Deborah Meredith anticipates seeing a lot of Michael Jacksons walking the streets this Halloween. The King of Pop’s sudden death this summer has led to an increased demand for MJ wigs and silver gloves. “Sorry, Farrah,” Meredith says, referring to the former “Charlie’s Angels” star who died around the same time as Jackson.
With 30 years of experience making costumes by hand and owning her own costume shop, Meredith has become somewhat of an expert in the industry. In 1978, she got her start by creating “Fruit of the Loom” costumes for a group of friends. At their suggestion, she started a business making costumes out of her house. During her first year, she rented out 30 costumes. That number eventually grew to 700, and that’s when Meredith moved her business to storefront across from the Acme store on Manchester Road. In time, she outgrew that shop as well, and moved just down the street to 3425 Manchester Road. That’s where you’ll find Akron Design & Costume to this day.
Meredith’s skills are all self-taught, though she is a member of the National Costumers Association—an organization that is instrumental in the teaching and sharing of ideas among costume designers. “Essentially that was my training,” says Meredith, the group’s current second vice president.
“We’re kind of a network of creative people,” Rob Lehr, the shop’s marketing director, says of the organization.
Creative indeed. The shop is a fantasyland for anyone who loves to play dress-up. Need a historically accurate period costume? A military uniform? An ivy wall costume? A pickle, perhaps? If you want it, they’ve got it. And with 300 wigs, 1600 hats, plus makeup and footwear galore, they utilize all the space—even the ceiling. “We have as much stuff as a 20,000 square-foot store,” Meredith says. “We’ve got the variety, and we’ve got the ability to fix things.”
You see, at this shop they don’t just sell costumes; they create them by hand. In the back of the store is what Meredith calls the “making magic room.” That’s where all the fabric, fur, feathers and other materials come together to make Meredith’s creative ideas a wearable reality. “Ninety percent of our rental costumes are made right here because I don’t want to look like any other shop,” she says.
“We have a lot of respect and pride in our product,” Lehr adds.
Surprisingly, Halloween isn’t the busiest time at Akron Design & Costume. That right actually belongs to the winter months when the staff begins working on costumes for theater performances, local and national. “The day after Halloween, people want Santa costumes,” Meredith says. “As soon as Christmas is over, musical season starts. We actually work more hours in March than at Halloween because we do theater.”
Meredith has dressed characters for a wide range of musicals and plays. In fact, the shop’s annex is filled mostly with costumes for various productions, as well as ethnic wear, food-related costumes and items that have been retired. Each season, Meredith and her staff are busy altering past costumes for theater productions, and even making some new ones. On a recent visit, Meredith spent the afternoon re-curling the wig for Madame de la Grande Bouche from “Beauty and the Beast” before shipping it out for a show.
But Meredith doesn’t stop there. She’s also a master of mascots. For instance, she was the “mother of the first Orbit,” back when the Akron Aeros mascot was called “The Blast.” And she has created mascots for several local high schools, as well as Acme’s Buck the Dog, Buffy the Dog, and the cream sticks that run the field at Canal Park.
No costume is complete without the right accessories, and Akron Design & Costume has got those, too. The front of the store is lined with row after row of everything you need including masks, body parts, glasses, bags, shoes, tights in every color and more. Because of the shop’s low prices and wide selection of accessories, it’s popular among area roller derby girls and local musicians looking for items that will wear well on stage.
Costumes from Meredith’s shop have even appeared in a number of commercials and television shows including “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Cosby” and others. Once, David Letterman’s crew rented a hippo costume for an episode of the late-night talk show, and gave a shout out to Akron Design & Costume on the air. (Check out www.akrondesign.com for a clip.)
Considering that Meredith has designed costumes and mascots for people all over the country, it only makes sense that she created one for her own business. “Every shop has a gimmick,” Meredith says in reference to the large spider that hangs on the store’s outdoor sign. “Due to zoning, I couldn’t have anything on the roof, so I adopted the spider as a mascot. It has been there ever since.”