As All Hallows Eve approaches with the promise of jack-o'-lanterns and ghouls, the Marilyn Johnson Sewing Design Studio in Laurel is burning midnight oil stitching glitz and glamour to suit the fantasies of those who want to masquerade about town in style.
According to owner and designer Marilyn Johnson, autumn is one of the studio's busiest times because the demand for costumes in October coincides with the fall play season for local schools, theaters and community groups.
The studio also sews costumes for full-scale theatrical productions, professional movie companies, dancers, re-enactors, mascots and cosplayers.
Requests for custom garments (such as formal wear for bridal parties) and for alterations also come frequently, and the studio trains interns and teaches sewing classes on site.
But Johnson said the costume work allows her to be the most creative.
A 2011 nominee for the Baltimore Broadway World — Best Costume Design award for costuming the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's "Our Town," Johnson has also done work locally for Venus Theatre and the Laurel Mill Playhouse.
"I have favorite time periods, but designing anything fantasy where there are no restrictions is the most fun," Johnson said. "It's exciting to work with different fabrics and trims, sculpting flowers from horsehair and organza."
She also enjoys working with Wonderflex, a material comprised of synthetic polymer fibers that is commonly used by artists, sculptors, prop masters, set designers and costume makers.
"You can sew it, you can paint it, and it gets hard like plastic," she said.
She said the lightly woven, fine threads of chiffon, "a gorgeous fabric that flows and adds elegance," can be difficult to work with; there is bias to contend with when cutting circles for skirts.
Johnson said 90 percent of her dresses have chiffon skirts that need hemming, and much of the design work requires meticulous research and planning.
Currently knee deep in assembling the costumes for an entire cast of "Lion King Jr." for the Thomas G. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts Academy, the studio also recently fit a gentleman "from head to toe" in an Edwardian tux for a Titanic party and has been commissioned to create a tween's Elsa costume.
And, Johnson said, a request just came in to sew a block of costumes worn by characters from the Eddie Murphy movie, "Coming to America," for a social event.
Trove of accessories
Commissioning a custom-made costume to rent from the studio costs less than buying one, but more than selecting something from the studio's bi-level costume closet to have fitted.
"A gentlemen and his wife were going [to a party] as a colonial couple until he saw the renaissance costumes. Now they're going as a renaissance couple," Johnson said.
Among the thousands of photographed and inventoried pieces available to fall in love with are Green Lantern, Cyclops, Shadow Cat, Rogue, Storm and Jubilee costumes as well as character, period and bridal clothing.
A trove of accessories — petticoats, gloves, reticules, jewelry and hats and shoes — supplies staff with everything needed to assemble "full looks" for clients. The Sailor Moon costume with hairpiece, earrings, necklace and other jewelry has the most pieces.
Entering through the narrow reception area of the studio on Lafayette Avenue where Johnson's favorite "style icon" (a youthful Audrey Hepburn) looks out from a wall calendar feels like passing through a portal into a sprawling dress-up wonderland.
In the inner suite, a few scattered mannequins display artful creations that appear on the verge of springing to life, such as the Fork character's silver tunic from the musical "Beauty and the Beast" (costumes for the rest of the tableware are dozing in the costume closet). .
Hepburn reappears as wall art in the library and consult rooms, hinting, perhaps, of Johnson's girlhood dream to become a famous actress or a ballerina.
"That didn't happen," she said. "But through it all, I sewed."
The petite costumer said she enjoys sewing custom clothing for her young grandchildren and sewed for her own kids when they were growing up.
Her daughter inherited her love of theater and the performing arts, and once drama teachers discovered Johnson could sew, she found herself costuming entire casts as a volunteer.
In 1998, faced with her daughter's college tuition bills, Johnson began sewing professionally out of her North Laurel basement. Five years later, the artist entrepreneur opened her first sewing design studio on LaFayette Avenue where she stayed for almost a decade.
She relocated to her current, and larger, studio a few doors down in 2013. At times, Johnson said, she sleeps overnight there on a couch.
"I have pulled more all-nighters in the last 18 years than I ever did in college," she said, "and I foresee at least a couple more before Halloween."