Some customers refer to Fifi Mahony's (934 Royal St., 525-4343; www.fifimahonys.com) as "church," though you won't see its supplicants buttoned into prim Sunday-best attire. They're more likely to sport the tropically hued wigs, glittering eyelashes and flamboyant accessories that have made the store one of the city's best-known spots for costume shopping.
Since opening the store with her husband in 1996, owner Marcy Hesseling has nurtured a haven for curious tourists, the aspiring fabulous and "super New Orleans freaks" captivated by the store's embrace of costuming as self-expression.
"I just feel so grateful that people (in New Orleans) really are allowed to do whatever they want as far as what they wear, with very little judgment," Hesseling says. "People really love [the store]. They come in here and it's like their house; they can feel like it's their own little getaway."
In the entryway of the Royal Street storefront, a towering blue bouffant wig teeters on a mannequin head. Tiny pots of deeply pigmented cosmetics are nestled in drawers like laboratory samples, and sunglasses embellished with skulls, beads and the inevitable glitter rest invitingly on tables. Though Hesseling says she grew up embracing a punk rock aesthetic, the effect of Fifi Mahony's is less garish than glamorous, filled with color, shimmer and the intrigue of becoming someone else for a night.
"It's such a game-changer when you put a wig on someone. I mean, they've never seen themselves look like that," Hesseling says. "America in general has gotten a little cooler toward [costuming] ... it's part of the lexicon now."
Hesseling says the store strikes a balance between local customers, who come in with inspired, involved costume ideas, and tourists fascinated by the breadth of wig offerings and the idea of hair as art. Over the years, the store's staff has transformed patrons into everything from celebrities like Katy Perry to conceptual creatures like "Wizard of Oz meets KISS." A staff wig designer can create a custom wig from any photograph, incorporating coy or unsettling hair props like a cupcake or head-cleaving hatchet.
The store's latest feature is an attached full-service salon helmed by longtime employee and stylist Jamie Gandy. The salon will offer hair cutting and styling as well as cosmetic services for special events like bachelorette parties. Hesseling calls the salon a natural progression for the company, which can provide longer-lasting styles for customers who love the dramatic effects of a costume.
Hesseling suggests stopping by the store before Halloween to try on a few wigs. She says their ability to shape the look will surprise you, and that a good wig is the secret to a mind-blowing costume.
"Start with a wig and build the costume around it ... If you just have your normal hair [for a costume], it can never be as great as a wig," she says. "That crowning glory, the hair — all of a sudden, it's like, boom."