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Although the occasion isn’t rooted in our local cultures, Halloween is fairly big in Singapore—just look at the massive crowd turn-up to Universal Studios Singapore’s yearly Halloween Horror Nights.
It was recently the spookiest time of the year again, and it got me wondering where Singaporeans get their costumes.
While there are cheap and accessible options online now (read: Taobao), I found out about one of the oldest and most established costume houses in the country.
They’ve been in business since 1998, and their name keeps straight to the point: Customade Costume & Merchandise.
Upon reaching out to Hasyna Neo, stated to be the marketing contact on their website, I realise I’m speaking to the daughter of one of CCM’s co-founders, Noorjahan Katu.
“We’re a family business!” Neo tells me warmly.
Keeping Audiences Entertained Since 15
Singaporean siblings Ali Khan Surattee and Noorjahan Katu were the ones behind the company, which at first, they called No.1 Costume Costume.
But even before that, an enterprising young Ali Khan already set foot into entrepreneurship when he started building his own live entertainment portfolio at the age of 15.
He started from the ground, working as a freelance performer. According to his LinkedIn profile, this included performing party roles like mimes and clowns, and producing stage sets.
He gradually made a name for Alikhan Live Entertainment, producing shows for theme parks and performances at shopping malls.
Over time, he’s even worked with Disney, Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. as an events consultant, character trainer, and licensee.
Ali Khan would eventually find that his business needed costumes to support its events.
When the demand arose, the NAFA fashion design graduate decided it would be more economical to produce his own costumes instead of purchasing them.
His sister Noor, who was a policewoman then, came on board to help manage the design development and production line—together, they formed their family costume business in a unit on the third floor of Bras Basah Complex.
Building Singapore’s Largest Costume House
Their first custom order came in, and the siblings acquired materials, designed and sewed the costume. As they repeated this over and over again, their collection of outfits-for-rent slowly grew.
In the business’ infancy, Ali Khan’s name in the entertainment industry gave it a boost in gaining clientele, who would also spread word-of-mouth. With few competitors at the time, CCM had an advantage to pioneer the industry too.
Still, managing a growing business and meeting demands presented onerous challenges.
CCM often struggled to offer quantity in its early days, having to turn down customers who wanted to rent five pieces of the same costume, when they only had one in stock.
Other times, they had to scramble to make costumes under time constraints.
“We had just a few days to create the specifications and quantities our client needed, while still keeping the costume’s quality [up to par].”
Despite the obstacles, their selection of costumes expanded through the years, enabling them to move into a colossal showroom in Toa Payoh, housing over 50,000 outfits and 4,000 accessories.
Growing Up With An Endless Dress-Up Playground
For Noor’s children, Sanee and Hasyna Neo, Customade Costume & Merchandise became a huge part of their lives.
I grew up with birthday parties filled with lots of clowns, Santa Claus and magicians! [It was] everything a child could hope for, seeing these characters in real life.
It wasn’t just fun and childlike wonder though, as Sanee says his mother would assign him and his sister some small jobs to let them earn extra pocket money, with which they could buy things they wanted.
“It taught me how to earn my own keep [as a child],” he says. When he was older, he joined CCM as a part-time service staff too.
Although he graduated with a diploma in chemical engineering, Sanee was intrinsically drawn back to the family business, and the “awesome” feeling of leaving yourself behind to transform into characters in costume.
After he joined the company full time, he started taking night classes to complete a business course at Singapore University of Social Science (SUSS).
As they say, theory is only useful when applied in practice—and Sanee put his learning to work whenever he got the chance.
“I would change my focus [in different areas of the company] every 4 to 5 months, according to the modules I was taking,” he says. For example, he updated CCM’s human resource policies while he was taking a HR module in school.
Since 2013, Sanee took over as the General Manager, while Hasyna joined the company early this year, leaving the first generation owners to take on more mentoring-focused roles.
As much as they’ve grown, they still remain a tight-knit family business, and the Neo siblings would even model some of the costumes themselves!
Adapting To New Age Of Business, Scaling Down Instead Of Up
CCM’s costume house was at its peak at Toa Payoh in 2009, but circumstances have resulted in a need to scale down their impressive showroom.
Of course, we are still relatively huge in our [current] 2-story costume house on Kelantan Lane. But, once upon a time, we were gargantuan.
Rising rental and labour costs made it difficult to maintain their old model of business, and they had to restructure to spread their focuses across three arms instead: custom-made costumes, costume rental, and mascots.
Sanee says scaling down the rental showroom to hold 20,000 costumes, from its previous collection of 50,000, was the “most challenging” decision he’s had to make, but going lean hasn’t been a bad thing.
He tells us they’ve been focusing more on custom orders, and seen the demand grow year on year.
Their pool of customers range from cosplayers looking for intricately designed character get-ups, to school choirs and gymnastics troupes. Sometimes they even get groomsmen dressing up in costumes for a Chinese wedding “gate crash”!
They’ve also dressed performers for parades on more massive scales, like the Chingay and Singapore’s National Day Parades.
Through the extension of CCM’s mascot and custom-costumes arms, they’ve opened up opportunities to work with large clients like Pringles, Pokka, Singapore Airshow, and Heineken.
For the beer brand, they created futuristic ‘droid’ costumes to complement the “Heineken Green Room: Touch The Music” promotional video.
But when it comes to renting to the masses, has the advent of online marketplaces like Taobao and ezbuy wiped out their years of work building Singapore’s largest costume house?
Sanee and Hasyna say they’ve definitely felt its impacts, as the availability of e-commerce has “filtered away the customers that have a tighter budget”.
CCM typically lets customers rent their costumes for 7 hours, 1 day, 3 days, or 1 week, at prices starting from $45/day.
However, they believe their positioning matches customers who need more convenience and strong service, and that these are the customers who come back time after time.
“Halloween is just the beginning of our peak period!” Hasyna says. “Post-Halloween is followed by many thematic corporate Dinner and Dances, [and that’s when] we’ll be seeing lots of new faces in our Costume House.”
Beyond the festivities, the Neo siblings let us in on something new they’re stitching together: CCM’s ‘Costume Truck’.
While they can’t reveal everything yet, they say the truck aims to make dressing up more convenient as it will “bring costumes to our customers instead of customers [coming] to our shop”.
We look forward to seeing this fun new addition that could be running by the end of this year!
If you want to see what crazy costumes are available for rent, or even create something totally unique for yourself, check them out here.
Customade Costume & Merchandise
3 Kelantan Lane #01-01
Featured Image Credit: Customade Costume & Merchandise