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Five words you never want to hear from Michael Kors or Nina Garcia: "It looks like a costume."

It's the ultimate insult on Project Runway, the kiss of death for a designer's Bryant Park dreams. If your outfit resembles a third-grader's Odyssey of the Mind project, you have no business in high fashion. You're out. Auf Wiedersehen.

Pretty cruel stuff. Seriously, when you have only a limited amount of cash to spend at a store that has nothing to do with fashion (a Hershey's store, anyone?), it's hard not to come across a little costume-y.

So this Halloween, we decided to flip that Project Runway insult on its head. We wanted costumes, not haute couture. And in the spirit of the show, we wanted creating these outfits to be a challenge.

The rules: Five contestants were allowed to spend $20 at one of five nontraditional stores - Office Depot, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Dollar Tree and Home Depot - drawn at random from a hat. They could wear basic clothes from their closets at home, and phone a friend for help if need be, but ready-for-purchase costume pieces were out. Basically, if they wore it, they had to construct it - and they only had two hours to do it.

Their efforts would be judged by professionals from St. Petersburg's American Stage: Adrin Puente, costume shop manager; Leyla Prior, director of finance; and Angela Bond, director of development.

It was up to our designers to make it work.

Robber Baron

Designer: Jay Cridlin - Store: Office Depot

The concept: What sort of man shops for a Halloween costume at Office Depot? A businessman, that's who. A man who eats, sleeps and putts in a three-piece. Sadly, most of the corporate honchos in the news these days are either corrupt (Bear Stearns), bankrupt (Lehman Brothers) or hopelessly dysfunctional (the Dallas Cowboys). My name tag says it all. I'm a top executive at "bankrupt" insurance giant AIG: part Hamburgler, part Snidely Whiplash, and - in the wake of my recent $440,000 California spa retreat - 100 percent tanned, rested and ready to plunder.

Materials: A roll of red wrapping paper, a box of black construction paper, two sheets of white poster board, two neck lanyards, a box of shopping bags and a box of crayons. And lots of tape.

Cost: $19.19 ($17.93 plus $1.26 tax)

Assembly process: Since Office Depot doesn't sell clothes, my only option was to start with a businesslike base and then accessorize, accessorize, accessorize (see: my fake iPhone, which I can use to file for fake bankruptcy). The fedora was by far the most difficult component; it required layer after layer of poster board and construction paper, and many feet of tape, and it still looks like a factory-seconds irregular from the collection of Ryan from High School Musical. I do think the black briefcase with a giant dollar sign on it is a nice, subtle touch. Who said good satire was dead?

Rejected ideas: Bill Lumbergh from Office Space; Shaun from Shaun of the Dead

Judges' comments: Did a lot with very little ... very clever ... a lot of fun, could use a little more (pencils, calculator).

Vending Machine

Designer: Dalia Colon - Store: Walgreens

The concept: What's easy to come by at a drugstore? Candy and, if you get there in the morning before they've been crushed, free boxes. On the Internet I saw a vending machine costume that looked muy complicated, so I worked from that photo to create a less fussy version. I'm trying to persuade my husband to dress up as a soda machine for Halloween, so we'll make a pair.

Materials: A cardboard box, cutout letters with glue stick, price tag stickers, black and white poster board.

Cost: $16.37

Assembly process: Starting with the box, I cut holes for my arms and head, plus a window to view the candy. It took a combination of paste and tape to cover the outside of the box, and the visible inside parts, with black poster board. Tip: I replaced the candy with toilet tissue so that: (1) the bags weighed less and (2) I could eat the candy. For the rows of candy, I had wanted to use a Slinky to make vending coils, but Walgreens sells only the metal variety, which was too difficult to cut. On the upside, there's now a Slinky in the Colon household. I put on the box and my husband pinned the candy wrappers to my T-shirt to make sure they were visible through the window. Then I taped a piece of plastic wrap to the inside of the window. (Be sure to do this last, or working with the box will be a nightmare.) I wore the candy wrapper T-shirt over an all-black outfit so I could remove it easily.

Rejected idea: Spaghetti and meatballs

Judges' comments:Looks easy to make - real candy does it. ... Simple, but creative. ... The average Joe or Josephine could wrap their brains around it.

