By Alyssa Brinza
Coraopolis resident Michelle Nowakowski designs and produces affordable theatrical costumes for a living, working with theaters all over the Pittsburgh area.
“I fell into it…what a lot of people do in theater when they find a job, they kind of fall into it,” she says of her long and successful career as a costume designer.
It all started at what was once known as the Full Gospel Church of Carnegie where she, with the help of others, would write, produce, direct and costume theatrical productions for the church. As her children got older, she started helping put together costumes for productions her daughter was a part of.
Nowakowski realized there was a demand for her work.
“There is a business for this, and it is something I really love doing,” so she opened her own place, and began to turn her passion into her career.
In her Coraopolis costume shop, she began to develop and execute her vision. Nowakowski wanted to be a resource of affordable theatrical costumes for educational purposes. She began costuming musicals for local high schools such as Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Moon Area, North Allegheny, CAPA and others. From this, she created her business by having “schools with more money helping fund schools without” and making her costumes affordable to all budgets and to much of the Greater Pittsburgh area.
Putting together costumes for each high school can look different depending on budget. She explained that some shows require street clothes and others require a design and build. She is currently working on designing and building two shows for this spring for both Moon Area’s “Something Rotten”) and North Allegheny’s “Spongebob the Musical.”
She starts by doing a presentation of images she likes, which leads to renderings, and finally a presentation to the students, “so that they can get an idea of what that process looks like and when they get their costume it will mean something more than them just getting some clothes to put on.”
“(Nowakowski) provides a level of attention to detail that is hard to find,” said Barbara Burgess-Lefebvre, a theater professor and director at Robert Morris University.
If Nowakowski does not have something for an actor, she will build it specifically for them and their character. Burgess-Lefebvre said that as a director, it was great to work with her because she “cares” and “digs in” to the show and its characters and truly reflects what the show is and what the characters want.
Nowakowski’s work has not gone unnoticed by peers; she has been nominated many times and has even won “Best Costume” awards at the local high school theater awards, The Gene Kelly Awards. She often finds her costumes for one school nominated against her costumes for another. But these nominations and awards are not why she does it – when asked about what her favorite part of the process is she responded. “I like the kids, when they put on their costumes and have a big smile.”
Nowakowski continues to create costumes from whatever she can get her hands on; fabrics, old curtains, tablecloths, you name it, she has probably turned it into a costume. If you have any of these things lying around your house, Nowakowski can help you to recycle them.
She accepts donations of vintage clothing, fabric curtains, sewing notions, tablecloths, youth dress clothe, hats of any kind and prom gowns.
To coordinate a fabric donation, email@example.com.