This Is How Your Sexy Halloween Costume Gets Made
Behind the scenes at Yandy, the Internet's sexiest and most controversial costume store.
By Amy Odell
Oct 24, 2017
Tucked into her desk in a gray office with a hot-pink accent wall in an unremarkable warehouse building in Phoenix, Arizona, where on a typical 110-degree day in late August, it’s too hot to have any windows, Pilar Quintana reviews a spreadsheet of ideas for Halloween costumes. As Vice President of Merchandising, she’s the head designer and buyer for Yandy.com, the website known for its sexy and politically provocative costume collection.
“I know what sells,” says Quintana, 36. “I know who our customer is.” She can tell you with utmost certainty, after a few moments of consideration, if a costume will appeal to Yandy’s primary customer base: twenty and thirtysomething women for whom Halloween is one of the most important party nights of the year.
The Google spreadsheet, titled “Last Minute Costume Ideas 2017,” is open to contributions from anyone on staff. “Avocado” is listed with a potential name of “Holy Guacamole,” a suggestion that “keeps coming up,” Quintana says.
But "Sexy Barbara" from Stranger Things is an unequivocal no. “Something like that is the easiest DIY costume ever,” says Quintana. “Do we need to produce it when they could just go get some mom jeans and a plaid shirt with the glasses?”
She has one word for the “Sexy Antifa” idea: “No.”
Pilar Quintana reviews designs for a sexy fidget spinner costume at her desk at the Yandy headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona.
Yandy.com is known for being sexy to a comical extreme — sexy unicorn and sexy clown fish costumes sit alongside more trite sexy schoolgirl and sexy nursestyles. Quintana and the Yandy team have figured out how to work with suppliers to turn around designs at nearly the same pace as the ever-shifting whims of social-media users, which allows them to capitalize on last-minute viral moments like pizza rat and Ken Bone with costumes that go viral all over again. (Yandy said it sold more than 100 sexy “pizza rat” costumes the year it came out, but, go figure, fewer than 100 sexy Ken Bones.) The 12-year-old privately-held company, which reports revenue has nearly tripled over the last five years, expects costume sales in the double-digit millions this year, making Quintana one of the most influential Halloween costume designers for young women in America.
She shuts down a lot of ideas.
“A lot of our costumes sometimes pertain to what people are going through,” she says, recalling when her former boss, Yandy founder Chad Horstman, was dating a girl from Wisconsin. “He was like, ‘Sexy cheese,’ and we were like, ‘No.’”
“I didn't think it was going to move. And it was — is it just going to be like, a tube dress with holes? Does a girl really want to go out as cheese?”
Well, why not?
She looked at me like the room just filled with an atrocious, perhaps cheese-like, stench, and asked, “Would you go out as cheese?”
Situated among Phoenix’s strip malls and burnt orange roadsides sprouting impressive cacti are the headquarters for Yandy, a refuge of total comfort with women’s sexuality in a world that remains hostile to it. This year, as part of an effort to become a brand people shop year-round instead of just on sexy occasions like Halloween and Valentine’s Day, it launched the tagline “own your sexy.” Yandy’s 30,000-square-foot warehouse brims with brown cardboard boxes stuck with labels like “soft lace thong panty.” Staff move about the aisles in black Yandy.com T-shirts and cargo shorts filling orders without giving the products a second thought. The men here admit to learning things, like how to pronounce words like “bustier” (a soft “r”).
When I arrive, one of the first things PR Manager Sarah Chamberlain says to me is, “I say crotchless panties and pasties all day and I forget most people don’t do that.”
Yandy’s origin story may make you think of Steve Jobs, given a garage and some technology were involved. Founder Chad Horstman started Yandy with his brother Evan in 2005 at age 28. An SEO expert, Chad bought the URL Yandy.com, which belonged to an out-of-business font company called “Y and Y,” for its Google rank. He always intended to use the URL to sell lingerie; after shopping in Victoria’s Secret for a girlfriend, he felt embarrassed but also noticed there wasn’t a website where he could discreetly buy women’s underwear.
In going to trade shows to source product to sell on Yandy.com, he noticed the same people making lingerie were also making lingerie-derivative Halloween costumes. Their first year in business, the brothers worked around the clock to fulfill orders from Chad’s Scottsdale garage, earning enough money to buy a warehouse. The company has since outgrown two warehouses. (Horstman sold 70 percent of Yandy to a private equity company in 2015 and has stepped back from day-to-day operations but still sits on the board; the founding brothers retain a 30 percent stake in the company.)
Yandy employs 100 people and hires an additional 100 to 150 beginning in September to work around the clock filling Halloween orders. Shannon Bonds heads the customer-service team. When she started eight years ago she had a staff of two; now, she has a staff of 16 and hires additional workers when customer inquiries triple around Halloween.
