Interview: Kristen Ahern of Conscious Costume

Costume designer Kristen P. Ahern with a puppet friend.
Photo: Stephanie S. Cordle

So excited to share this profile today of costume designer Kristen Ahern, proprietor of Chicago's Conscious Costume! They're really doing great stuff in the Chicago area and Kristen is part of so many fantastic initiatives. Here's our interview:

What is your location and profession in non-pandemic times?
I just moved back to Chicago from DC, for the last 6 months, I've been splitting my time between the two. In Chicago I run a new costume rentals business as a part of my work in creating more environmentally and ethically conscious theatre: Conscious Costume, I also stitch, work with the Chicago Green Theatre Alliance and am trying to get into more design roles. In DC I'm doing Costume Design but I moved midseason when most Chicago companies had already hired their costume designers for the year.

What sorts of projects would you and your team be working on, were we living in normal times?

I typically design for smaller or educational theatres. Conscious Costume involves a lot of writing and education. The rentals business was new so I'd only had a few clients since launching in late November but they were mostly small theatre companies in Chicago. I was actively working on growing, promoting, and gathering stock for that business when the shut down occurred. I was also slated to be on a BGA (Broadway Green Alliance) panel about sustainable costume design at USITT

[Editor's note: USITT's national conference was scheduled to be held in Houston TX this April but was canceled due to the pandameic.]

What types of PPE are you making, and what spurred you to begin making them?

We have made 4 different styles of masks (including visibility masks with a clear vinyl window), ear saver headbands, and surgical caps. 

Are you affiliated with one of the larger initiatives like Skilled Labor Brigade, Masks4All, Mask Crusaders, etc., or if not, for whom do you make your PPE?

My new group: Artists Resource Mobilization ( was founded by myself and several other theatre freelancers in the Chicago area when mass layoffs occurred and no one appeared to be taking up the mantle to find ways to put artists back to work and use our skills to help in the current crisis. 

I've long been an advocate for the rights of garment workers and I believe that should begin at home with out costume professionals being compensated fairly for their work so this was a pretty clear supply and demand situation. Sewing is skilled labor that deserves fair pay, in a crisis even more so.

We are loosely affiliated with SLB (Skilled Labor Brigade), I've had a few conversations with their leadership and some of their partner organizations like FEEL (Film and Entertainment Emergency Logistics). We are also working loosely with PPE for HCP to develop longer term supply chains and we've done 1000 masks for PPE and Mask Hunt here in Chicago. We are trying to work one on one with our recipients and operate more on a "made to order" model to make sure people are getting what they need. 

Actually our first big order was for surgical caps and headbands that went to a local nurse. Her hospital was not funding the order so she was going to pay out of pocket and we were very pleased that we could fundraise enough to offset her costs and donate the items. She actually responded by "paying it forward" and contributing to our GoFundMe to help pay for additional masks. Almost all of our "orders" have come through personal connections to the various healthcare facilities in the Chicago area.

Right at the moment we are selling to the general public on Etsy with the option to "Buy one, Give one" by paying a slightly higher cost for your mask. We also have our earsaver headbands for sale there and hopefully soon our surgical caps.

We are also taking subcontracting work from local fashion or garment companies that are selling masks. Ideally we want to be in a position where we are funded by donations and are able to donate masks to vulnerable or underserved communities but we cannot do that and still responsibly pay our team.

We are fortunate to have found a fiscal sponsor very early in our process and are working as a project of the Apparel Industry Foundation Inc. We are also partnered with Uprising Theatre for logistical support.

Our primary goal is to support the vulnerable freelance artist community in Chicago while also supporting public health. 

How can people donate or buy PPE?


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