Costume play or “cosplay” as it is called has breathed new life into the art of sewing. A young demographic has come together to create a community of alternative fashion designers that is bringing new dollars to fabric stores that have struggled to remain relevant.

Dressing as fantasy characters became prominent in Japan particularly in anime (animation) characters. The trend caught on at Comic Con and other conventions in the United States where convention goers dress as favorite characters from comic books, video games, manga (graphic novels) and animation characters. There are 360 conventions annually and cosplayers bring an average of $150 to $200 a convention, according to Michael Powell of First Chair Productions. On average, they spend $175 at the events and with 5,000 to 10,000 people attending a convention, the potential financial impact is in the millions.

Margaret Pepe, director of brand marketing and licensing at Simplicity Patterns said, “Our audience was shrinking over the last few years, but now we’re seeing a lot of rediscovery and we’ve been introduced to a new audience.” She said that the business has definitely grown in the last 5 years and the fashion comes through in various categories. “When we break it down, it’s comics, Steampunk, Lolitas, anime, Goth, kids and video games,” said Pepe. Simplicity has begun taking a booth at Comic Con to reach this new demographic. She noted that the makers start with a pattern and then build from that. “We’ve always had a healthy costume business, but over the last two years, it’s become a year-round business. We’re definitely planning on participating more in consumer conferences.”

While fabric stores are easy to find in New York City’s garment district, it’s much harder for alternative fashion designers to get the fabrics they need when they live outside of an urban area. Many complain that chains like Hobby Lobby or Hancock Fabrics carry some fabric assortment, but it isn’t the style or texture they need. Wal-Mart has been phasing out its fabric department since 2008 and it’s difficult to buy fabrics online, since designers want a tactile experience before committing their cash.

Seeing that these designers had specific needs that weren’t being met, Jo-Ann’s Fabrics has teamed with one of the top cosplayers in the world, Yaya Han, to distribute a new line of fabrics that will be available in the spring of 2016. Jo-Ann’s spokesperson said, “The key fabrications are 4-way stretch knits and pleathers in a variety of finishes: matte, shiny, suede, metallic, etc. That will be a part of the Jo-Ann dedicated assortment. These fabrics are used for form-fitting bodysuits, which are the foundation for many of the costumes.”

Wyla Fabrics collaborated with Yaya Han to develop an initial lineup of 77 different fabric choices that will cover the bases from superhero, sci-fi, fantasy and Steampunk designs. The fabrics have specialty finishes like 4-way spandex with foil coatings and materials textured to look like studded armor plates. “The impact this is going to have on consumers is huge,” said Sean Burgess, director of marketing at Wyla.

Some cosplayers are so good at creating custom costumes that they earn money for appearances. Others sell their designs online or at events. Corporate sponsorships are also becoming more frequent as publishers commission cosplayers to be spokespeople. The conventions give alternative fashion designers a place to sell their wares and has developed into an alternative fashion marketplace.

“The fact that cosplay has truly become mainstream will have tremendous impact on our business and has already impacted the fabric business,” said Burgess.

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