(All photos by Shannon Cottrell. Click on images for entire Anime Los Angeles slideshow.)
It took Ginger Burton an entire can of freeze spray, five bottles of hair dye and countless hours in front of a blow dryer to force her wig into the multi-colored spikes that help identify her as Yami Yugi from the manga/anime franchise Yu-Gi-Oh! Like the vast majority of people at the January 2-4 Anime Los Angeles (ALA) convention at the LAX Marriott Hotel, Burton was cosplaying. But for the twenty-year-old fashion design student from California State University Northridge, cosplay has become more than a way to pay homage to her favorite manga and anime, it's her business. Less than two years ago, Burton attended another anime convention dressed as Link from The Legend of Zelda. It was fun and she seemed to have a knack for creating costumes.
"I was like, I can make a business out of this," she says. "Literally, I took my last check at my retail job, which was less than $200 and I just bought some supplies."
Now she arrives at conventions armed with business cards, directing potential clients to her website and MySpace page, where she will take commission work and sell custom patterns along with an assortment of cosplay and Lolita-inspired accessories.
Conventions like ALA regularly draw otaku, anime fans, by the thousands. Here, you can learn the dance sequence from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, score autographs from your favorite voice actors and vote for your favorite fan-made anime music videos. There's a little something for everyone. But, for a new generation of artists, anime conventions have presented the unique opportunity to launch their own business ventures.
Bordin Mark Marsinkul, a twenty-six-year-old artist from San Francisco, hits at least two conventions every month, where he sells abstract-styled work in the artists' alley. Like so many artists with booths at ALA, many of his pieces are commissioned, with anime-styled portraits and fan art based on popular series like Naruto, being the most frequently requested items. His job, he says, is "getting the work out as soon as possible and giving a good show for the customers."
"In twenty minutes," he adds, "I have to finish a drawing."
Through this, Marsinkul has been able to gain exposure for his own self-published comic book, Zacklin. By Saturday afternoon, the second day of the three-day event, he had sold all but one copy of his comic.
Since American based otaku-subculture has evolved to include Japanese fashion trends and customizable ball-jointed dolls, anime conventions have turned into a breeding ground for young designers as well. On Sunday, the convention hosted a fashion show featuring everything from frothy Lolita dresses to a stunning Samurai-inspired cocktail frock from San Francisco-based design student Jonelle Abitong. Throughout the weekend, attendants could browse booths for handmade accessories and doll clothes.
In the artists' alley, Megan Amo showed off limited-edition Lolita dresses and skirts, each one screen-printed with her own illustrations. Her sister Cecilia created unique, elaborate headpieces to coordinate with each outfit. Sharing a booth with the Amo sisters was eighteen-year-old Michele McCarthy, who debuted Cute Land, her line of sweet Lolita accessories featuring lollipop hair clips and cupcake rings that she sculpts from paper clay and caulk.
One of the biggest success stories of the anime cons is Rene Twaite. The twenty-five-year-old began sewing Lolita-styled dresses for her younger sisters on an old sewing machine six years ago. When one turned out to be too large, she auctioned it on eBay and the dress sold. Twaite saw a need in the Lolita community for clothing that both fits and flatters a wider range of sizes than Japanese brands offer. Soon, demand for her creations prompted designer to find a manufacturer and create a full line, The White Peacock, which she has been selling inside the dealer halls at conventions for three years. Twaite recently opened a boutique in Lomita, the first Lolita dress shop in the United States, and is currently working on a bridal line. In addition, she is an ardent support of young designers and tells Lolitas to start sewing, crafting and selling.
"I want competition," she laughs.
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The success of con veterans is prompting the mostly high school and college-aged artists. Megan Amo said that she was encouraged by Twaite to develop her line. Meanwhile, outside the hotel, two college students quietly sketched in their notebooks after meeting some of the convention's artists.
"They actually really helped, gave us some advice," said Albert Dandoc, who hopes to get his own booth at upcoming events. "It's very inspirational."