Alivia Hunter Is a Pro at Finding Perfect Halloween Costumes. But She's Even Better at Recycling Them
Halloween has come and gone, but the costumes remain. If all goes according to Alivia Hunter's plan, this year's zombies and ninjas and red devils will re-emerge next year on different bodies. A go-getting former social media marketing consultant, the 42-year-old Hunter runs Los Angeles Costume Swap. Halloween, for her, has become a year-round preoccupation.
Last year, laid up in the hospital recuperating after a car accident, Hunter was casting about online for somewhere to volunteer or otherwise devote her considerable energy. She came upon the nonprofit sustainability organization Green Halloween.
A more ideal match could not have been made. Hunter is the type of person who, one year, decided to give out books to trick-or-treaters instead of candy. She owned about 300 books at the time and figured she'd get rid of every single title she could bear to part with. "Books?" people teased her. "Kids are going to egg your house." Well, kids didn't. Instead, they lined up for more. "Can I have two books?" one kid asked.
"Honey," Hunter replied, "you can have three just for asking that question."
Green Halloween recruited her to organize its costume swap event. Two hundred people showed up to the first one, in Mar Vista. It was, she says, "total chaos."
Nevertheless, the rules are simple: Bring a costume. Hang it on the rack. Take a different costume from the rack. All costumes are inspected for cleanliness prior to swapping. Anything repaired with duct tape is an automatic no -- unless it's a duct-tape costume.
No money is exchanged, and the honor system prevails. Hunter encourages people to be fair. They adhere to a one-for-one swap for the most part. But if someone arrives with an elaborate belly-dancer costume, say, she'll let him have both a vampire and a medieval knight.
Some costumes are inherently worth more than others. For instance, last year Hunter ordered brass bells from China for her steampunk outfit. They had to be brass, and they had to be from China, or the costume just wouldn't work. She won't swap an ensemble like that for any old bedsheet ghost. But a fancy pirate get-up -- peasant shirt, billowy skirt, "with a scarf at minimum" -- would be an appropriate exchange. She urges people to "use common sense."
Costumes are basically about stepping into the shoes of other people. Or their wedding dresses, uniforms, tuxedos, or ugly sweaters from bygone decades. "Maybe you've gained weight, or lost weight, and you have clothes you're not wearing anymore," Hunter says. "Maybe you're pregnant. You may not be able to fit into your prom dress anymore, but somebody else probably will."
Not that special clothes are required. "I can pretty much put together a costume from anything," she says, proudly. Even trash. At the swap, one guy, an architect, was at a loss. Hunter suggested "trashion" -- a costume made of trash. Salvage blueprints from your rubbish bin, she instructed, or empty mailing tubes, and stick them on your head. "I don't know if he did it," she says.
"You're not just helping people swap. You're helping them create a character," she adds. "You're literally creating a new person. Next thing you know, you're talking in a funny accent or with a drawl. You pick up a sash, rip up a pair of pants. Bam! You're a pirate. Or you get a corset, a skirt and a shawl. Bam! You're a Gypsy."
Hunter is a nonstop talker, except when in costume mode. In that case, she lets the other person guide the conversation. She listens to the words they use. "Neighborhood" means family friendly -- no slutwear. "West Hollywood" means sexy. Under no circumstances does she outright assign costumes. "You want them to really, truly make it.
"Have you thought about being a mummy?" she'll suggest.
"I kind of wanted to be a ballerina," the person may counter. They will usually counter. They may not realize it, but people know in the back of their minds what they want to be, she notes. Her job is to bring the idea out.
"It's kind of like, who's that guy who said he's not creating a sculpture with the rock. He's just freeing it from inside the rock?"
"Yeah. It's the same thing."
Her friend Penny, for example, brought in a suffragette costume, a creamy white vintage dress with a smart hat. Someone instantly grabbed it. Penny walked away with a witch costume: purple-striped black dress, pointy hat. Hunter saw Penny staring at the dress for a long time. "She wanted to be that witch."
Last year, someone brought in a lacy, ankle-grazing gown from the 1930s. It was stunning. "All you needed were pearls," she recalls. "I would've done a schoolmarm look with that. Get a wide-brimmed hat, a dainty, painted cane. You know, prissy. It was probably worn by someone conservative."
This year, she planned four swap events total. One, in Chinatown, was canceled. "It was such a new concept, people didn't quite get it," she speculates.
Some 250 attendees, however, swarmed the fourth and final swap in Mar Vista. Hawaiian surfer dudes traded their leis for rockabilly Elvis shirts. Punk-rocker girls transformed into prim and proper Victorian damsels in distress. Mermaids traded in their fish tails for cheerleader skirts. Tin Man and Spider-Man and SuperMan and Iron Man and Peter Pan traded back and forth and back again -- the kids who brought those in kept changing their minds.
Someone arrived with an armload of masks. Someone else offered up a Santa Claus suit. "The sheer quantity was fantastic," Hunter gushes.
One woman brought in a gorgeous Spider Queen dress. "Is she the one who got the Santa Claus? She may have been. No, I take that back. She left with a Medieval Queen."
Miraculously, not one fight erupted. The Halloween swap went so swimmingly, Hunter is contemplating a Valentine's Day swap, in which participants trade anything red or with a heart on it.
"Are you sure we can keep the costumes?" kids asked.
"Yes," she told them. "Bring them back and swap them out for another one next Halloween."
Most of the leftovers were donated to a shelter. The rest, Hunter saved. But she couldn't resist snagging a Dorothy costume for herself, something "completely and utterly different" from the sultry vampires she's been in the past. She wore it to a party, washed it, then threw it back into the pile for next year.Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.