On the corner of Francis and King streets, a three-story brick building towers over passers-by, its diamond-pane windows revealing a dark interior. A steep flight of steps leads to a pair of red doors, where a small note instructs visitors to knock. Inside, mannequins, masks, and even a few skeletons peek out from countless racks of clothes representing every notable era of history. This is Theatrics Unlimited, where people have come to reinvent themselves for more than 30 years.
Sharon Willis founded the company in 1978, and it became one of the first City of Charleston revitalization businesses — meaning the city helped her get on her feet in exchange for her bringing business to a deserted downtown. They spent two years in a building at Meeting and Society followed by a decade in West Ashley before buying the King Street property in 1992. The building, built in 1915, had previously been a church whose congregation had whittled away to seven members after the space was damaged by Hurricane Hugo.
With a background in costumes and makeup, Willis and her husband Bruce have stuffed all three floors of the building with vintage and custom-made costumes — over 30,000 of them, in fact.
"We have too many costumes for this building, literally," Sharon Willis says. "And most of them I can tell you some kind of story about where they came from, who made them, or why they made them."
As Willis leads us through the bowels of the creaky old house, we feel like we're meeting members of her family. She points to a wedding dress that belonged to a bride who never made it to the altar, a vintage slip whose owner passed away years ago, and a sequined gown worn by a mother of the bride. Then there are the elaborate costumes, like the wizard from Wicked, a rack of Renaissance-style clothes, and a bevy of Southern belles — nearly 100 of them. Bruce designs and makes many of the costumes.
"If we do 100 Southern belles, no two are alike, because we make everything, pretty much," Willis says.
In the basement, menswear rules, boasting an army's worth of soldiers' uniforms. Cowboy shirts, a wall of hats, and the odd rack of fluffy, colorful square-dancing skirts fill the room. Upstairs, Bruce, who started out sewing doll clothes as a young boy, works away on a large table surrounded by bolts of fabric and even more rows of costumes.
Customers range from local school and community theater groups to national film companies — they've provided costumes and makeup services for productions like Die Hard 3 (they made a bunch of decapitated heads), Unsolved Mysteries, and Army Wives. And then there are the in-the-know locals who stop by for costumes, whether for Halloween or costume parties that take place throughout the year. Willis says that flappers and pirates are always popular requests.
If you're looking for something specific, the Willises will mentally pick through the thousands of items in the shop to create a fully formed and, when applicable, historically accurate character. You can go in and buy just a dress or a wig, but they specialize in putting together finished, dramatic looks — they typically charge from the high teens to $50per character.
"All true costumers are all about reinventing things," Willis says. "A silhouette is what you're aiming for. Whatever garment — a tablecloth, let's say — that you can make into a silhouette for that period, that's what you're aiming for."
While they've made a name for themselves by transforming others, Theatrics Unlimited is currently in the midst of their own reinvention. Willis calls the idea Vibrant Phoenix.
"It's about honoring businesses, individuals, and cultures that reinvent themselves so they might thrive," she says. "Businesses need to do that. They can be wonderful in one decade, but not serving the needs of the next decade."
The company now offers a room full of moderately priced vintage clothing and accessories just waiting for a new life.
"My goal in my morphing at this point is to eliminate enough stock to clear out one floor," Willis says. She hopes to utilize the extra space for other purposes, like performances, an expanded sale area, and classrooms — Willis also teaches for the Charleston Clemente program, which offers free college-level humanitarian courses for disadvantaged locals. The overall idea is for customers to think green.
"The earlier generation rented quality things for Halloween rather than buying things you just throw away," she says. "The generation of the younger people now, though they're interested in green, they're often the disposable generation too. We chose 15 years ago not to go that route. We don't want to sell crap. We don't want to sell things that you throw in the trash the next day. We still cater to people who are interested in doing something in a spectacular way and notbeing a cookie-cutter."
Theatrics Unlimited. 981 King St. (843) 722-2326. theatricsunlimited.com. Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.