During Halloween season, Yandy hires an extra 100 to 150 people to work out of its 30,000 square-foot headquarters.
Bonds prepares her staff for intimate discussions about customers’ bodies. “One of the things we kind of have to train on,” says Bonds, “is you have your real breast and you have your fake breast.” (She instructs staff to size for the waist measurement in the case of the latter to ensure a non-billowy fit.)
Bonds, who speaks of customers with appreciation and the occasional trace of amusement, says they’re proud to share this information. “They'll say, ‘I just got my boobs done. I don't know what my bra size is, I'm still waiting for the swelling to go down, but I need to get the new hot outfits.' And you're just like, ‘OK, well did the doctor say the swelling’s going to go down a lot more or just a little bit more?'” Bonds also speaks fondly of a man her team hears from daily who has spent $8,000 on Yandy clothes for a mail-order bride he hasn’t yet met.
Jeff Watton, Yandy’s CFO and acting co-CEO while the company looks for a CEO to replace Thom Brodeur-Kazanjian, who recently departed after a nine-month tenure for reasons Yandy declined to comment on, describes designer Quintana as a “celebrity” at the Halloween trade shows she visits to buy costumes for the site (her role also includes designing Yandy’s in-house line). “I'm an executive in the company, but I definitely know my role in trade shows is to make sure Pilar has a hot cup of coffee,” he says. “There's hundreds of vendors and aisles, and it's really difficult to walk down an aisle [with her] without being stopped 20 times.”
Quintana, who has a degree in fashion merchandising, joined Yandy five years ago from lingerie retailer and sex store Castle, where she realized her passion for lingerie. Then she met the Horstman brothers and took a job at Yandy as a buyer.
“When I started at Yandy, we were buying more risqué stuff,” like crotchless underwear, Quintana says. “You didn't really see lingerie in department stores and the Forever 21s of the world, none of them were touching it.”
The idea that the de facto adjective describing women’s — but not men’s — Halloween costumes in 2017 America is “sexy” is a polarizing one. These questions don’t seem to receive a lot of second thought at Yandy, where a pragmatic explanation exists for why women’s costumes look like underwear: They’re made by the same brands.
Sexy nurse costumes generated $185,000 in revenue in 2016.
To shoppers, lingerie and Halloween costumes also offer a similar promise — to embody, for just a night, a character who is exhilaratingly different from the person who was following the rules at the office or school before putting on an outfit that says the rules no longer apply.
Sexy Halloween costumes “started with the schoolgirls,” Quintana says. Yandy has always sold sexy schoolgirl costumes, which Forbes described in 2015 as “in eye-wateringly bad taste.”
“I didn't invent the sexy schoolgirl costume,” Quintana says. “We did not do that here at Yandy.” She points out that a lot of women really want to wear those costumes (schoolgirls earned $135,000 in revenue last year, according to Yandy). They also want to dress as sexy nurses ($185,000 in revenue last year) and sexy maids ($50,000 in revenue last year). “It was those three that really put lingerie costumes on the map.” I note the intersection of those archetypes and pornography. Quintana instead calls them “innocent.”
Quintana does not attribute her success at Yandy to a two-ingredient formula of sex appeal and kitsch. She says that unlike her competitors like Party City and HalloweenCostumes.com, she chooses costumes for Yandy that reflect fashion trends.
“This is a perfect example of one that I knew was going to move, although it's a tricky character,” she says as she pulls up a “Sexy Killer Doll” costume on her computer, which has a #GirlBoss sticker on its back, serving as a sort of a nameplate for anyone entering her office. “It's kind of got the look, you know? It's off the shoulder, it's still kind of like a romper.” Yandy sold 300 last year, and Quintana expects to sell double that number this year. Regardless of what’s happening with necklines, Quintana can rely on one trend to transcend years. “On Halloween, that's when girls are definitely the most naked,” she says.
Up to 100 costume looks are photographed in a single photo session.
Not that judgement will stop you on the 364 days of the year that aren’t Halloween if you’re the kind of woman who wants to own your sexy. “For this generation of girls that are going out to parties, this is what's going on,” says Quintana. “It's not too far off from their regular outfits going to school anymore, you know?”
Controversy is inherent in anything involving sex, and there are times when Yandy seems to actively court it. Two years ago, the site posted a sexy Donald Trump-inspired costume called “Donna T. Rumpshaker.”
“It was huge that first year, it was big that second year,” — before the election, when Trump was still projected to lose — “but it's definitely slowed down,” Quintana says. “Now that he's in office I don't think anyone is laughing as hard.”
Considerably less popular with customers than the Donna T. Rumpshaker costume was Yandy’s sexy Hillary Clinton-inspired “Capitol Hill” costume, which Quintana thinks was offensive “because she didn't have any pants. And there's ‘Pantsuit Nation.’ But it was kind of hard to do this one with a sexy twist.”
