West Oakland costumer tailors Halloween outfits in fine vintage style

“If there are three buttons, you only button the top one. Never button the other two,” said Joseph Moreno, 30, as he straightened the dark blue, pinstriped blazer Nate Montoya, 30, would be wearing this weekend as part of his 1940s-themed Halloween costume. Despite being a short-term rental, the suit seemed tailor-made for Montoya, an Oakland-based artist whose everyday wardrobe consists of jeans and flip-flops.

As Moreno inspected the costume one last time, he added a few finishing touches: a silver tie clip to match a ring Montoya wore on his right hand, and a black, felt fedora tilted just so.

In the living room of Moreno’s sparsely furnished West Oakland apartment, Montoya’s fiancé, Megan Peden, 27, waited for the boys to finish. With blonde hair curled into an elaborate updo and a brown fur jacket adorning a shimmering, low cut gown, she looked more like a silver screen starlet than a hair stylist getting fitted for a party dress.

When Moreno had finished trussing Montoya, he double-checked Peden’s glinting “diamond” jewelry before sending them both off to the kitchen to finish the lunch they’d purchased from a taco truck parked down the street.

“It’s all about the accessories,” Moreno said, as his clients scampered off. “You could bring me this and say you really love it,” he said, holding up a sequined silver headband with a jewel attached, “and I can build the outfit around it.”

That he can do so for just $25 per rental is perhaps the most remarkable thing about Moreno’s home-based vintage costume business. “If you want something really elaborate with a lot of accessories or tailoring, it will be higher, but probably $65 is the highest I would go,” he said. There a few rules, though: No cologne, no cigarettes, no damages. A deposit seals the deal.

For now, the business is small and clients find their way to Moreno by word of mouth. It’s a far cry from the multi-story Sacramento-based costume shop where Moreno got his start nine years ago. The store, called Cheap Thrills, was owned by his uncle and provided custom, vintage costumes for every milestone in life.

“We were dressing people pretty much through the years,” Moreno said. “Someone would come in maybe as a teenager for a costume and then later we would dress him and his date for prom, until eventually we would dress their wedding.”

When his uncle retired earlier this year, Moreno cherry-picked his favorite pieces—by the trunk load—and hauled them to West Oakland, where he’s been living for the past six months. One of his two bedrooms is dedicated to his vintage costume collection, which is organized on garment racks and hangs on all four walls, alongside his Day of the Dead art collection. A three-panel mirror faces his sewing station, a small desk with a vintage Singer sewing machine and a hutch filled with pictures of Marilyn Monroe and an assortment of glimmering costume jewelry.

Because he works out of his home, Moreno prefers to make house calls rather than have clients come to the apartment.

“If you email me with an idea and a time frame, I can go through my collection and bring it to you for a fitting,” he said.

The tentative name of the business, Witchwood Costumes, comes from the cone-topped turret adjoining the room, which reminds Moreno of a witch’s hat. Despite the spooky name, Moreno emphasizes that he doesn’t just do Halloween. Most of his collection consists of vintage formalwear for both men and women, and he says he takes a special pride in dressing his clients for occasions other than costume parties.

That said, the need for quality Halloween costumes seems to increase every year, Moreno said.

“I just hate packaged costumes,” he said. “The material is terrible, and you know that you’re going to be wearing the same Wonder Woman costume as everyone else at the party.”

As for his own Halloween costume, he’s still undecided. “I do this every year,” he said. “I dress so many people that by the time Halloween comes, I’m kind of over it, a little bit.”

He smiles. “But I always pull something together,” he said.

To schedule an appointment with Jospeh Moreno, email him at Jopah80@hotmail.com.

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