Princess Peach, Spiderman and Darth Vader were there. So were Snow White and Batman. The characters from every child’s and nerd’s dream paraded in front of the toy store like an eclectic gag from “Family Guy.”
But underneath these facades were mothers, fathers, accountants and teachers.
And one ASU student — an Assassin. Enveloped by a black cloak with a crimson interior, adorned with a bronze gauntlet on his right arm, he exuded a sense of imagination and confidence. As he sorted through boxes of Star Wars paraphernalia and tables of figurines laid out in the strip mall parking lot, a grin grew on his genial, round face.
He was living his childhood dreams.
Computer science junior Daniel Toledo had joined the group of people dressed in costume called “cosplayers,” a portmanteau of “costume” and “player” used to describe those who dress as characters from their favorite video games, movies, television shows and books. They gathered in front of Toy Anxiety, a toy store in North Phoenix, to attract donations for the shop’s annual toy drive for hospitalized children.
Toledo considers himself a devoted costumer, a term that differs from cosplayer because a costumer can develop his or her own personality with the outfit, while the cosplayer simply emulates a character’s attributes. However, both cosplayers and costumers often build their costumes from scratch and work with support from a vast Internet community.
Toledo wore his “Assassin” at this event, one of three major costumes he has built or modified. He refers to the other two costumes as “The Mando” and “The Spartan.” The prior derives from the Star Wars universe and is more generally known as a “Mandalorian.” This costume solidified his involvement in the local Phoenix Star Wars organization called the Shonare Vhekadla Clan, a division of national Star Wars costuming charity group The Mandalorian Mercs.
Toledo began his involvement with the Mandalorian Mercs two years ago because he wanted to give back to the community and appreciated the organization’s involvement with local and national charities like the Make a Wish Foundation and Kids Need to Read.
“It’s just the feeling that I’m actually doing something. A lot of people nowadays are just kind of selfish in that sense. They don’t want to give back. That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing,” Toledo says. “We’re supposed to give back to the people we can. That makes us a better person.”
With over 40 members, the Shonare Vhekadla Clan in Arizona is the largest section of all Mandalorian Mercs localities in the world, Toledo says. While it may seem odd for charity work to involve dressing in spandex and acting like Superman or building a costume from scratch for months on end, Toledo says the group brings joy to others. When people see their favorite character in person, their dreams come to life.
“When you see their smiles on their faces it really hits home that you’re doing it for a reason, not just for yourself,” Toledo says.
Over the summer Toledo attended 14 events in costume, from Star Wars Day at Chase Field to Phoenix Comicon to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital. In the past year he spent over 100 hours solely attending events.
“If he’s willing to devote time to this and to school, it just shows how dedicated he is to everything,” says Chris Sharp, second in command of the Shonare Vhekadla Clan.
As for building and modifying his costumes, he has devoted thousands of dollars and hours to making them exact.
And that’s where the obsession comes in.
From downloading an online costume template to measuring body dimensions to sanding down armor material, Toledo’s costumes have consumed him, he says.
“You pour yourself into those costumes that you make,” Toledo says. “Of course there’s gonna be some part of you in that armor. It’s gonna be basically your baby.”
The construction of a costume can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on time constraints, funds, skills and patience, Toledo says.
At first Toledo used his spare time between classes and clubs for constructing his costumes. But today, he has swapped time for money and works 24 to 36 hours a week in the food court at Sam’s Club — solely to pay for costume parts.
Cosplayers and costumers refer to their creations as “kits” because they often order the parts in sets and look at the final product as an assemblage of combined materials and efforts.
Toledo has developed, constructed, trashed and redeveloped his “Spartan” kit for the past two years, an armor costume called the Spartan Super Soldier Elite from the HALO video game. His black and white armor will cover his entire body and resemble an intricately designed Storm Trooper with 22 separate parts and designs.
