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Design studio, bursting at the seams, finds new home

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Marilyn Johnson has only been running her sewing studio out of its new location for about three months, but a visitor could be forgiven for thinking she's been in the same space for years.

And they wouldn't be too far from the truth. Johnson's new studio, on Lafayette Avenue in Laurel, is just across the parking lot from where her old one had been for a decade.

Johnson, who has owned the Marilyn Johnson Sewing & Design Studio since 1998, needed to move to make room for her expanding business. She would have been fine, space-wise, if all she wanted to do was make alterations, a few custom designs and teach sewing lessons.

But the old studio was bursting at the seams with costumes, the bread and butter of Johnson's business.

"When I first moved in, it seemed like a great big, open space, and after 10 and a half years, I couldn't fit in another spool of thread," she said.

Johnson's success is what some have called an example for the Laurel business community, which officials and business leaders say is on the up and up.

"Generally speaking, over the past couple of years things slowed down a bit, but certainly in the last year economic development has increased, small business included," Laurel Public Information Officer Pete Piringer said. "There's a lot of excitement about what's going on."

Prince George's County Council member Mary Lehman said she was "thrilled" by the expansion of Johnson's studio. "Small businesses are a vital part Prince George's County's economy," she said, and added, "I'm especially glad to see a woman entrepreneur take such a major step to grow what was literally a homegrown business ... and be an example for other women looking to start or expand a business."

Costume details

Johnson's costume wardrobe has been steadily growing since she started her business. A walk through her "closet" is a walk through time and space, both historical and make-believe.

On the racks, there are Victorian gowns and lacy gloves, medieval tunics and Egyptian robes. She's got 20th-century vintage dresses and a blue-and-white "Sailor Moon" ensemble. And she has boxes and boxes of military uniforms and insignia.

But it's never enough.

"No costume closet is ever complete, because there's always the perfect dress in the wrong size for the actor or actress," Johnson said. "So you're always adding."

By Johnson's count, she has about 3,000 costumes stored in the studio. She's working on photographing and cataloging each one of them so that customers can easily find what they're looking for.

In addition to individual customers in search of a costume for the Renaissance Festival or a Halloween party, Johnson also gets a lot of orders from local theater companies, big and small. She said she tries to make prices accessible so that even small community groups can afford to get costumes made.

"Nothing drives me crazier than seeing bad costumes up on stage," she said.

Johnson has also worked with the White House to create costumes for a program that teaches children about U.S. history from the perspective of the children who have lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

She said making costumes is not as simple as drawing up a design that looks good.

"There's an amazing amount of research that goes into a lot of costume work," she said. "You have to understand characters, you have to know their age, their social status, their personalities. You have to know what year it is, what month it is, because then you have to dress them for the weather. … Fortunately, I'm a history buff."

That attention to detail extends past historical concerns, as well. One of Johnson's most memorable projects was designing a "Star Wars" bounty hunter costume for a local fan.

"The thing with re-enactors is they want everything exact," she said. Which, in this case, meant that the material she had to work with was lavender neoprene — the same fabric used in scuba diving suits.

The process took two years and a 400-yard bolt of neoprene to complete, but by the end, Johnson was able to re-create the costume so perfectly that the re-enactor was indistinguishable from the Star Wars actress when their pictures were placed side by side.

"It was absolutely the most challenging thing I've ever done," she remembered. "Surgery recovery shirts for a cockatiel were nothing after that" — a reference to the terry-cloth bibs she pieced together for a local pet owner who needed a way to keep her bird from picking out its chest stitches after an operation.

Basement beginnings

Johnson is full of these stories, but when she started her business 15 years ago, she didn't know what to expect. Her youngest child had just graduated high school and she was looking for another source of income, so she figured she'd try to make some money off of a long-held skill. In the early days, she ran her business out of her basement.

"I thought, 'Well, I like to sew; I sew pretty well; and I know there's a need for costumes because I've been volunteering for the last 15 years to make costumes for all my kids' schools and groups,' " she said, "so OK — I'll give it a try."

Soon, she was getting requests not only for costumes but for alterations, designs — even requests to make wedding dresses. Within five years, she was cramped for space and needed to find a studio.

That's when she first moved the business to Lafayette Avenue, a few blocks away from Main Street. Her first studio was a former auto repair shop.

"It was filthy," she recalled, "just grease and oil up the walls; the floors were black; there was a truck parked in the back corner; there was a compressor against the wall; the hoist things were still there in the floor. … It took us about six weeks to degrease the place and get it so you could bring a wedding gown in, but we did it."

Her most recent move may have required less degreasing, but it still required a good amount of elbow grease. Luckily, Johnson's family members, like her, are a handy bunch.

Her carpenter husband and son helped dismantle the lofts from the old building and reconstruct them in the new one. Her other son, an electrician, ran all the electrical wiring in the new space.

When it came to moving furniture, Johnson had some help from an employee with an architecture degree. Using her architect's software, she was able to enter the dimensions of the new studio as well as the measurements of all the shelves they would have to move.

"By the time we were ready to move, we knew exactly where everything would go," Johnson said.

And her own habit of keeping an orderly studio helped when it was time to move boxes.

"Someone once described me as the person who put the 'O' in organization, so pretty much everything is in boxes and labeled," she said.

The whole time, Johnson had a deadline in mind: Oct. 16, the date she announced as the open house for her new studio. The night of the event, more than 50 friends and local politicians, including Lehman, Laurel City Council member Ed Ricks and District 21 Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk showed up to celebrate.

"I wanted to come out to support not only a local business, but a woman-owned business," Peña-Melnyk said. She added that she had signed her daughters up for sewing lessons.

Bernie Robinson, branch manager of the PNC Bank on Main Street and president of the Laurel Board of Trade, said that Johnson's success bodes well for business in all of Laurel. "The business climate is improving," he said, highlighting new business in the new Towne Centre Laurel as a step forward for the community.

"Marilyn is one of the more involved people in Laurel," he added. "Her heart and soul is in the community."

With the moving process wrapping up and four employees [two full-time — one hired three years ago and one hired a year and a half ago — as well as two contract employees, both hired about six months ago] to handle day-to-day business, Johnson said she is looking forward to using her new studio space to work on some designs of her own.

"It's all new. It's all in place. There's a tweak here or there left, but basically it's all done," she said. "And it does very much feel like we've been here forever, but it's been a very intense few months."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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