The Big Business of Sexy Halloween Costumes

Chad Horstman, founder of Yandy, chases a very specific type of trend.
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Chad Horstman, founder of Yandy, chases a very specific type of trend.
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“Ma, ma!” squeaked the little girl, jumping and pointing at the package just above her eye level. “That one’s sexy!” The costume was, ostensibly, a police officer’s uniform, but it was short enough to cause a departmental investigation. The parents quickly pushed the girl down another aisle, less out of prudishnes and more to keep squeaking to a minimum. She couldn't have been older than five.

It was the first genuinely terrifying moment of the Halloween season.

The spirit of Halloween arrives in late Autumn, accompanied by news reports and think pieces taking exception to the year’s most-offensive costume and pondering what the sexy outfit of the year might be. With the popularity of Disney’s Frozen and the viral success of “Let It Go,” this year’s smart money was on sexy Elsa (known as “Norwegian Maiden” to companies with copyright lawyers). But the sexy Olaf (aka “Funny Snowman”) proved to be the big seller for Yandy, the Phoenix-based company that spends October catering to America’s emergent fetishes. The outfit, a tight one piece with long gloves and a notably phallic strap-on carrot nose, sold out.

If an object, character, or abstract idea can be made into a Halloween costume, Yandy has probably tried. Sexy Hamburgler? Check. Sexy Lobster? Check. Sexy Jolly Rancher? Of course. The company is as proud of its diverse selection (35,000 costumes and counting) as it is reluctant to  “discuss those [Frozen-esque] costumes.”

“We do a lot of food products that really get people talking,” says Yandy CEO Chad Horstman. ”Because it’s funny, you know?” The guy gets a kick out of the ridiculous. He loved Kristen Schaal’s Halloween bit on the Daily Show last year, which featured his company’s “Sexy Pizza” and introduced Schaal’s own creation, the “Sexy Vagina.” Free promotion is the ultimate treat.

As a company, Yandy works like most fast fashion brands, employing a team of designers capable of creating patterns fast enough to capitalize on a trend. 

 “Typically, what we’ll do is have a meeting after the Halloween season’s over and start coming up with new ideas for the following year,” explained Yandy’s marketing director, Sarah Chamberlain. “We’ll come up with an idea and sometimes we’ll have an idea of what we want the costume to look like. [The designers] make a sketch and they’ll make a prototype, send us a prototype, and we’ll adjust it from there.”

The whole process for the following year’s batch of fresh costumes takes about nine months. A single costume takes about two, although if something gets stuck in the teeth of the cultural zeitgeist, Yandy can sexualize it in about a month. Horstman wants to provide an example, but it’s a bit tricky, what with those damn trademark laws. Suffice it to say that the sexy Star Wars-inspired outfits are back. 

That Yandy gets rolling right after the Halloween hangover kicks in isn’t surprising. The costume industry is a serious business that the International Council of Shopping Centers expects to bring in $11.3 billion this year. That number drops to $7 billion if you believe the National Federation of Retailers’ figures. Either way, it’s a lot of money and the $1.2 billion spent on adult costumes (roughly $77 per paying customer) is nothing to sneeze at.

And Yandy can’t reliably make more by selling less fabric. According to company execs, “cute and cuddly” costumes have been gaining traction. A spokeswoman for Spirit Halloween, confirmed the trend, saying the market “saw sexy costumes reach their peak about 4 to 5 years ago.” That has to do with both sexual politics and popular culture. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are massively popular and neither lends itself particularly to adult role play.

Mainstream fashion also affects the market. “We’ve seen a trend of people moving away from short skirts and more towards rompers and shorts,” said Horstman, adding reassuringly that “They’re still sexy but just a different kind.” The trend may be a product of the Miley Cyrus dog and pony show, but it is also a product of mirrors. “Guys don’t tend to like it, but girls just love it.” says Yandy’s Chamberlain. “That type of thing will be popular for a few more years.”

As for dudes hoping to step up their sexy outfit game, we’re mostly out of luck. The two popular choices are terrible. There’s the juvenile, not to mention cumbersome, dick-in-a-something costumes. And then there’s kind of outfit that might send the wrong signals entirely.

“We have some furry costumes that did very well for us,” says Horstman. “They have these big furry heads.”  

Horstman talks like a man who is completely unaware of the whole thriving “Furry” subculture, but his naivete may well be a put on. His company got into the sexy Halloween costume business because it was a logical extension of lingerie business he launched with his brother in 2005 after realizing that women were searching for intimates online. The “Sexy Maid” and ”Sexy Nurse” begat the “Sexy Snowman.” But there isn’t always a clear line between seasonal gags and actual gags. The Made-in-America "Sexy Wolf" outfit for men costs $240,  which means that it’s probably not getting thrown out with the excess candy. That one is designed to get some use.

The skimpy cop outfit the little girl picked out for her mother? That one gets mothballed, but not before dad celebrates. The holiday serves men’s interests even if it isn’t for them. “We look at men as the accessory,” says Horstman. “I mean, that’s kind of what we are.”

Photos by Christopher Polk / Getty Images for Playboy