Hero for Hire: Suzy Carter and Mark Lucas on building their costume collection
Hero Frock Hire’s Suzy Carter and Mark Lucas.
For more than 25 years Hero Frock Hire has been supplying the screen industry with costumes. Owners Suzy Carter and Mark Lucas talk to IF about building their collection and the pressure on support facilities.
What do Muriel’s Wedding, Moulin Rouge, Ned Kelly, Australia, The Matrix Trilogy, Australia, The Pacific, Red Dog, Cloud Street, The Sapphires, The Daughter, The Great Gatsby, Top of the Lake, Hacksaw Ridge, Breath, Candy, Alien: Covenant, Jasper Jones, Ladies in Black, In Like Flynn and Foxtel’s Picnic at Hanging Rock have in common?
Hero Frock hire – a specialist costume hire facility for the screen industry – contributed in some way to their costuming.
Located at Sydney’s Canal Road Film Centre, Hero Frock Hire was established in 1992 by Suzy Carter and husband Mark Lucas after they purchased Max Studios’ inventory.
Since then, the pair has embarked on a program of preserving wardrobes of completed productions from across Australia, and absorbed a number of other private collections along the way.
Carter began her career in the 80s working in the costume department at Ten on The Restless Years, and went on to work on projects such as The Saint, Deadly, Singapore, Return to Eden and Restless Kelly, and has provided consultation to Kim Williams and Rod Allan.
Carter tells IF that at the time they started Hero, the Australian screen industry lacked costume hire facilities that could be used by the independent industry. “[There were] just a few little private collections people had in their spare room or their storage. We needed something to match what they had overseas.”
She adds: “You just couldn’t do your job as a buyer without some decent resources, and I was very aware we didn’t have the resources here that people expected us to have.”
Hero Frock’s houses more than 70,000 items of clothing from 1800s to the present in its 600sqm warehouse, sorted and divided by decade. This includes hats, shoes and accessories.
Among Hero’s most popular hires is workwear, such as uniform for emergency servicemen, doctors, pilots, rescue workers, hospitality workers, priests, athletes, tradies and construction workers.
Also in constant use is everyday clothing from the colonial era through to now, including bridal and formalwear, modern suits, sleepwear, children’s clothing – including school uniforms – and retro-Americana.
“You can’t really just go and buy that in the volume that you need for all the extras. So that’s what we specialise in,” she says.
“A lot of it is daggy stuff that everyday people wear, as opposed to the fashion which you can buy in a vintage place.”
Period TV series like Love Child and A Place to Call Home have been good steady work for Hero, and Carter says she has enjoyed working on projects like The Sapphires, Sweet Country and Rabbit Proof Fence.
“They’re exciting films for us, because we know that they had a big contribution to Australian culture, and that’s something Mark and I have a big commitment to. We’re quite excited by the Make It Australian campaign, because that’s really what we’re about.”
Carter estimates that they have purchased only about 5 per cent of their collection – a majority has been donated – and the money they make has gone into overheads such as rent, staff and fit out.
“In the early days I was strategic about [purchasing] insofar as if collections came up, we’d go to the auction and pick the eyes out of it in so far as we were cashed up to do so,” says Lucas.
“We have definitely changed the climate of encouraging production companies to donate. Also commercial production companies tend to keep a closet of things and then eventually get fed up with them and send them off to us.”
Carter agrees that over the years, the industry has come to appreciate what Hero does.
“They’ve very happy now to donate to us, because they know that next they’re doing a production there’ll be a resource they can use. It saves them a lot of money.”
Sometimes costumes are donated to Hero that go on to become iconic, in which case Carter will pull them out.
“Sometimes they’re in our collection for years. Because it’s a small industry, often buyers are coming through, or the designers and they’ll say ‘Do you realise what this is?’”
But typically when main cast or other seemingly key costumes come in, Carter will try to assess what the potential archival value is likely to be and save them. “It’s not fair to the designer if their work is in somebody’s TV commercial. So I always try to work out what’s significant and I keep that aside,” she says, noting she has in the past gifted costumes back to actors.
With the closure of the ABC’s costume hire department in July 2017, Hero Frock is among the few costume facilities in Australia tailored specifically for the screen industry.
In its submission to the recent House of Representatives inquiry into the sustainability and growth of the screen industry, Carter argued that currently there is a lack of infrastructure for support facilities. She put forward that the industry is too reliant on utilising cheap industrial spaces on a short term basis – a situation that is precarious with the trend towards industrial redevelopment for high-rise residential.
“Large film companies such as Fox and Warner Bros have built studios (i.e. large warehouses with offices), but we lack the in-house facilities available in Hollywood and the UK. Support facilities are critical in maintaining credibility as a film production destination,” the submission stated.
Lucas says it is an “ongoing process” trying to educate government about infrastructure.
“It’s very problematic because we do supply the majority of what gets made, not just here in New South Wales, but in Australia. You’re going to have a lot of naked actors running around when we’re gone,” he says.
“Having seen other collections disappear [it is concerning]; we’re the last of them essentially, especially now the ABC’s gone. Everything else is a commercial costume hire business or a vintage dealer. There’s no way this could ever be replicated if it went bust and had to be broken up, because there’s no one to take it on and no real estate to house it. It is something of concern to us, because we’re not getting any younger. We’ve been doing it 25 years and we keep growing – as a business like this will as every decade passes.”
Hero Frock is on a month to month lease, as negotiations continue with the state government after the Canal Road Film Centre’s 15 year lease expired around 18 months ago. There are 85 support businesses on the Canal Road site. “We’re below the line, but at the end of the day we’re the bedrock and so are most of the people here,” Lucas says.
Regarding the Canal Road Film Centre, a spokesperson from Property NSW tells IF: “The NSW Government continues to lease the site to the tenant. No decisions have been made regarding the future of the site.”
It’s both Lucas and Carter observation that many other costume collections were been lost when they were forced to relocate – the cost of moving kills the business.
“This is prime land. It would cost us $100,000 to move and that would wipe us out. So there’s no way that’s happening,” says Lucas.
“You do feel like you’ve got a Damocles sword hanging over your head to a certain extent.”
This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #181.