Martel Lango makes a living out of designing and constructing costumes, props and masks. It’s his only job, and he loves it.
For many Dragon Con attendees, dressing up as their favorite characters is a hobby — sometimes a very serious one, as many have garnered a significant social media following and online influence by posting about their passion. These cosplayers need props, masks or special accessories for their costumes, and they may commission others to make these for them.
The market bears that out. Cosplayers spent $11.7 billion on costumes in 2014, according to Shanghai-based research firm CRI. That number was expected to grow in 2019 to about $23.6 billion.
That need is why Lango is in business. He started cosplaying in 2008 after encouragement from his friends, coworkers and cousin to get into the hobby.
Let’s be completely honest. We would all love to get paid for doing this.
Keenen Baker, an Atlanta-based cosplayer
Now, he gets clients by advertising on social media, through word of mouth and from recommendations from satisfied customers. He also gets exposure by showing up at events like Dragon Con, Atlanta’s annual pop culture convention held on Labor Day weekend.
This year, Lango posed for pictures in the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, one of Dragon Con’s five host hotels. He wore an elaborate black and gold costume, which he said represents a character he created for a comic book he wants to get published.
How Big Is The Cosplay Industry?
Every year, Dragon Con hosts the Comic and Pop Artist Alley where illustrators, sculptures, writers and other artists show off their work. Attendees purchase souvenirs from them as well.
This year, the artistic vendors sold lightsabers, facial glitter, corsets, hats and other costume accessories that attendees could use for future cosplays. Even Dragon Con provides a market for the cosplay industry.
“I would say [the cosplay industry] is pretty big all over the world,” Lango said. “It’s like a big family.”
Lango explained that cosplay professionals reach out to each other for advice and complement each other’s work.
“It’s awesome,” he added.
Atlanta-based cosplayer Veronica Young-Cooksey also said that the cosplay industry is pretty big, and it has been growing, though it may “fall off” eventually.
“It is still rather niche, I would say, but I think it’s growing,” she later added.
She also said that conventions help popularize nerd culture. More people are going to conventions like Dragon Con, which organizers say a record 85,000 attended this year, and this phenomenon may be contributing to the growth of the cosplay industry.
Making It Big
Some cosplayers like Young-Cooksey have tried to tap into the cosplay market. She has been cosplaying for about 10 years but has recently been trying to promote her projects on Instagram. She will begin working on her first cosplay commission after Dragon Con this year.
She says she would like to be able to do more commissions, but on the side, since she is happy with the job she has now. Interestingly, she uses her skills as an industrial designer to help her create her costumes and props.
Another cosplayer who has bigger aspirations is Rodney Lamar Moore, who has been cosplaying for about five years. He has a job in Texas but would like to do more with his beloved hobby.
Moore makes some money by selling props he makes, but he says at the moment, he’s trying to learn and improve his skills.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be that type of person that gets invited to appreciate a cosplay review or something, but for me, it’s just being able to display a costume either for some people — to, you know, maybe do birthday parties — just to show off the work I’ve put into a costume,” Moore said. “For me, that level of a career is something that I aspire (to).”
Keith Kelley and Keenen Baker are Atlanta-based cosplayers and friends who have love what they do. However, they said that they don’t really make money from cosplay itself, but the exposure from cosplay provides other opportunities.
Both promote their creativity through social media, like many cosplayers do, and they have both worked on films together. Recently, Baker has been experimenting with 3D printing after receiving a 3D printer for Christmas last year.
Kelley trains cosplayers who want to feel confident in their costumes, and the exposure allows him to find his clients for his personal training business and promote his work online.
“It just opens doors for a lot of opportunities for cosplayers,” Kelley said. “So, there’s skills besides just cosplay.”
Kelley also said that Dragon Con is an event where cosplayers can have fun and get noticed.
Em Grace, a 15-year-old cosplayer from is from Orlando, Florida, came to Dragon Con with her father for the first time this year. It is her dream to work in the film industry one day.
“Anything that’s behind-the-scenes work or design, I wanna do. Anything,” she said.
The costume she wore to Dragon Con was made out of a variety of materials, including six types of foam, conduit and spray paint. She recently got into tech theater at her school and loves to make things.
Grace also gained more than 1,700 Instagram followers and more than 100 YouTube subscribers. She said she has learned a lot doing cosplay.
“You learn how to own your brand. You learn how to communicate to people. You learn how to promote yourself — all stuff that they never teach you at school,” she said. “So, while I’m learning English there, I’m learning entrepreneurship out here, so it’s quite — it’s interesting.”
The Dream Continues
While some cosplayers only want to make money on the side, others are seeking a full-time vocation, which can be difficult to achieve.
“Let’s be completely honest. We would all love to get paid for doing this,” Baker said.
He added that most still have to work a day job to make ends meet, but cosplay makes a good side job.
However, the challenges don’t stop Baker from doing what he loves.
“It never truly feels like work,” he said.
He recalled the first Dragon Con he attended in 2014.
“I could have just not felt like going that day, and I would have never went,” he said.
“But it was just that one day where I just so happened to go ‘cause I thought it was interesting, and it was life-changing. And here I am five years later still doing it and still loving it (and) still having fun.”