PolyEsther's Costume Boutique

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RN&R: Costume ball, local clothing designer has created a boutique for Burning Man and the rest of the year! 7/25/11

Esther Dunaway

An old burnt-out tire shop might seem like it detracts from the neighborhood, but PolyEsthers Costume Boutique isn’t any ol’ tire shop, though it sure is Burnered-out.

The store opened a month ago when owner Esther Dunaway, or PolyEsther, filled the South Virginia store with funky fabrics, neon-colored faux furs and plenty of pickings for those playa people heading out to the desert in just a month or so. The seamstress' focus on custom, high-end wear for all the parties, pub crawls and other themed events that Renoites seem to flock to. And these are not just the everyday out-of-the-bag “slutty nurse” costumes.

“What we do is custom—custom costumes for all occasions and funky faux fur fashion,” Dunaway said. “If you have a dream of a costume we make it come true.”

The 1,400 square-feet retail space isn’t necessarily what one would expect walking into a shop geared toward Burners. Though the display windows are full of colorful fur jackets and handmade hula-hoops, the interior looks more like a San Francisco boutique.

Only about a third of the boutique is actual store space, with the back workshop taking up most of the shop. That’s because about 80 percent of the clothes in the store are custom made, and the other 20 percent is fine vintage. Though you can buy the clothes on the floor, they are mere examples of what the two can do. You want a dragon-print fuzzy vest? It’s on the floor in orange, but if you want it in blue you just have to ask for an appointment.

The store has a personal shopping service. Dunaway can also stock her store with custom theme party supplies with four to six weeks of warning. But the store is all about high-end costumes, swimsuits, nightwear and wedding dresses. They’ve made a few renaissance fair costumes and a pirate outfit.

But with Burning Man just around the corner, the store is in full playa mode. So many neon fur jackets line the walls, the store almost looks like a Muppet-tanning factory. PolyEsther’s has been holding sewing classes and electroluminescent wire workshops for the do-it-yourselfers. EL wire is neon LED strings flexible enough to be sewn into clothing or fastened on a bike. And Dunaway will be taking orders until two weeks before the Burn.

“We don’t do last-minute around here; we do quality,” said Dunaway. “We aren’t gonna make something last minute because we won’t be happy, and you won’t be happy, and we want it to be a really nicely finished item, and that doesn’t happen last minute.”


Dunaway had been making Burner clothes for a Tahoe boutique for a few years and operated a Burner-themed pop-up store last summer in the same space.

Their styles and personalities are much like the cities in which they studied fashion. Dunaway is the extremely friendly, highly energetic face of the store. She’s responsible for the wild and funky clothes, like the jean skirts and anything with faux fur on it. 

With the funky clothes comes a funky business style. PolyEsther’s is an out-of-pocket, cash-forward business, meaning they didn’t borrow any money to start the boutique. The owners are proud of the way they run their business, but it does come with its share of difficulties.

Without loans, the two have to buy supplies for the business a little at a time. The store has yet to buy a huge sign or spend a lot on advertising, but Dunaway had bought the store racks the previous year and already had a good relationship with the landlord. Saari said they had to cut back on luxuries, as the uncertainty of running a business can be very stressful.

But the two have no loans to pay off, so they can invest the extra money into the store rather than pay back the bank for money already spent. If the shop ever goes under, they’ll have to deal with a bunch of extra fur rather than debt. Saari said she really believes in the cash-forward business model, especially since she, Dunaway and their husbands were all unemployed when they started the business. But just a few months later, both their spouses have work and despite a smaller sign, the community has been very interested in the new boutique.

To help themselves, the two reached out to the community and took on a few interns to learn the business and help run the store. They also feature many textile artists from around the region, including chain “maille” and leather apparel from Catherine Sweet and Kat “Atomic,” who hand paints Taiwanese Umbrella “Parasouls.”

Though Dunaway operated a pop-up store last Burner season, and the store is currently in full playa swing, the boutique plans to expand its business beyond Burning Man.

“We want to emphasize that this isn’t just a Burner store, although we really love the clientele, and they are very loyal, and we are thankful and grateful for that, but we do all one-of-a-kind specialty,” Saari said.

Dunaway is planning a big Halloween display that she doesn’t want to give away. Last year she did aBeetlejuice window with the striped suit and Lydia’s red wedding dress.

“Stop by in September, and you’ll see a lot of really beautiful costumes. Come closer to Christmas, and you’ll have some lovely gowns, some fun party dresses,” Dunaway said.

Clothing designer Esther Dunaway has set out to make Burning Man and other custom costume creations at her shop, PolyEsthers Costume Boutique.

Clothing designer Esther Dunaway has set out to make Burning Man and other custom costume creations at her shop, PolyEsthers Costume Boutique.

PolyEsthers Costume Boutique, 655 S. Virginia St., 420-5050, presents CosmoPlayaton Fashion Show: Where the City Meets the Sand on Thursday, July 28, at 8 p.m., a part of the MidTown Art Walk. For more information, visit www.polycostumes.com.