The cosplay community recognizes the Spartan as an extremely challenging project, and it has taken Toledo on an odyssey of warped armor, crushed dreams and new hopes. At the time of writing this article, Toledo has not yet completed his Spartan, but hopes to by Phoenix Comicon at the end of May.
Currently Toledo has disassembled his Mando and no longer uses it for cosplay. He is in the process of reusing old pieces and constructing new pieces to begin a second, sturdier costume with his new wealth of experience to guide him. But that project cannot start until he finishes his Spartan.
Toledo says costume-making is comparable to sculpting, especially when the artist sculpts the parts of the costume with clay, molds that sculpture and then casts the final parts in plastic.
The costumer strives to build his or her ensemble of armor and fabric to the most accurate representation of the design in the movie, television show or video game. Toledo says it’s easy for costumers to notice when a fellow builder cuts corners.
“We’re all a little OCD. We strive for perfection,” Toledo says. “It’s more a personal thing where you want it to look the best you can do. You want to say you have the most accurate version.”
Despite these tendencies for flawlessness, most cosplayers who make their guises are self-taught. At first, Toledo says he spent about 60 percent of his costuming time on the research side, browsing websites, reading tips and seeking advice from other members in the Mercs.
He spent about a year and a half of on the Halo cosplaying website 405th.com gathering research before he initiated the building phase of his Spartan kit.
His Mando and Spartan kits involved the use of two plastic materials: a type of PVC expanded foam board called Sintra for the larger pieces of armor and pieces of plastic from Sterilite plastic containers.
For the Spartan costume Toledo originally used a Japanese paper folding process called pepakura, where he glued pieces of paper into a 3D model which would eventually turn into his final product.
But that fell through when the parts sat on Toledo’s shelf for six months and warped in the Arizona heat. In a rush to finish the costume for the HALO 4 premiere, he disposed of the melted pieces and ordered parts from various Internet vendors.
“It sucked to have to throw it all away. But you learn from your mistakes, that’s the biggest thing,” Toledo says.
As a memento to his failure, Toledo kept the distorted remnants of the helmet, which he describes as a “huge ball of snot,” and looks back on his mistakes with a knowing smirk.
The helmet was the first part of the Spartan costume he attempted to make — Toledo started big. But this is a no-no in the cosplaying community.
“I don’t recommend it,” Toledo chuckles.
He says an experienced builder will start small and work his way up. That way, if he messes up, he can redo the part in two hours rather than the nine it might take for a larger part.
Toledo’s mother, Valentina Torres, assists Toledo on occasion with the sewing for his costumes, which he refers to as the “soft parts.”
She will sit in front of her sewing machine for hours to help her son with his costumes, Torres says with a laugh.
During her son’s childhood, Torres considered store-bought Halloween costumes cheap, so she made him a different Halloween costume every year, from Pikachu to Aladdin.
“Moms do those things for their kids. I’ll do anything to make my son happy,” she says.
Toledo says his mom is the creative member of the family and often sews or constructs various crafts.
Toledo has always been a nerd and fell in love with the Star Wars universe at a very young age.
“Once you watch the movies you can’t stop,” Toledo says. “I don’t know what it is, it just draws you in such an awesome fantasy world with so many cool things that you wish you had.”
And Toledo fulfilled his desire for one of those things with his Mandalorian Merc costume. As his first-ever costume, Toledo says it took him about six months to design, mold, sand and paint.
The Mandalorian Mercs assisted him with many of the details, all the way into the advanced stages. But Toledo says one of the best parts about the Mercs is the club’s openness to customization and interpretation in its costumes.
While Stromtrooper must wear the same parts and pieces, a Mandalorian can boast braids of hair hanging from the armor as a sign of victory in battle, or head into battle in red and yellow.
Allen Amis is a fellow Mandalorian Merc and the owner of Anarchy Squared Creations, his one-man business in which he constructs cosplay and props for people who order them online. He has constructed four Mandalorian costumes for himself (and is working on a fifth) from a samurai Boba Fett to a zombie Mandalorian. The possibilities for this type of costume are endless.
