John Klisavage started collecting costumes from the sets of famous movies in the early 2000s as a way to better connect with films, which he’s been in love with most of his adult life.
“Costumes are the actual physical representation of the films themselves,” said the 63-year-old owner of Washington Street Books and Music in Havre de Grace. “The costumes can make or break a film.”
His affinity for film — and costumes by extension — has led the business owner to amass an impressive collection of original costumes from some of the best known movies of our time — from “The Notebook” to “Hunger Games.”
In all, Klisavage estimates that he has more than 350 costumes from more than 150 films. This January, he’ll display about 25 in his store during a two-month exhibit highlighting some of his more impressive costumes and focusing on garments from the 2013 film “Beautiful Creatures” starring Emmy Rossum, Emma Thompson and Viola Davis.
Klisavage said his love for films began when they got him through long stints at sea as a merchant marine in the 1970s.
“It’s kind of like reading a good book. It took me to a good place. I connected strongly to the film,” he said. “It would take me home.”
Costumes are a way he can connect with those good memories.
“When I got around them, it was like reconnecting to those films that saved my life,” he said. “I was brought back to love, compassion and heroism.”
Klisavage chose “Beautiful Creatures” for his exhibit because it’s one of his favorites.
The movie was filmed in New Orleans, where he lived until the early 1980s. Plus, the costumes were a huge draw.
“I fell in love with the costumes. The pieces are beautiful. They’re perfect,” he said.
The “Beautiful Creatures” offerings include a Victorian-style brown and gold fringe and embroidered dress with a bustle, petticoat and hoop skirt worn in the film by Thompson; a purple and green paneled dress worn by Rossum that looks like a “peacock spreading its wigs,” according to Klisavage; and a Haitian-inspired beige and green dress worn by Davis.
Cathy Vincenti, executive director of the Havre de Grace Chamber of Commerce, has worked with Klisavage for the past 20 years.
“When it comes to small towns and small businesses we see a lot come and go. John has been a staple in the community,” she said. “He’s fun to work with and fun to be around. We’ve watched his children grow up there.”
Vincenti, who has held her position for the past 17 years, has visited Klisavage’s shop a number of times over the years.
“You get a unique experience each time you go there,” she said. “He’s such an asset to the Havre de Grace business community.”
Vincenti is looking forward to the exhibit.
“It’s really neat what John has done,” she said. “I’m impressed and amazed that he has been able to do this all from Havre de Grace. It’s just fun to go in there and take your kids and grandkids in there to see the costumes from a movie you’ve seen in the theater.”
Klisavage said he’s amassed his collection, with each piece costing between $1,000 and $10,000, through joining online forums dedicated to buying and selling movie costumes and meeting various people in the film industry.
“It’s a lot of networking,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t reveal his exact trade secrets. “I go to auction houses. These buyers and sellers can be everyone from people who worked on the movie to fans of the actors or film.”
Patience is also key.
“Some places take two to three months to ship you costumes,” he said while launching into a story about how he had to delay his exhibit by a month because of shipping issues. “You do whatever you have to to get the pieces. I’ve become extremely patient. Some pieces have taken two to three years to get. It’s all timing like anything in life. Sometimes it works in your favor. In the case of shipping, sometimes it doesn’t.”
But once he receives the costumes, it’s all worth it, he said.
Each of the costumes tells a story for Klisavage.
For example, the simple light navy blue chiffon dress adorned with hand-sewn roses — displayed in the middle of the store near a large poster of Marilyn Monroe — was worn by Rachel McAdams in a deleted scene from the 2004 romantic drama “The Notebook.” He purchased the dress from a Maryland-based friend who also collects costumes.
Klisavage was amazed by the size of the piece.
“She’s really small,” he said. “I’m amazed by how small she is. I put the dress on a mannequin of a 12-year-old.”
Situated near the classic book section of the store is an opulent rust and gold embellished floor-length robe that Halle Berry wore in the 2012 sci-fi fantasy movie "Cloud Atlas."
Klisavage acquired that garment in 2016 from a dealer in Germany, who originally purchased it from an auction house in Europe.
His store keeps evolving. He’s a wealth of knowledge.— Lauri Orzewicz, Havre de Grace tourism manager
The exhibit also includes a case featuring a purple and gold silk ombre robe with gold metallic embellishments and a moody navy three-quarter chiffon dress with embroidered flowers, both worn by Si-yeon Park in the 2015 movie “The Last Knights.”
Klisavage was able to get those pieces in 2015 from California around the time that the film premiered.
“What happens a lot of time, the costumes are sold just prior to or before the movie launches because studios don’t know how it will do at the box office,” he said. “They are also trying to clear out their warehouses. Storage is very expensive. Their idea is to reduce the costs associated with that.”
In all, Klisavage has about 10 complete costumes from that movie. He plans to center a future exhibit around it.
The store also contains a 20-foot-long display case with a eight costumes from “The Hunger Games” near the science fiction area.
Klisavage was able to purchase those garments — including pieces worn by Jennifer Lawrence, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz — in 2014 from a major auction house in California.
Lauri Orzewicz, tourism manager for the city of Havre de Grace, said that Klisavage‘s business is a draw to bring visitors to town.
“It definitely gets people coming back to the town and to see what he’s offering. From a tourism standpoint, it’s awesome,” she said. “If you walk in to his store, you better have a least an hour. He has a lot of history about the town. His store keeps evolving. He’s a wealth of knowledge. He’s very passionate about it. He just loves showing off his displays.”
One of the biggest draws to the store are the costumes, according to Orzewicz, who has known Klisavage professionally for the past seven years.
“He’s constantly doing things — like bringing in these costumes. That’s huge,” she said.
The business, which will celebrate its 25th year in May, has grown from a photography studio to its current iteration, which in addition to the costumes includes signed music memorabilia, records, rare comics and first-edition books.
The 6,000-square-foot space is chock full of various finds. An additional 1,200 square feet is used to store and stage costumes.
“It’s scary if you get really hooked,” he said with a laugh.
And Klisavage has no signs of stopping.
“Over the weekend I bought 13 more pieces from five or six different films,” he said with a chuckle. “My wife will shoot me if she finds out.”
IF YOU GO
John Klisavage plans to run his exhibit of film costumes, centered around “Beautiful Creatures,” starting Jan. 31 at his shop, Washington Street Books and Music, 131 N Washington St., in Havre de Grace. The exhibit will run for at least two months. Information: 410-939-6215.