It’s a child’s dream – a 600 square metre dress-up closet.
Fur coats, Victorian dresses, doctors scrubs, pole dancers costumes and space-suits all vie for space in the cavernous warehouse. Then there are the belts, the umbrellas, the glasses and the shoes. This is Hero Frock Hire – Australia’s largest professional costume resource, and if you’re looking for something to wear, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Suzy Carter has owned Hero Frock with her husband Mark since 1982. They have provided costumes for films ranging from big budget extravaganzas like Australia, King Kong, and The Matrix, to homegrown classics, Candy, Shine, and Rabbit Proof Fence. Supplying and collecting costumes for 22 years, Suzy stopped counting individual pieces after 15. There were just too many.
An eclectic mix, the Canal Road warehouse is home to recycled costumes originally made for films, op shop finds and 90 year old dresses so delicate, Suzy is reluctant to even hire them out. “We do have some original twenties pieces now,” she said. “But they’re so fragile that it’s very risky to take it. You just don’t know if it’s going to rip.”
Trained in costume design at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York, Suzy Carter created Hero Frock to cater to the needs of the Australian film industry. Smaller than Hollywood and without the big studio budgets, Australian films needed an affordable costuming option. Rather than spending tens of thousands on purchasing costumes after films, then trying to break even with expensive hire rates as had been done before, Suzy’s business attitude was to rotate.
Films could donate their costumes to Hero Frock and in return, Hero Frock would care for them and keep prices down for future projects.
“When I worked on film there wasn’t a resource available like this,” Suzy said. “It was very frustrating that you’d want to deliver this high quality, you’d have all these great ideas about what you’re going to deliver and you have such a short time frame to get that ready.”
“To have a great resource where you can come in and get really creative and then deliver it in time; things have changed.”
Frequently visited by Australian costume royalty, Catherine Martin, Hero Frock has also been a resource for international mega-films. Last year, during Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, designer Louise Frogley -creator of costumes for Iron Man and James Bond – fell under it’s spell. “She spent hours in this room just fossicking around, finding things we didn’t even know we had and that was for me, really creatively fulfilling. After all these years of work of cataloguing and trying to keep things clean and nice and repairing them and so on- she really appreciated it.”
“Some designers never set foot in the place, they just send their buyers in and they’re not interested,” Suzy said. “Occasionally you’ll get a really interesting designer and they’ll come in and spend days.”
This is unsurprising. In amongst the maze of clothes racks, ladders and coat hangers it wouldn’t be too hard to get lost, or at least disorientated. Suzy says designers often become creatively disorientated when confronted with the organised chaos that is Hero Frock. “It’s a very overwhelming place to come into. People come in and they’ve got their ideas but after about an hour they’re a bit cross eyed and freaked out,” she said.
Because of this, the staff at Hero Frock work not only as archivists but as consultants. “I think my favourite part [of the costume process] is when designers come in and just showing them,” Suzy said.
“When they say, “Oh we have this particular character, have you got so and so,”… you’re starting to think about the character and the colours and special pieces you’ve been hiding or nurturing all these years and you think, “Oh this is their chance to shine.”
Suzy is careful to point out, however, that the point of Hero Frock is not to provide show stopping costumes. They dress mainly the extras and provide the historical context for any period films or television series.
“We did the series, “The Pacific.” We supplied outfits for 200 people on that. Menswear and womenswear Australian civilian clothing. It took up our whole carpet, just racks to mark it off. And I watched the film and I recognized about two pieces in the whole film,” Suzy said with disbelief.
Australian films have grown. Crowd scenes are expected and five extras in the background just won’t cut it, said Suzy, and sadly, her 200 pieces got lost in the midst.
The beauty of these period costumes is their durability. While the costumes from the 20s are delicate, she admits, she doesn’t think clothing created this year would even last for 90 years. “We are very aware, because we started our company 20 years ago, that the quality of clothes now compared to then is quite different. Clothes are made to be disposable,” she said.
Suzy believes in preserving her costumes. When they receive a donation or purchase a collection, a lot of it, she says, is siphoned off to the op shops. The quality stuff, they keep – even if it’s aged or distressed. There is value in the distressed costumes, she emphasises. New costumes look new, and the audience can tell. “A lot of the craftsmanship goes into… the ageing and distressing of costumes and valuing old and worn out things,” she said.
“In the beginning people didn’t really understand why we did that [kept aged and distressed costumes] but now it’s become a real specialty of ours. Yesterday, for example, someone flew up from Melbourne. They could’ve gotten costumes from Melbourne but they chose to fly up to Sydney to get that level of high quality, that sort of ageing, broken down costuming. So I was really chuffed about that.”
It’s no longer as common for costume designers to spend that sort of time investigating their options. The Australian and international film industry is growing quickly and with it, the speed at which things need to get done. She blames technology and the instant gratification it provides. “It is getting worse by the week I think at the moment,” she said.
“When I was working in the industry, for beautiful Victorian costumes, somebody was employed to go and source the fabrics. There was a cutter, there were sewers to make the costume. Nowadays … people have come in to Hero to get the costume and they haven’t even had time to pull it all out.”
“There’s no time for making, no time for fittings, it’s all so rushed. I understand why but it’s a real pity. It’s very frustrating.”
The time frame may be difficult but Suzy still loves being part of the creative process. Highlights include Rabbit Proof Fence and Candy. “They’re not just about the costume, but they have a …social significance,” Suzy explained.
“Candy was one that I loved that we did a lot of costumes for that no one would ever know. It was very low budget, they didn’t have many resources but they just chose beautiful things and they really created the characters well. I thought, “I really love that film.””
Blue sheets are draped over rack upon rack of blouses, skirts, jackets and pants. Studded belts cozy up to each other while top hats hide in cardboard boxes next to aged construction caps. Around the corner are faded military costumes and downstairs are beautiful parasols and fox fur coats. In an industry that makes everything seem possible – Hero Frock Hire fits right in.