A city staple for nearly a century, Malabar has provided the clothing and makeup for anyone wanting to get into costume
Toronto’s oldest costume store can turn any adult into a kid again. Or a zombie, Spider-Man, Pennywise from “It” — even a Beatles song.
Inside Malabar, on McCaul Street, a stone’s throw from Queen West, spooky and comical getups crowd together in the main area of the retail floor. In one corner, an impressive wig collection. Not far away, the makeup counter — including fake blood, contact lenses, and gel wound kits — for more ambitious customers seeking to level up their costume game.
Store manager Hollis Wilson says Malabar, which first opened on Spadina in 1923, is best known for helping curate costumes with an array of accessories. Pick a pirate costume, a scimitar from the props area, and some zombie-style face wounds, and voila, you’re an undead buccaneer. “It’s fun for us to see how we can help customers get the most out of their costume,” Wilson says.
Wilson recalls a woman coming in a few years ago requiring a unique look for a Beatles-themed Halloween party. “Punny and concept costumes are creative challenges we like to work on with customers,” Wilson says, “so I asked, why not go as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds?” Wilson outfitted her with an “I Love Lucy” wig, a polka-dot dress encircled by a tutu to mimic clouds and a faux-diamond necklace.
As popular as Malabar has been to generations of Toronto partygoers, the average seasonal customer may not know that dancewear has been the backbone to the store’s business. When it’s not Halloween season, the store is mostly filled with dance shoes, leggings, even foot thongs. The dancewear section primarily serves the jazz, ballroom, ballet and tap dance communities.
“They keep us going throughout the year,” Wilson says, adding that another area of the 24,000-square-foot building — which includes a workspace a floor above and inventory storage in the basement — offers costume rentals for theatrical and opera productions.
Wilson says one of the more fulfilling aspects of her 13 years at Malabar has been fitting a dancer for her shoes since she was two years old, up through her teens — a relationship she doesn’t take for granted. After all, Wilson hopes customers will continue to shop at Malabar when it eventually leaves its home of 65 years.
The building and Mabalar’s retail store are up for sale by the owner, Luigi Speca, who began his career in the 1950s as a master cutter for Malabar, then owned by Harry Mallabar.
In 1900, Sara Mallabar established in Winnipeg the first costume store bearing her family name. Then her son Harry moved to Toronto to open up shop on Spadina, near College, in 1923. The Toronto store later dropped the second L to avoid confusion with the Winnipeg outlet.
In the 1930s, the store moved to 309 King St. W., but a year after a fire gutted the building in 1955, the store moved to McCaul.
Now with Speca looking to exit stage left, the building’s future is uncertain. “We don’t have $18 million to buy the building,” Wilson says. “But I hope something can be arranged with the retail business, and we’re already looking around to find our next home.”
And wherever that may be, Wilson will follow. She remembers as a kid watching the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the DVDs for the “Lord of the Rings” films and being enthralled by how the makeup and special-effects experts at Weta Workshop transformed actors into dwarves and orcs.
“I wanted to move to New Zealand and work with that studio,” she says, “but then I found Malabar, and Malabar became my Weta Workshop.”