Toronto Pillars: Malabar marks final Halloween at historic McCaul costume shop

Malabar exterior on McCaul
Samuel Engelking

If you’re ready to dress up again, Toronto’s oldest and most storied costume shop is waiting for you where you left it – 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. That’s where it’s stood since at least the 1950s, but now the building is for sale. 

Luigi Speca – who joined Malabar as a tailor in his teens before eventually becoming the owner – is now in his late 80s and ready to retire. 

But retail manager Hollis Wilson wants to make it clear: Malabar is not going away. She’ll begin scouting locations after the Halloween rush for a relocation 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 as soon as a real estate listing goes up, that means it’s over. A business can move. It happens all the time.”

A customer peruses racks at Malabar
Samuel Engelking

Wilson still wants to be within distance from universities like Ryerson, OCAD and U of T and their theatre and dance departments, as well as arts venues like the Four Seasons Centre. 

You have to have a very long memory to know it firsthand, but McCaul isn’t even Malabar’s original location. Sara Mallabar started the business in Winnipeg in 1900 to make dresses for the carriage trade, then evolved it into a costumer for the burgeoning opera, theatre and entertainment scenes. Her son Harry moved to Toronto in 1923 and set up shop on Spadina, then the entertainment district (it was on King for a time) and eventually McCaul. 

Somewhere down the line, the store dropped one of the Ls in Mallabar to avoid confusion with the Winnipeg shop, which is still running independently but renamed Harlequin. Another Malabar shop started by the family in Montreal recently closed operations, so Toronto and its Ottawa offshoot are the last two official Malabar shops left standing. 

Malabar: From dance shoes to fake blood

Whether you’ve visited the shop or not, you’ve probably experienced Malabar’s influence. If you’ve seen a theatre, dance or opera production in the last century or so in Toronto, there’s a good chance you’ve seen their costumes. They’ve outfitted hundreds of thousands of full-scale productions over the years, and most of those costumes are available to rent. 

“We cater to local dance companies and dance schools, theatre productions, film productions, the local drag community, local cosplaying and LARP communities,” Wilson says. “Pretty much anyone who has a creative bone in the arts will be here.”

Malabar's retail department
Samuel Engelking

Though Malabar recently closed its opera warehouse on Brock and sold an illustrious collection of 30,000 costumes to the Sarasota Opera, there’s still a huge selection of costumes in its rental collection. There are racks upon racks of costumes, nearly all handmade by Speca and his team, all for a specific show or production over the years.

So if you’re eyeing a regency dress for your Bridgerton costume, it might have been used in a Jane Austen stage adaptation. If you rented a pirate costume for your Pirates Of The Caribbean costume last decade, it might have come from a production of the Pirates Of Penzance. People perennially throw Roaring 20s parties, and Malabar is ready with the flapper dresses and Great Gatsby-style hats and suits. And plenty of masks for your masquerade party. 

In the rental department, located in the room behind the retail store, those costumes go for a weekly rate of between $65 and $200, but from around Thanksgiving until Halloween you can get it for 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. 

Truthfully, it also has a lot to do with the intricacy of the craft that goes into it. A baroque suit, for instance, has an embellished jacket, vest, shirt, tie, pants, socks, belt buckles – all with way more texture and detail than you can probably find piecing it together yourself from the vintage store. 

Malabar's retail manager Hollis Wilson in the makeup department
Samuel Engelking

It’s still unclear what will happen to the rental department once Malabar moves, but the retail operation is going to expand. Wilson says she’d like to expand the already strong makeup and dance departments – both areas that get most of the traffic and have the most room for growth. She went to school for makeup herself before starting at Malabar 13 years ago. 

“The brands we carry are all professional theatre quality,” she says. “They have really good reps within the industry, so you know what you’re putting on your face for Halloween – or your kid’s face – is safe, and it’s not going to ruin your skin for the few days you wear it. They also don’t wash off within a few days, so you can actually buy for this Halloween and next Halloween.”

The staff has the expertise to let people come in with a picture of the look they want and give them a full walkthrough of how to get it. During spooky season, that’s a lot of body paint, fake blood, prosthetic transfers (for wounds and zombie decay and such), and also all sorts of different coloured contact lenses. But people come in year-round – even professional clowns.

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

Malabar's wigs
Samuel Engelking

The great COVID costume shortage

Currently, though, the retail department is filled with Halloween stuff. You wouldn’t know it from all the varieties of different accessories and costumes for sale, but there’s actually a Halloween costume supply shortage due to COVID – manufacturing shortage, shipping container shortages and the like. Like all other fields, the pandemic has upended the Halloween industry. 

“There’s a big party expo every January, and that hasn’t happened the last couple of years,” Wilson says. “It’s like Fan Expo for Halloween party stores. Most independent retailers go there, and all our vendors are there in one spot. You get to see all the new products they have coming out, you place all your orders, then they manufacture them for you by Halloween.”

She’s used to signing non-disclosure agreements, which lets her see products for new films and TV shows long before they come out. Disney, for instance, has a big room filled with products from their own studios as well as Marvel and Star Wars.

“When Frozen was coming out, we saw all the Elsa and Anna outfits like a year before anyone else.”

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

“For independent retailers, that store is like Voldemort,” she says. “They buy up all the stock and manufacture it in bulk, then offer it for prices no independent can ever compete with. They’re massive, and they can pop up anywhere and crush your business if it’s somewhere nearby.”

A devil costume on the rack at Malabar
Samuel Engelking

Aside from Squid Game, which came out a bit too late to get stock in, Wilson says a lot of people are going back to the classics anyway: witches, devils, angels, cats. Not only are they endlessly malleable, but they age well – and they avoid the cultural appropriation concerns that dog the Halloween industry. Malabar is very careful not to sell anything that might be considered offensive. Considering the rental department has costumes that stretch back for decades and decades, that’s a constant job of updating and curating. 

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

There could be more rethinking to come as the folks behind Malabar consider the future, including a potential next-generation handoff. 

In the meantime, there’s still one Halloween left.

Toronto Pillars is NOW’s series highlighting longstanding legacy businesses that make the city what it is. Have a suggestion? Email me (select Life from the drop-down).


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