Artist Jenny DeYoung once stayed up for 48 hours straight to make a caterpillar costume for her bookkeeper.
Featuring luscious fur, Velcro for the body rolls, a Mohawk headpiece and a red velvet toadstool, the costume took two weeks, start to finish, and made its debut at an Alice in Wonderland event. DeYoung, who has owned the Disguise the Limit store in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square for the past seven years, loves to outfit people—which makes her decision to close up shop all the more painful. But there just aren’t enough customers.
“My dream was to create more than a store, more like an experience, a place where people could come for quality things and wearable art,” explains DeYoung, whose mantra has been, “If we don’t carry it, we can probably make it for you.”
“I’m a fashionista, and I treat everyone who walks through the door like they’re Pretty Woman on Rodeo Drive,” she says.
Store manager Iliana Sanchez stands behind the rainbow counter that she painted and chimes in: “It’s been so fun to help run a 5,000 square foot circus.”
And that’s how they’re going out: with a big Community Appreciation bash on Saturday, March 4, featuring DJs, a stilt-walker, dancers, lots of local art and a spinning Wheel of Fortune discount. Currently their entire inventory, including thousands of costume rental items, is marked down 20%; all packaged costumes are half price.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, news of the sale drew a steady flow of customers, who browsed everything from masks and magnets to magic kits and makeup. “Every single day, someone comes in and says, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know you were still around’ or ‘I thought you were in a different location,’” DeYoung tells me—which makes it a truly bittersweet farewell.
So how did they get here?
Disguise the Limit was started in 1980 by sewist Suzanne McLennan—the kind of artist who turned her boyfriend into Mr. Peanut one Halloween and made an anaconda filled with stuffed animals for her son’s school report on snakes. After decades in a smaller location on Wilson Street, the shop has occupied a huge building on 4th Street next door to Jackson’s for some 10 years, as long as Sanchez has worked there.
In fact, in 2016 Sanchez was the one who quietly reached out to longtime customer Matt Peterson as a potential buyer of the costume rentals McLennan was jettisoning in anticipation of closing shop.
Turns out, he decided to buy the entire business—and knew just who he wanted to run it. Costume designer/crafter DeYoung, at home both at Burning Man and in the army, where she served for years, was the perfect fit. “I believe in good missions,” says the former battle captain, who planned safe routes and coordinated escorts for civilians in Baghdad during the Iraq War.
So DeYoung came in, asked Sanchez to be manager, replaced the aisles with islands and expanded the store’s inventory to include festival wear, crystals, toys and unique gifts, in addition to the costumes and wigs that it was always known for.
DeYoung’s wife, Heather, and seamstress/employee Kenna Pearson round out the quartet of women keeping theater students in their Ben Nye stage makeup, setting up photo shoots, styling costumes, hosting hat-making workshops and generally, as Sanchez puts it, “Helping people step into the best version of themselves.”
DeYoung and Sanchez make all manner of headpieces—flapper headbands, flower crowns, furry ears, scoodies (hoodie scarves with mittens) and top hats—which can all be found on DeYoung’s JenDee Designs and Sanchez’s ilichinchilli shops on Etsy.
Since she took over in 2016, DeYoung’s mission has had its share of challenges: fall fires followed by the pandemic and the ascendance of online shopping, together with a general slowing down of Railroad Square festivities, like the Sunday farmers’ market.
“I’ve watched five businesses close in the years I’ve been here,” including the eclectic Fabulous Finds and English pub Toad in the Hole, says DeYoung. She laments the lack of way-finding signs to point tourists in the direction of Railroad Square, cut off from the rest of downtown’s 4th Street by the mall. In fact, even though she paid to have signs with her business labeled on them, they were never erected (she is being refunded the money). Free parking would also help.
“October is the month that floats me for the rest of the year,” says DeYoung, explaining that even though they “nailed it” this past year, she was climbing out of a back rent hole. Around the holidays, “I lit up my store like Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation,” she says with a laugh, but by the time the rains came in January, dampening all commerce, she could barely make payroll for her three employees.
As DeYoung shows me around the shop, I feel like Alice opening doors to dimensions I never knew were there. We peek into her 10-year-old daughter Sophie’s Harry Potter clubhouse under the staircase; the craft room bursting with materials and beloved costumes; the Mirror Mirror hair and makeup salon Jenny built for her stylist wife, Heather, who once turned a Beatles wig into the perfect Liza Minnelli ’do.
A coffin couch anchors the gorgeously creepy back section, dubbed the Haunted Couture Room, where people sit for what they call Book of the Dead photo shoots (though hardly anyone pretends to be dead). Oddities and antiques abound: skeletons mummified with melted plastic wrap, haunted doll heads and scary fairies, a century-old lampshade procured from Whistlestop Antiques across the street, a life-sized Nosferatu restored by local artist Dell McFadin, whose intricate masks are also for sale.
“It’s a huge loss; you can’t find anything else like it in this area,” says Sister Araya Sunshine, who, together with the other Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, has relied on the store for their makeup, eyelashes, boas and wigs since the Suzanne McLennan years. “If we let our stores fade away, we lose our community,” she continues. “It’s those local businesses that support our nonprofits, too. Amazon isn’t making any donations.”
“I want it to be that we’re not going down in vain,” says DeYoung. “I hope to be a catalyst for change, a wake up call that ultimately helps other local businesses survive.”
One thing the PD does, and could do more, is feature such businesses BEFORE they decide to close.
I mean the BoHo