The BS Bernanke Bailout Boat

Designer: B Buckberry Joyce - Store: Home Depot

The concept: I knew I wanted to do a costume based off the news, so after the presidential debate on Oct. 15, I was set: Home Depot ' Halloween = Joe the Plumber. Just a few days later, however, I was pretty sick of Joe the Plumber, his would-be business and his unpaid taxes. Instead, I turned to Ben Bernanke, the would-be bailout and the unpaid debt. The costume turned out a little bigger than I thought it would be and rather unwieldy, so in that respect, it was right on target.

Materials: 1 sheet of thermal sheathing, 1 roll of duct tape, 1 gallon of oops paint, 2 paintbrushes, 1 bucket, a handful of paint stirrers.

Cost: $20.70 ($19.34, plus $1.36 tax)

Assembly process: My friend Cynthia helped design the costume, and we were delighted to find the thermal panels, which are lightweight and easily cut with a utility knife. Once the sides of the boat were cut out and scored on the inside so they would have some bend to them, the rest of the process was pretty much duct tape, duct tape, duct tape.

Rejected ideas: Other than Joe, I had thought of dressing in a T-shirt with "economy" written on it and creating a toilet around myself.

Judges' comments: Topical, outrageous ... serious but fun ... fun but hard to maneuver in a crowd.

Week of Tampa Bay Summer Weather

Designer: Peter Couture - Store: Dollar Tree

The concept: I was confident going into this - I knew I could buy 20 items - and surely some of them would be clothing. Wrong. Except for socks, a store where everything is $1 was heavy on household, kitchen and cleaning items. I wandered the store for about 30 minutes waiting for inspiration to strike - the rubber gloves and flashlight invoked "crime scene," but when I saw the die-cut shapes used for school bulletin boards, I began to think weather map.

Materials: Rain poncho, bulletin board weather cutouts, silver foil shreds, rubber gloves, plastic bucket, flashlight (it's in the bucket), stocking cap, alphabet stickers, safety glasses.

Cost: $12 (materials used); $21.33 (materials bought, plus $1.33 tax)

Assembly process: Without a clear idea for a costume, I bought a lot more than I ended up using. I laid out everything on the floor to visualize some ideas. I began with the poncho and took it from there. I used an adhesive stick I had bought to glue the cloud and sun cutouts to the poncho. I glued some foil shreds to one of the clouds, and I used duct tape to attach the sun to my bucket. The letters were self-adhesive. The rest amounted to putting on the stocking cap, gloves and safety glasses (and taking off any self-respect I might have had).

Rejected idea: CSI investigator

Judges' comments: Great for a limited store ... Seems easy to put together ... Cute.

Bird of a Feather

Designer: Jennifer DeCamp - Store: Wal-Mart

The concept: As a Martha Stewart wanna-be and Project Runway addict, I wanted to make a costume that looked like it cost more than $20. Which only meant two things: Internet research and using my own clothes for the costume's base. I found an idea for a raven (a la Edgar Allan Poe), which only meant accessorizing a black tank and black skirt or pants. Simple, right?

Materials: 2 yards of black netting, 1 yard of white tulle, enough black, no-fray material like felt to make a bib, wristbands and beak, three to four bags of feathers (found in the craft aisle), a black mask, duct tape, safety pins and a stapler. My splurge: I wanted some larger, really fabulous feathers and found an ostrich feather duster in the cleaning aisle for $5.98.

Cost: $19.13 ($17.87 plus $1.26 tax)

Assembly process: Cut a circle 16 to 20 inches in diameter in the no-fray material for the bib. Cut a hole out of the circle's center big enough for your neck, and cut a straight line from the outside edge of the bib to the inside circle. That will be the back. (See diagram.) Sew a 2-inch strip of black fabric to the neck of the bib, making it look like mock turtleneck. (This will allow you to tape feathers inside the collar, so they'll partly cover the face.) Using duct tape and staples, cover the bib with feathers. For the wristbands, cut two more strips of the black material long enough to wrap around your wrists. Attach feathers to underside using duct tape. For the tail, gather the black netting and white chiffon by making pleats and stapling each pleat in place. The more pleats you have, the fuller the tail will be. I then stapled feathers to the top of the tail and made sure my tank top was long enough to hide the unfinished edges. To make the beak, I cut a long, thin triangle out of black poster board and glued it to the mask. I used safety pins to attach everything from the wrist cuffs to the tail to the back of a long black skirt.

Rejected idea: 1920s flapper using coffee filters and a dust mop.

Judges' comments: Surprisingly elegant. ... Nice, classy look. ... Using dust feathers is very creative. ... Traditional without being boring.

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