Camera phones at the ready, a pair of moms watch as their sons flank Santa and Mrs. Claus in the restaurant of the St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead.
Bryce Milbury, 8, ascends Santa’s lap.
Bold, red velvet pants shroud the jolly elf’s legs. Bryce’s eyes glisten like the shimmering gold buttons running down the front of Santa’s crimson vest. A smiling Mrs. Claus — wearing a deep red velvet dress with white fur trim — stands nearby.
“They look amazing,” Bryce’s mother, Natasha, says of the Claus couple.
“Stunning,” replies Natasha’s friend Agie Rutkowski. The moms snap away.
Santa and Mrs. Claus, whose off-duty names are Lou and Loretta Knezevich, can’t hear the compliments. They’re deep into discussing good behavior and the latest in Lego. Toys, of course, are their bag.
The Claus’ wardrobe comes out of another workshop entirely: Marietta-based J&R Santaprises.
Tucked away in a nondescript office park, the indie costume company strictly specializes in a Kris Kringle clientele. Spools of colorful thread and stacks of material — much of it gold, red and white — fill the studio’s shelves. On a wall hangs a series of Santa suit designs drawn by co-owner Elizabeth Rasmusson.
Her business partner, Brittany Johnson, sits at a work table sewing a button on a fuzzy, snowball-size pom. Johnson explained the button allows Santa the versatility to remove the pom from the tail end of his hat, and maybe replace it with a tassel or jingle bell.
These and other Santa-centric ideas flow from Johnson and Rasmusson, who’ve been outfitting Santas since 2012. Their clients come from all over the country.
However, dressing Father Christmas and the missus wasn’t part of Johnson and Rasmusson’s grand plan. A pair of behind-the-scenes theatrical professionals, they first met in 2007 while working at Alliance Theatre. In 2009, Rasmusson began teaching theatrical design at Kennesaw State University. A year later, when the KSU theater department needed a costume shop manager, Rasmusson suggested Johnson bring her Broadway-honed costume-making and tailoring skills to the school.
While on the job, an out of the blue email caught Johnson off guard. It was from Lou Knezevich, a professional Claus; he needed a new suit.
“I said, ‘no,’” Johnson recalled. “Velvet and fur are hard to work with, and I was being lazy.”
After some persistence from Knezevich, Johnson and Rasmusson agreed to chat with him and Loretta over coffee to discuss costume ideas. Seeing the Claus clones in the flesh, complete with his flowing beard, helped seal the deal.
“We met them and were like, ‘Oh, it’s Santa and Mrs. Claus!’ And I couldn’t say no,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Rasmusson asked the couple about their specific costume needs. This time, Santa and Mrs. Claus were the ones bringing the wish lists.
Loretta said she wanted to take Mrs. Claus “out of the kitchen,” and lose the apron and mop hat. Rasmusson and Johnson whipped up the classy velvet creation Loretta often wears to the St. Regis.
Lou needed loops around the waist of his pants. A fan of large, leather belts and ornate buckles, he needed something to support the weight. The J&R Santaprises team not only gave his suit strong belt loops, but the loops double as pockets, so Santa can stash the keys to his sleigh.
“The workmanship is excellent,” Lou said. “And, they’re always coming up with new, innovative ideas.”
Through word of mouth — not to mention Lou and Loretta sporting J&R Santaprises’ wares at Santa social gatherings and conventions — Johnson and Rasmusson began getting more clients. Each suit takes about 200 hours to create. A full Santa suit package — including jacket, knickers or pants, vest, boot cuffs and hat — costs about $2,500, including fabric and materials.
Using their theatrical background as a starting point, the entrepreneurs became known for putting smart and thoughtful touches into their work. To keep Santa’s stocking hat stable, they devised a firm interior akin to what you’d find inside a fedora or a bowler. They also began experimenting with sports mesh lining and venting for the suits, to keep Santa from overheating on the job.
“What I really like about them is they worked with me on designing exactly what I wanted,” said Glenn Johnson, a veteran Atlanta-based Santa. “Elizabeth came up with designs like she had been inside my head. And Brittany’s tailoring was perfect.”
Perfecting their business model is the next step, Rasmusson said. Although they’ve broken even the past two years, and both still have their other jobs, their goal is eventually to operate J&R Santaprises full time. They’re working with a consultant to help make the dream a reality.
In the meantime, they continue making Santa fantasies come true for those longing to play the part. When Santas arrive at J&R Santaprises to pick up their finished suit, “it’s like their Christmas,” Rasmusson said.
“Brides have basically been dreaming of their wedding dress since they were born,” Rasmusson explained. “This is like the equivalent of that for the Santas. … Instead of their dream car, this is their dream suit.”
Stepping into a custom-made, fitted Santa suit for the first time gave Glenn Johnson the holiday boost he was looking for. “Wearing such a great costume like this allows me the self confidence to give a better portrayal of Santa Claus,” he said.
According to the J&R Santaprises staff, all of their Santa clients have become like family, staying in contact and collaborating on commissions all year. And that seasonal magic typically reserved for December spans the entire calendar.
“I know, when we started this, I didn’t have much Christmas spirit,” Brittany Johnson said. “I was struggling. Since we met Lou and Loretta, and all of these other Santas, it’s like, ‘Yay, Christmas year-round!’ I think it just brought that back (in my life). There is a Christmas spirit, and there is good in the world.”
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