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Tapping Juneau's dramatic potential

Local costume designer draws on theater background in opening new shop in Douglas

Posted: October 17, 2013 - 12:03am
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Valerie Snyder organizes items for sale at her Brown Boots Costume Company as Susan Oshida works on a sewing project in Douglas on Tuesday.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Valerie Snyder organizes items for sale at her Brown Boots Costume Company as Susan Oshida works on a sewing project in Douglas on Tuesday.

Juneauites may not be known for cutting-edge fashion choices, but give us an opportunity to dress more dramatically — whether it’s for a Western-themed SAIL fundraiser, a wearable art event, or Halloween festivities — and it’s clear that underneath all that Carhartt tan and XtraTuf brown lurk some pretty colorful imaginations.

Those imaginations have a new source of inspiration as of last month: Valerie Snyder’s costume shop, Brown Boots Costume Co. in Douglas. Snyder, a local costume designer and musician who most recently worked as executive director of the Juneau Symphony, said leaving her job at the symphony provided the opportunity for her to pursue a longtime dream in opening the shop.

“I’d been pondering it for years and then when I decided to leave the symphony I thought, ‘I’ve got to do it now. I can’t get another job and keep dreaming,’” she said.

In setting up her business, Snyder has been able to draw on her extensive experience with — and proximity to — Perseverance Theatre, for whom she has designed costumes since 2004. Her shop’s full racks feature many pieces pulled from the Perseverance costume storeroom, as well as pieces donated by Juneau Lyric Opera and other organizations (who in return get to use the items for free any time). And Perseverance’s own storeroom stocks — constantly growing as new productions are staged — offer a supplementary source for Brown Boots’ racks; if someone comes in with a specific costume request, and doesn’t’ see it in the shop, Snyder can pop over to the Perseverance storeroom and look for it.

“Pretty much everything in the Perseverance stock is up for rent,” Snyder said (with the exception of pieces they need for current productions). A percentage of the rental fees from Perseverance items will go to support the theater.

Her shop also stocks evening gowns and tuxes suitable for formal dances and proms. Snyder said when things slow down she hopes to be able to supplement the selection with more sizes and styles.

“I look forward to the day when I can say, ‘We need more size 10 prom dresses,’ and I can just go make one,” she said.

Snyder also has a wide range of accessory items, such as the hats and masks that adorn the walls of her shop, and close to 300 wigs. Single items can be rented for $5 a week, and a head-to-toe look will run about $25. There is also a rack of items for purchase, including vintage pieces.

But costume rental is only one aspect of Snyder’s business plan. She will also be spurring creativity and productivity in Juneau’s sewing enthusiasts through the shop’s DIY sewing studio, which will be outfitted with three sewing machines (donated by Perseverance) and a serger (on long-term loan) that the public can use for a small fee -- $5 an hour or $15 a day.

The DIY studio is geared toward people who already know the basics of sewing but don’t have their own machine or space to spread out their projects. Customers will also have access to Snyder’s tools (scissors, irons, etc.), giant cutting table, huge selection of fabric scraps and library, which includes volumes on the history of costume design and basic sewing manuals. Snyder said she will be on hand to help sewers if they need it, but that the studio service is for people who can work independently.

“I’ll walk them through the machines, and if they need help and advice that’s great. But probably not ‘This is a pattern,’ ‘This is how you do it.’”

She hopes the DIY sewing studio will also be a resource for other theater professionals.

“For theater companies there’s a flat fee for the month, and that maybe will open up designing costumes to more people in town. Because it was previously limited to people who owned sewing machine or had a sewing room in their house.”

Beginning this winter, she plans to establish a range of classes, including a class for people who’ve never touched a sewing machine, and has ideas for setting up a social sewing club at some point -- once things slow down.

In addition to getting the shop up and running since she opened on Sept. 4, Snyder has been conducting an inventory of Perseverance costumes for the first time — “a monumental task” — as part of her role as the theater’s costume shop manager, her title as of this season. She’s also been contracted to work on every production they stage this year, either as a seamstress or as designer.

Right now she’s sewing costumes for the theater’s upcoming production of “Treasure Island” with Susan Oshida, another longtime member of Perseverance’s creative team, under the direction of that show’s costume designer, Marta Lastufka.

Snyder will take the lead on design for the theater’s next production, “Rush at Everlasting,” a world premiere opening Jan. 10.

Snyder has been building her professional relationship with the theater since 2004, when she first arrived in town after graduating from UCLA with a theater degree.

“I moved to Juneau as Perseverance’s costume intern. I got here and, like everybody else, I just never left,” Snyder said.

She’s worked on at least one production every season since, designing costumes for shows including “The Blue Bear,” and “The 39 Steps.” She’s also worked on shows for Generator Theater Company (formerly the Thunder Mountain Theatre Project), Juneau Lyric Opera, Opera to Go and other groups.

Other roles in the arts community include work as a stage manager, scenic artist and props master, and, since 2006, member of the violin section of the Juneau Symphony.

For now, Snyder is focused on two big upcoming events: Halloween and the opening of “Treasure Island” on Nov. 8. Though the timing of the show means that the new costumes won’t be available for would-be pirates this Halloween, next year there will be a more than ample supply (the show has 11 characters, many of them pirates).

“If anybody wants to dress up as a pirate after November, they are set,” Snyder said.

 

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Brown Boots Costume Co. is located in downtown Douglas, between the Douglas Cafe and Perseverance Theater. It is currently open from 12-6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Halloween costumes can be reserved in advance. Find out more on Snyder’s Facebook page, or by contacting Snyder at brownbootscostumes@gmail.com or 523-5223.

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