He says time spent crafting costumes can range from a month to a few years, depending on the builder’s time and money. People pay anywhere from $400 to $2000 for a prop or costume from Amis because of his attention to detail, the expensive materials and his own time commitment.
The completely self-taught costumer describes himself as a “Google ninja” for costume tutorials, and has run Anarchy Squared Creations from his Chandler apartment for three years.
Amis, who has served as mentor for Toledo on occasion, says Toledo is hard-working, kind and motivated.
“He really does put forth a really great effort to learn how to build his own costumes,” Amis says. “He’s just an all-around great guy.”
After toiling away in 120 degree weather in his backyard over the summer to engineer his costume, Toledo toiled away at Phoenix events while wearing his costume.
But he’s used to it. Toledo played tuba for the ASU Marching Band for two years before he quit to focus on his costume and his studies. He would march in the scorching Arizona heat for hours on end, carrying one of the heaviest band instruments in a full-body outfit.
It’s not too different from a day in his life as a Mandalorian Merc, where he lugs around a heavy gun and drowns in a river of sweat.
“There are some costumes that no matter what you do you will be uncomfortable in some way,” Toledo says.
Cosplayers refer to this wonderful, perspiration-inducing experience as “trooping.”
And dressing into the armor can also pose a challenge. Most cosplayers require the assistance of a handler to place pieces of armor and adjust the details.
Is your pant leg hanging out of your boot? A handler can fix that. Is your cape caught in the car door? A handler can free it.
But a handler can’t feel the character.
When he puts on his costumes, Toledo says he can escape into the Spartan, the Mando or the Assassin and uncover their badass personality traits.
“As soon as you wear the costume, as soon as you put it on, you become a different person entirely. You’re not who you usually are. You’re becoming that character. It’s almost an instantaneous change,” Toledo says.
He adds that this experience arises from the opportunity to be someone else, to transform into another persona for just a little while that he could not normally find in a T-shirt and jeans.
Amis describes the unveiling of a costume as a magical experience, like a painting revealed at a gallery or a pianist landing every note at a recital.
“It makes you feel really good because you created something from nothing,” Amis says. “I’ve seen (Daniel) go through his build for his Mandalorian, and he shows up at the troop and you just see this happiness and the stars in his eyes that he made this, and he gets to go take pictures and hang around kids and hang around adults. You’re showing off the pride and joy that you just finished.”
At first, the costumer feels a rush from being the character and taking pictures with random bystanders. But after four or five hours, walking around in armor that prevents the wearer from sitting can become tiring, Toledo says.
Add pesky children who run up to the character and feel the sudden urge to battle Batman for Gotham City or Darth Vader for the Empire, and being a superhero or villain can have its difficulties.
But handlers are there to save the day!
Toledo’s girlfriend Angela Gonzales, a life sciences junior, often works as Toledo’s handler at such events. She brings him drinking water, adjusts rampant pieces of armor and acts as photographer for those who want their picture with Toledo. She does all of it in a brown Jedi robe.
She says helping the cosplayers as a handler can be as important as wearing the costume. Without her Toledo and other costumers would be lost.
“You learn things without really trying. Being around the other costumers, you learn how to act around them. They don’t act stuck up, but they do take it seriously,” Gonzales says. “It’s taught me to be more independent, because people have to depend on me.”
In the end, after all the sanding and the sweating and the failing and the building, Toledo says a costumer can feel pride in his or her creation.
“There are some parts that will get you frustrated because something just won’t align right. But once you get past that, making everything take shape is a blast,” Toledo says.
Like Frodo to Mordor or Mario to Bowser’s Castle, Toledo goes on a journey when he makes his costumes. Through cuts on his fingers and dropped pieces and sweaty days emerges his creation and a new part of himself.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @hhuskins