Malabar marks last Halloween at historic McCaul costume shop


The city’s oldest costume shop is considering its future after a century on the local art scene – but don’t worry, it’s not closing

Samuel Engelking

If you’re ready to dress up again, Toronto’s oldest and most famous costume store is waiting right where you left off – at least for now.

Malabar is ready for the Halloween rush, but it will likely be the last at its storefront on McCaul Street, just north of Queen. It’s been there since at least the 1950s, but now the building is for sale.

Luigi Speca – who joined Malabar as a tailor as a teenager before becoming its owner – is now almost 80 years old and ready to retire.

But retail manager Hollis Wilson wants to be clear: Malabar isn’t going away. She’ll start looking for locations after the Halloween rush for a move likely in early 2022, ideally not too far from where they are now.

“We get calls almost every day asking if we’re closing,” she says. “People think that as soon as a real estate ad goes up, it means it’s over. A business can move. It happens all the time. “

A customer browses the shelves of Malabar
Samuel Engelking

Wilson always wants to be away from universities like Ryerson, OCAD, and U of T and their theater and dance departments, as well as arts venues like the Four Seasons Center.

You must have a really long memory to find out firsthand, but McCaul isn’t even the home location for Malabar. Sara Mallabar started the business in Winnipeg in 1900 to make dresses for the car trade, then turned her into a costume designer for the booming opera, theater and entertainment stages. His son Harry moved to Toronto in 1923 and settled on Spadina, then the Entertainment District (that was on King for a while) and finally McCaul.

Somewhere later, the store dropped one of the Ls in Mallabar to avoid confusion with the Winnipeg store, which still operates independently but rebranded as Harlequin. Another Malabar store opened by the family in Montreal recently closed, so Toronto and its Ottawa branch are the last two official Malabar stores still standing.

Malabar: dance shoes with fake blood

Whether you’ve visited the store or not, you’ve probably been influenced by Malabar. If you’ve seen a theater, dance, or opera production in the past century in Toronto, there’s a good chance you’ve seen their costumes. They have outfitted hundreds of thousands of large-scale productions over the years, and most of these costumes are available for hire.

“We welcome local dance companies and dance schools, theater productions, film productions, the local drag community, local cosplay and larp communities,” says Wilson. “Almost anyone with a creative mind in the arts will be here. “

The Malabar Retail Department
Samuel Engelking

Although Malabar recently closed its opera warehouse on Brock and sold an illustrious collection of 30,000 costumes to the Sarasota Opera House, there is still a huge selection of costumes in its rental collection. There are shelves upon shelves of costumes, almost all handmade by Speca and her team, all for a specific show or production over the years.

So if you are considering a regency dress for your Bridgerton costume, it may have been used in a stage adaptation of Jane Austen. If you’ve rented a pirate costume for your Pirates of the Caribbean costume over the past decade, it could be from a Pirates of Penzance production. People are constantly throwing 20s Roaring parties, and Malabar is ready with the flapper dresses and the Great Gatsby style hats and costumes. And lots of masks for your masquerade ball.

In the rental department, located in the room behind the retail store, these costumes are offered at a weekly rate of between $ 65 and $ 200, but from Thanksgiving through Halloween, you can get them at the same rate until the first. week of November.

When I ask how they decide what’s worth $ 65 and what’s worth $ 200, Wilson doesn’t hesitate.

“Dry cleaning,” she says.

Truth be told, it also has a lot to do with the complexity of the craft that goes into it. A baroque suit, for example, has an ornate jacket, waistcoat, shirt, tie, pants, socks, belt buckles – all with much more texture and detail than you can possibly find in them. assembling yourself in the vintage store.

Hollis Wilson, Malabar Retail Director in the Makeup Department
Samuel Engelking

Hollis Wilson, Malabar Retail Director in the Makeup Department

It is still unclear what will happen to the rental service once Malabar moves, but the retail business will grow. Wilson says she would like to expand the already strong makeup and dance departments – the two areas that receive the most traffic and have the most room for growth. She went to school to do her own makeup before starting Malabar 13 years ago.

“The brands we offer are all professional grade,” she says. “They have very good reps in the industry, so you know what you put on your face for Halloween – or your child’s face – is safe and it won’t damage your skin for the next few days. where you wear it. They also don’t wash off in a few days, so you can buy some for this Halloween. and next Halloween.

The staff have the expertise to let people in with a photo of the look they want and give them a walkthrough to achieve it. During the spooky season it’s a lot of body paint, fake blood, prosthetic transfers (for injuries and decaying zombies and the like), and also all kinds of different colored contact lenses. But people come all year round, even professional clowns.

During the non-spooky season, dancewear takes up half of the store. People come for ballet shoes, jazz shoes, tights, leotards and dividers – from young children just starting out to high school students at triple threat art schools like Randolph, Rosedale Heights and Etobicoke School of the Arts and post-secondary programs in Ryerson, George Brown and York. Malabar keeps abreast of the dress codes of different schools and offers them discounts for students.

Malabar's wigs
Samuel Engelking

The Great Shortage of COVID Costumes

Currently, however, the retail department is filled with Halloween stuff. You wouldn’t know among all the varieties of different props and costumes for sale, but there is actually a shortage of Halloween costume supply due to COVID – manufacturing shortage, shipping container shortage. , etc. Like all other areas, the pandemic has shaken the Halloween industry.

“There’s a big expo party every year in January, and that hasn’t happened in recent years,” Wilson says. “It’s like Fan Expo for Halloween party stores. Most independent retailers go there and all of our sellers are there in one place. You can see all the new products they have on offer, you place all your orders, and then they make them for you by Halloween. “

She is used to signing nondisclosure agreements, which allows her to see the products of new movies and TV shows long before they are released. Disney, for example, has a large room filled with products from their own studios as well as Marvel and Star Wars.

“When Frozen was coming out, we saw all of Elsa and Anna’s outfits as a year before everyone else.”

Malabar differs from stores like Spirit Halloween by the quality of their offerings and the knowledge of the staff.

“To independent retailers, this store is like Voldemort,” she says. “They buy all the stock and manufacture it in bulk, then offer it at prices that no independent can ever match. They’re huge and can spawn anywhere and crush your business if it’s nearby.

A devil costume on the rack in Malabar
Samuel Engelking

Aside from Squid Game, which came out a bit too late to store, Wilson says a lot of people are coming back to the classics anyway: witches, devils, angels, cats. Not only are they endlessly malleable, but they age well – and they eschew the cultural appropriation issues that haunt the Halloween industry. Malabar is very careful not to sell anything that could be considered offensive. Since the rental department has costumes that date back decades and decades, it’s a constant job of updating and curating.

“We have a whole section upstairs [in the storage room] who will never see the light of day again, ”she said. “Outfits from old Annie Get Your Gun productions and stuff like that. Yeah, no – we don’t rent that anymore. We haven’t done it for probably at least a decade.

There could be more thinking ahead as the folks behind Malabar look to the future, including a potential next-gen transfer.

In the meantime, there is still a Halloween.

Toronto Pillars is NOW’s series highlighting the long-standing businesses that make the city what it is. Do you have a suggestion? Email me (select Life from the drop-down list).


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