Diana Kirkpatrick opened Center Stage Clothiers in 2018 to honor the life of a late local costumer designer. Based in Vancouver, Washington and with just one part-time employee to help run the show, Diana provides costume rentals to local schools for theatrical productions, to business and individuals for themed parties and fundraisers, and even offers private dress-up parties and other events.
Center Stage Clothiers took home third prize in the latest Nav Small Business Grant round, here’s their story.
Why did you start the company?
I was contacted by a gentleman who had recently lost his wife to cancer, to help him figure out what to do with three full-size storage units full of costumes, vintage apparel and accessories she had accumulated before she died. She was the costume designer for a couple of local high schools in Portland, OR, and had been sewing, searching for and sourcing all these fabulous garments for almost 20 years!
After seeing this amazing collection, my first thought was how sad it was that this woman’s life’s work and passion was being hidden behind the metal roll-up door of a few storage units. After discussing with my husband, I decided that we needed to get this collection in front of the public again and give the local schools access to it for their drama productions.
I asked David, the widower, what he thought about me opening a costume shop and dedicating it to his wife, Kristin. I told him that not only would the public be able to see her beautiful garments, but that they would be available to the schools again to use in their plays. He thought it was a wonderful idea and tearfully said “Kristin would have LOVED that!” So, that was the day I knew there was a reason God brought David and I together to help share this lady’s legacy.
Is there any inspiration for your business’ name or concept?
Since the collection began for use in theatrical productions, I liked the idea of being “Center Stage,” and since I also do wardrobe on films and television, I thought my theme and decor being Old Hollywood tied all three genres together. That’s where I came up with my tag line: “Center Stage Clothiers, where YOU can be center stage!”
What makes your business unique/different?
First, we are the only storefront costume shop in Vancouver, WA, and after the closure of Portland’s most famous costume shop, Helen’s Pacific Costumers, in 2017, the next closest year-round theatrical quality costume shop is located almost 20 miles away in Beaverton, Oregon.
Another unique service we offer – besides our outstanding one-on-one costume styling – is a venue to have your own private dress-up party with friends. We rent the store out after hours for small groups to come dress up in any of our costumes and accessories for a couple of hours and create memory making photo opportunities. We also rent out for private photo shoots as well.
Also, all the artwork in my store was provided by my husband, Jim – definitely making it a family business.
How did you get the money to start the company?
I took an early withdrawal from my IRA to open my store and had taken several subsequent withdrawals to be able to keep it running while getting established that first year.
Have you used any form of financing (credit card, line of credit, business loan, etc.) for your business?
I used my personal credit cards for much of the additional inventory or store supply purchases I made after I first opened last year. Earlier this year, I applied for a couple of business credit cards and use them for necessities now. I have not received any bank financing or received any other grants or funding.
How will you use the prize money from Nav?
I want to focus this Grant I received on enhancing my marketing campaign and getting the word out to more people about my store. We have currently been mostly focusing on social media and a few small ads in local publications. I would like to get in more school vendor directories and source guides for television and film. I’d even like to run a short commercial on local radio if I can.
What do you love most about your business/having your own business?
I absolutely LOVE my store! I enjoy interacting with the customers and helping them create the perfect costume for their themed fundraiser, murder mystery dinner, costume party or whatever the occasion is. A lot of people can be ‘creatively challenged’ when it comes to putting a costume together, so that’s where we come in and pull together the perfect look for their event. I’ve mentioned before that I kind of feel like a fairy godmother, getting them, all dressed up and sending them off to the ball! Also, dressing all my mannequins is like playing adult Barbies, and who wouldn’t love that?
In regards to owning my own business, I love being able to make the decisions on exactly how I want my store to look, from the store’s décor to the placement of the clothing racks, to what additional inventory we should purchase, events we should have, etc. And, being my own boss definitely has its perks compared to my 28 years as an executive assistant in the corporate world.
How do you manage cash flow in the company?
