Shop takes its hat off to you

The Life: When she was 16, Jayne Eastland interned as a wardrobe assistant on television series. The internship sparked an interest that is reaping benefits three decades later - with a theatrical business venture in Dubai.

Jayne Eastland of Mr Ben´s Costume Closet, says 70 per cent of her business comes from renting out costumes. Pawan Singh / The National
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When she was 16, Jayne Eastland interned as a wardrobe assistant on television series such as ITV's Robin of Sherwood.

The internship sparked an interest that is reaping benefits three decades later - with a theatrical business venture in a community mall in Satwa, Dubai.

Called Mr Ben's Costume Closet, named after a bowler-hatted British cartoon character of the 1970s, her enterprise has in a half decade grown from premises requiring 800 square feet to 4,000.

"This Mr Ben clad in his bowler hat, suit and tie lived on Festive Road and used to go to his costume shop, change into a costume, get out through the back door, have a complete adventure, come back and change into his hat and suit," Ms Eastland says.

So, when she thought of opening a fancy dress shop, she named it after him. She borrowed the bowler hat symbol under permission, and perched it rakishly on the bright red letters of the shop name encrusted with light bulbs for a carnival look.

Now crammed with special additions for Halloween, the shop is a Pandora's box of blue, gold and red harlequins' dresses, green eyelashes studded with cosmetic diamonds and skeletons greeting customers at the door. To add to the ambience, fake gore and spiders hang from the ceiling.

"The best way to tell a story is through costumes," says Ms Eastland, who is from Wales and has a two-year-old daughter.

Begun as a rental and retail operation, 70 per cent of the business at Mr Ben's Costume Closet now comes from renting out costumes.

While she designs many of the baroque costumes - such as an ash brown dress complete with a corset - she has an in-house tailor who stitches these. Others are imported from the United Kingdom and Italy.

"The rental ones are designed to last 15 years. They are of high quality," she says. "The ones you buy are for wearing once or twice."

Her company also works with theatre companies and schools for their productions.

"We started with adults, but as we got bigger we encompassed children's costumes, too."

Rental costumes start at Dh50 (US$13.60) for items such as shirts and trousers. To hire full costumes, most of which are made in-house, costs Dh275. Costumes for sale start at Dh95.

Licensed costumes, such as those from Marvel and Disney, either on hire and for sale go from Dh275 to Dh400.

The clientele of Mr Ben's Costume Closet consists mostly of Emiratis and western expatriates. But it also has a large Iranian, Lebanese and Indian fan base, she says.

A local milestone for people who like to wear costumes came in April, when the first Middle East Film and Comic convention in Dubai attracted 15,000 people.

At Comic Con, some people dressed as sci-fi or manga characters, says Ben Caddy, the organiser of the event and managing director of Extra Cake, an advertising and events company.

Those who took costume play most seriously entered the Cosplay Competition, which had more than 50 participants.

"The eventual winner of the individual category came all the way from Saudi Arabia, which is an indication of how popular and widespread certainly the cosplay scene is in the Middle East," Mr Caddy says. The city's next Comic Con is scheduled for April 5 and 6.

Despite the growth at Ms Eastland's shop , it is not going to leave Al Ghazal Mall anytime soon. The business will, however, add a warehouse in Jebel Ali by end of next year as it expands as an Arabian Gulf wholesaler of costumes for one of its UK-based suppliers.

"Ours is a community business," says Ms Eastland, whose company is one of the finalists for next month's Gulf Capital SMEinfo Awards.

"We are at the heart of the community here and being inside a large mall - we did not think it was appropriate [to move]."