neon world dance new york custom costume

Custom costumes for Venus Uprising

A very happy new year to all of you wonderful freaks! Organic Armor is profoundly grateful for your support this year. May your 2012 be full of genre-bending, dramatic interpretations, alternative futuristic innovations, and the embodiment of the divine!

We’ve been rather quiet online for months due to several complicated custom orders. These time consuming projects have made us re-evaluate how we do custom orders. We’ve decided to change the policy, accepting only certain kinds and only a limited number of them.

We love making the outrageous projects you guys come up with but unfortunately we lose money on most of them. We have to get smarter about our labor intensive business because the recession is hitting home. The wake up call was seeing that 2011 was our best year ever in sales, and yet we are still scraping by.

There is always a “gift” attached to each custom job – like the development of a new technique, or a new cameo mold we can use again, or a fabulous photo shoot, not to mention the love of our customers for manifesting their visions. We value these highly.

However the bigger pieces average 100+ hours. This sometimes works out to a couple of dollars per hour, and that doesn’t take into account the overhead or the admin hours. To help you see what is involved, here is the story of a custom job:

1. We get an email inquiry with ideas and reference pictures. I (Jennifer) go back a forth a few times, giving estimates, refining the concept. Once everyone feels secure about what’s expected, a deposit is made and it is put in to the production schedule. Guessing how long it will take to make and when the orders before it will be out the door is an inexact science at best, but we try. All the notes and pictures are then gathered together for easy reference (Google Docs works well for this).

devil jinn gauntlets

Devil Jinn gauntlets before painting

2. When the time comes to start the piece Paul reviews the order. After digging up more reference material if needed, through search engines, books and videos, he formulates a plan. There is an art to interpreting the various, sometimes contradictory  images, and figuring out what the customer is seriously set on, vs. what they want us to do in our own way.

3. With a plan (mostly in his head and a few rough sketches on paper), Paul makes a form to build the base on, something that approximates the shape and size of the body that will be wearing it. If all our customers lived in Asheville this part would be a lot easier. (Why don’t you all move here? Then we could try them on you as we go!) Instead Paul can be found  looking around Riverview Station for people of the right size for his current project.

“Hey, you have long legs/an extra large head/big biceps, will you come upstairs and let me try something on you?”

4. With the form made (out of glamorous materials like old foam, tin foil, wire and tape over scrap wood or a beat up mannequin), he starts building the base of the piece. Sometimes he alters an existing base, like a wool top hat or a bra. Often he builds from scratch. This involves feats of engineering genius and a lot of  trial and error as he figures out what structure will allow him to build the final shape, and allow a body to wear it comfortably. He makes mock ups in cardstock until he has something that works, then he constructs it from a variety of materials including foam, fabric, wire and even chopsticks. He knows from years of wearing costumes himself how a headpiece that wants to slip forward will give you a headache and make you hate wearing it.  Organic Armor, being somewhat rigid and somewhat flexible, can hold almost any shape. But it has to be designed to hold that shape and stay put through stilt walking, belly dancing and bike riding across the playa. Translating cosplay pieces is especially challenging because these designs were created in digital media and have little connection to actual human bodies.

steampunk hat cameos sculpt

clay originals and painted rubber castings

He tries things on as he goes, asking  himself – where does the weight fall? How much stress will each joint get?  How will this get put on/taken off? We are proud of the results. Organic Armor is known for being light, comfortable and functional.

5. Once he has a base, he moves into the next level of structure and the surface design. This varies a lot, but sometimes it means adding cast rubber elements. The cameos and many other unique parts are sculpted in clay first. Paul says this is one of his favorite parts of the process. Happy hours slip away as he shapes and refines the clay. Then he makes a mold of it, using a variety of means. He slip casts the pieces in the molds slowly, letting each layer dry in between. This can take several days. There are always molds sitting on the warming trays in various stages. Each one can produce a limited number of castings before the detail wears away. Sometimes the molds crack and the process has to be started again.

He then adds the cast sculptures, scrolls, piping and vents to the base, refining, cutting and adjusting as needed to create a balanced design. Sometimes he has to redesign the base half way through because things are not hanging right or the weight is off.

6. The last step of construction is brushing and spraying on many layers of material to achieve a smooth cohesiveness between all the elements.

goat horns

goat horns in process

7. Then it’s time to paint it. This requires daylight and an alert mind. Trying to paint stuff at 4 in the morning usually results in a redo (not that we would know anything about that, LOL). It’s usually done in the dry brush technique, another patient, multi-layer process. Color is so subjective –  one man’s gold is another’s silver. A lot of interpreting from reference images and customer descriptions goes on at this stage. But Paul is a master at metallics so it usually proceeds without a hitch. The last step is a protective UV clear coat and adding laces, gluing in the glass stones, feathers or other non-Organic Armor elements.

Sometimes the weather will throw in a wild card too. There are a few months of the year when the studio is really hot or really cold and the materials (and artist) get difficult.

So you can see there is a lot to a custom job. Because every job is different it’s been hard to figure out what to charge. When we make inventory many of these steps are skipped or have been streamlined.  I keep raising the custom prices and they still end up too low. I always think about the customer, a creative person like us, usually operating on a shoestring in service to a vision. But we’re operating on a shoestring too.

So we had to say “Stop!” for a little while. We are developing a formula based on how different the piece is from other things we’ve done. Something with an existing or slightly altered base, like a regular bra or top hat has one percentage added on. Something wholly new has a much higher percentage. We will also only be taking on one custom job at a time.

We will be starting this policy at the beginning of February, after we finish what’s on our plate.

Here’s to a prosperous 2012 for all of us!