Cash flow for a new business has been a challenge. There are always things I want to purchase to enhance either my inventory or the aesthetic of my storefront, but I have to wait to make sure I have all my obligations met and paid for before I can make those “I wish I had…” purchases. Obviously, rent, utilities, paying my employee and taxes are my top priorities, so I’m always very cognizant of what’s in my business bank account before I make any large purchases. Also, so far, I have been paying any vendors I have at the time of service rather than on account or credit.
What’s the most challenging thing about running the company?
As mentioned in my previous response, I believe cash flow has been one of the biggest challenges. Especially when you are trying to support the business out of your own pocket. I didn’t want to create a huge pile of debt when I opened my store, so I’ve been trying to do it on my own. Luckily, we have been continually increasing our customers and sales/rentals, so I’ve been able to meet all my obligations to date. AND, I have vowed not to dip into my IRA any further and will hopefully be able to contribute to it once again soon.
The other challenge would be not really having the time to do things outside the business. My store is open six days a week and I’m there every day, so my one day off is filled with doing all the errands and catching up on things I didn’t get to the week.
I also do commission costume design work in the evenings to supplement my income, so even after I leave the store, I am going home to work on sewing projects. So, lack of personal free time is a big challenge.
What’s the biggest challenge your business is currently facing?
I would say our biggest challenge is having enough working capital. We are still getting ourselves established in the community, so our sales and rentals fluctuate daily, which, in turn, can be very stressful when you don’t have a “safety cushion” in your business bank account to get you through the slower periods.
Was there any time where you thought you might give up?
I can honestly say that I have never thought of giving up! I believe this costume store was meant to be; that David and I were brought together for a reason and that God had this all planned out for us long before it came to be. It all just fell into place too perfectly for it to not mean something to me, to David and to our community.
We’ve made an impact on our city by offering a fun place to come to and let your imagination run wild! We offer schools and theater groups a chance to keep the arts alive in the community by offering beautiful costumes and vintage clothes for their productions at a substantially reduced rate. All these things are very rewarding to me and make it worth coming to work every day!
What’s the most rewarding thing about running the company?
I am so proud of what we’ve accomplished so far! My husband created a beautiful store for me to showcase Kristin’s collection – which I promised her husband I would do. I love telling her story when customers see her picture above our counter!
What’s the biggest mistake you made when you were starting the company?
Probably my biggest mistake was not having a completed business plan or fully researching the best systems to have in place. I jumped in and opened before I even had the store completely tagged and inventoried. I also got some poor advice on an inaccurate POS system that didn’t really work for our rental side of the business, so I had to change systems and retag everything in my store only months after opening. That was a painful mistake!
What’s the smartest thing you did when you were first starting out?
Get a SCORE Mentor to help me with my millions of questions! I also joined the Chamber of Commerce before I had my actual storefront. They were invaluable to me as well.
I also worked with Kathy Bazan at the Washington SBDC. She is the one who helped me with reading and proofing my submission for Nav’s Small Business Grant.
What advice would you give to a new entrepreneur?
Do your research! Get a business mentor and don’t be in a rush to open. Make sure all your plans are in place and complete before you turn on the open sign. You don’t want to be learning things when you have a customer in front of you! I was so excited and stressed about opening my first day, I forgot to get money for the cash register and had to send my husband out running to the bank to get me some money to put in the drawer! Don’t be that person.
What’s next for your business?
First, we want to get through this, our second, Halloween season with our sanity! We’ve already got customers putting their costumes on hold for parties at the end of October! So, word is definitely getting out about us! We close the store two hours later during the entire month of October to accommodate the costume renters, so longer days lie ahead for us!
My next project is to create a robust campaign to reach out to the high schools and theater groups across the river in Portland, OR, and the surrounding area. We currently have eight high schools in Washington that rent from us, and I’d love to expand our reach. My focus will be on the high schools, as that’s where this entire story started – Kristin Jager Johnson and her beautiful collection of incredible costumes and vintage clothing.