Trying to explain cosplay to the uninitiated is a challenge. You might be tempted to go down the route of history, using Wikipedia as your guide. Or you could take a more visual approach and head to Instagram, the natural home of the modern cosplayer. Or you could simply ask someone who is in the know. Les Allen is a self-describing “professional geek”, but to his friends in South Africa, he’s a cosplay ambassador and a director at Icon Comic & Games Convention, Africa’s longest running comic and pop culture convention. Now 27 years old, Icon is the only event in Africa to partner with the World Cosplay Summit in Japan – and a place on the stage at this, the world’s most prestigious cosplay event, is coveted among cosplayers all over the world.
Cosplay (short for ‘costume play’), where you design, make and wear a costume inspired by your favourite character from a comic, video game or movie sounds like kid’s stuff, but for many it’s a serious business. The global industry is said to be worth $45 billion and growing, with the revenue streams as complex and multi-faceted as the cosplayers costumes. In the case of the World Cosplay Summit, competitors can spend up to eighteen months painstakingly creating every element of their costume by hand, documenting every step as the competition requires (they must be able to prove that their costume is all their own work) before attending an event like Icon to undergo the scrutiny of a judging panel.
Expert cosplayers spend vast fortunes on materials, wigs and equipment, sometimes even taking time out to learn an entirely new set of skills that will help them take their cosplay to the next level. “Photography and videography are intrinsically linked to this very visual performance art,” says Roger Machin of Canon South Africa, who jumped at the chance to partner with Icon’s cosplay competition. “A photo shoot is often a major part of their preparations and at every event, you will find at least one or two ‘green-screen’ photo studios for cosplayers to have their portrait shot, where a background can be dropped in.”
Every country holds their own final and the winners are sent, all flights and accommodation paid, to Japan to compete in the final, so the World Cosplay Summit is something of a Holy Grail for the dedicated cosplayer. It’s also a recognised Japanese cultural heritage initiative and all participants must cosplay as a character from Japanese popular culture. While that at first might seem challenging, it soon becomes clear that this is a broad church, with vast amounts of global brands to choose from – Nintendo alone gives cosplayers hundreds of characters. Pokémon, Super Mario and Legend of Zelda alone have inspired millions of cosplay sites by themselves. In the view of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, cosplay is a very positive global entry point into understanding the cultural life of Japan.
It is also, as Les puts it, a “ridiculously stupidly big opportunity” and this is simply through its being something of a numbers game. Because while cosplay has been around in one shape or form for many decades, it’s only since the advent of the internet that it’s really come into its own, bringing together niche fanbases from all over the world to create a new global community, who take the art of dressing up beyond anything you could ever imagine at a fancy dress party. One such artist is Kinpatsu Cosplay, who is considered to be among the world’s top cosplayers. “Last year Kinpatsu won the cosplay championships at Comic Con Africa and went on to come second in the world,” explains Les. But it was only three years ago that Tayla Barter, (as she is known to her friends) decided to go professional and make the world of cosplay her business. “Now she has 250k follows on social media and is invited to conventions as a paid guest. That is a legitimate business opportunity now for cosplayers around the world.”
But how do you monetise what is essentially crafting, creating and dressing up? This is where the sheer numbers of global fans come in. The website Patreon is a platform for individual artists and creators to create membership programmes that connect them directly with their audience. Cosplayers have found it to be an excellent way to fund themselves while also sharing their lives, skills and crafts with a devoted fanbase. “All you need is 10,000 people around the world who like your work and are willing to give you a dollar a month,” explains Les. “That’s big money.”
“Cosplayers also spend a lot of time recording either ‘making-of’ vlogs or even ‘how-to’ video tutorials,” adds Roger. “So, the links between Canon products and cosplay culture are incredibly close.” For Kinpatsu Cosplay, this was the perfect way to leverage her position as one of the world’s premier cosplayers – by giving access to her crafting secrets. On her Patreon she creates and produces two cosplays a month and her paying fans have exclusive access to the pattern for the costumes and a video of how she puts them together. It’s become such a consistent source of income that at one point she even put a pause on public appearances in order to concentrate on giving her ‘patrons’ the best possible experience.
However, the emergence of superstar cosplayers has also created something of a ‘happy hierarchy’ in the cosplay community. “There are three aspects – fun, competition and then celebrity,” says Les. For the vast majority, it’s a fun hobby and a way to connect with like-minded people. “The cosplay community are generally very supportive. You ask, ‘how can I get this done?’ and people will happily point you in right direction.” Serious cosplayers need to be creative thinkers, with expert time management and budgeting skills, who can pick up new techniques and apply them swiftly. “There are a lot of positive developmental aspects that come from it. The fact is that if you want to cosplay then you’ve got to plan.”
He also believes the practice of cosplay to be “a great equaliser” and a place of personal growth where you can “try on different aspects of yourself” as you become a character that you love. “It teaches you empathy when you take on another character. What does this character feel like? How would they deal with this situation? There are characters that embody certain ideals and principles and when you want to become that character as an homage or loving dedication, you can’t help but have that stuff rub off.” In the end, the common thread – whether you’re a part-time player or world class cosplay entrepreneur – is fandom. At the heart of the entire community sits the desire to express a love for a genre or character and connect with others who have the same love. As Les sums up “You can connect with anyone around the world for all the niche things that you like. The barriers have all fallen down. That’s just cosplay.”