Chamberlain, Yandy’s publicist, says the company’s never had a costume that was so controversial they felt compelled to remove it from the site. Other controversies included a sexy “Cecil the lion” costume, which was simply a sexy lion costume Yandy had been selling (and still is), but renamed “Cecil” after he was killed in the summer of 2015. Actress Ashley Benson wore the costume in an Instagram post and received a lot more backlash than Yandy did for selling it. (Yandy sent her the costume, Chamberlain confirmed, adding proceeds from sales of that costume that year went to Cecil the Lion’s foundation.)
This year, Yandy released a sexy "Fake News" costume, the first order of which has sold out.
This year, Yandy released a sexy “Fake News” costume, the first order of which sold out, and a sexy Melania Trump-inspired “Model Wife” costume, which Chamberlin says is “garnering interest, but not at the same level as Fake News.” Most recently, Yandy has gone viral for backlash to a sexy version of Eleven from Stranger Things. Asked for comment on this response, Chamberlain pointed out in an e-mail that Yandy didn’t design this costume, which is being sold by otherHalloween costume retailers, and, “The Yandy Girl strives to be the talk of the Halloween party, and we've found these topical, pop culture-inspired costumes with a fashion-forward twist are always a fan favorite year after year.” The site's most popular costume this Halloween is the Game of Thrones-inspired “Northern Queen” costume, which Yandy expects to earn $200,000 in revenue.
But the company admits it gets the most flack for its sexy Native American costumes, revenue from which totaled $150,000 last year, according to Yandy. Though the very same young women who comprise Yandy’s target customer base are regularly reading and sharing Internet essays about how bindis and headdresses are offensive attire for music festivals like Coachella, Quintana says the “Indian Sweetheart Costume” — which has been on the site for three years — sells thousands of units a season, making it one of Yandy’s top ten most popular costumes.
Yandy’s leadership is aware of millennial distaste for cultural appropriation, yet admittedly unwilling to sacrifice the sales opportunity. Watton argues that a lot of young women don’t care about political correctness and “grew up with Pocahontas as a figure that they idolize or wanted to dress as.”
The site does not promote the Native American-inspired costumes in e-mail newsletters or on social media but does add new styles, and has no intention of phasing them out. “If it gets to the point where there is, I guess, significant demonstrations or it gets to a point of contentiousness that maybe is along the lines of the Black Lives Matter movement, where you have major figures in the sports world going to a war of words with the president, then it's become too hot of an issue,” Watton says. When I visited Yandy in late August, the then-CEO told me a customer suggested Yandy create a “sexy Black Lives Matter” costume, citing it as an example of a line Yandy would never cross.
“There are pop-culture moments that we've intentionally tried to avoid,” Watton says, “whether that be the political war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong Un or the Paris robbery of Kim Kardashian.” The latter was an actual costume sold last year on the site Costumeish.
“The sexy fidget spinner is going to give me gray hair,” says Quintana during a design meeting in her office with Chamberlain and senior marketing manager Erika Zeroulias, who had wrestled a prototype of the costume — a skintight black mini dress under a fidget spinner-shaped piece of foam — over her office-appropriate shirtdress.Quintana regards the flopping foam with dejection. “We've tried some suspenders,” she says. “But she kind of looked like a cigar girl walking around not selling anything.”
Thicker foam and wire support didn’t work, either.
“I wanted the fidget spinner to be like, fidget spinners like on your boobs,” Chamberlain says.
“I think we're going to shoot it with a petticoat under it to give it lift,” Quintana says.
“This may be a Halloween flop,” says Erika.
“Yeah. Literally,” Quintana says.
If you follow the sound of dance music from Quintana’s office, you come to Yandy’s photo studio down the hall, where 10 staffers alternately orbit two models, and the only man in the room is the photographer. Quintana also oversees these shoots, which take place once a week. Each costume can be photographed in a few minutes, enabling Yandy to shoot up to 100 looks per session.
“Where is that broom?” Quintana says after a model dressed as a sexy witch walks on set. “It’s like, the story of my life.”
Quintana’s staff asks her questions throughout the shoot and she makes decisions without hesitating. Does she like this hair? No, too newscaster. Fishnets or fence nets? Fence nets.
Sexy witch costumes are sold alongside costumes inspired by viral pop-culture moments, like Ken Bone.
Model Kelli Seymour, 25, started working for Yandy a year ago and modeling Halloween costumes for the first time this year. She lives in Los Angeles, where she goes to Halloween parties every weekend beginning in late September. She says she plans to buy Yandy costumes. “I always try to find sexy, but you can’t always find sexy in the stores,” she explains as a hairstylist changes the placement of the part in her hair.
Quintana rushes over to examine her. “I’ve got fur, feathers on my hands. Glitter.”
Seymour steps before the camera and grins. “Halloween is coming.”