations, rents out approximately 10,000 costumes per year for more than 1,000 productions in about 35 states, most of which are to nonprofit, community, school and university productions. 

But not all costumes are created equal and, with limited storage space and an ongoing donation program, the collection has to focus on those costumes in rentable condition and most relevant to theatrical productions. So twice a year — usually once in the spring and once in the fall — they send out an email to their list of patrons that they're going to have a bag sale. 

They let responders into the sale on a first-come, first-serve basis (and there is always a wait list) for the privilege of paying $50 to fill a large rice paper bag from a couple dozen racks of commercial clothing and damaged costumes being eagerly pursued by a few dozen other costume buyers.

The patrons at the May 2017 costume collection bag sale

Stephen Cabral, the director of the costume collection, explained that the idea to hold a bag sale emerged around 15 years ago, both as a way to thin the collection of clothing items they couldn't rent and as a way to honor the collection's commitment to recycling and reuse. "The very first one we did was just a random invite to people," he said. "Because we weren't thinking ahead, we didn't charge. It was like those scary Black Friday videos, people were just running through the doors and at the racks."

"We've gotten more organized since then," he said.

Word of the bag sale spread quickly in the nonprofit theatre community, but the sale achieved broader recognition when, while still housed in a warehouse space in Chelsea in the early aughts, the collection held a larger-than-normal sale to accommodate a move to a different floor in the same building. "The local news station picked up the story," Cabral said, "And then, the day of the sale, the line wrapped around the block."

"It took a long time for our steady customers to learn that we weren't going to have another on a scale like that."

Jeremy Daniel/The Costume Collection of the Theatre Development Fund

Nowadays, in their Queens location, the costume collection normally holds two bag sales a year, with a morning and an afternoon session to accommodate as many buyers as possible and to purge as much as possible that the organization can no longer use. Last week, staffers put out 34 jam-packed racks of clothes, which included cloaks from the Metropolitan Opera, dresses from the Broadway production of Dream Girls, a large cockroach suit and 25 identical black cable knit sweaters, among other things; after the sale, the organization only had seven racks of clothes remaining.

"A lot of things that were left were contemporary clothes or in really bad condition," Cabral said. "We're sorting through what's left and donating the remaining contemporary clothes to shelters."

"We try to be as green as possible," he said.

Cabral noted that most of their patrons are costuming for various shows. "We run the gamut of people who are coming for very specific things and people who are looking for everything for a season," he said. Still, occasionally, theatre buyers might, in fact, be looking for something for themselves... like the gentleman at Friday's sale who pulled out a pair of red rayon shorts, emblazoned with hearts, from a rack, held it up to his lower torso, and said, "Oh my God, it's so ugly, I love it," and tossed it in his bag to go.