The Project Runway of Cosplay

James Hill carved swords from small pieces of foam for Project Cosplay.

Liz OhanesianJames Hill carved swords from small pieces of foam for Project Cosplay.

Inside an executive suite at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott, a small group of people are cutting shapes out of large remnants of fabric and fitting them together. They swap tools and sewing tips as they wait for their turn to hunch over a sewing machine. They sew, rip and sew again. Eighteen floors below them, this year's Anime Los Angeles attendees are showing of their costumes. Inside this room, though, a handful of experienced cosplayers are making new ones under unusual circumstances.

If you've seen Project Runway, then you have an idea of what's going on here. Project Cosplay is the anime convention version of the long-running competition program. It was founded by cosplayers Ginger Burton and Chloe Al-sibai and this is their second year running the event at Anime Los Angeles. They have also held Project Cosplay at Anime Conji, a convention in San Diego. The hosts bring in boxes of fabric and other materials. Some was purchased specifically for this. Most are leftovers from their own collections. They provide a few pieces of equipment for the contestants as well. The costumers can choose to work solo or as part of a team. They will grab what they can from fabric boxes and get to work. In three hours, they must complete a wearable costume.

"It speaks to everything I love about cosplay," says 23-year-old James Hill of Project Cosplay. "Here's this minimal amount of stuff. Here's this minimal amount of time. Make something. Make it awesome and make it now."

Maya Landman works quickly on her costume for Project Cosplay.

Liz OhanesianMaya Landman works quickly on her costume for Project Cosplay.

This is Hill's second year participating in the event. The Lake Elsinore resident says that last year's Project Cosplay competition was the most fun he had at Anime Los Angeles. He is a seasoned cosplayer whose expertise is working with foam and crafting armor. Once the crafting session begins, he retreats to a corner of the room and steadfastly cuts shapes from foam.

Cally Hale, 24, and Maya Landman, 29, sift through a pile of fabrics the color of fall leaves as they work. The two women traveled to L.A. from Fort Collins, Colorado to attend the sold out anime convention. It was a wild ride. Somewhere in Wyoming, in the middle of the night, their car spun out on black ice. Fortunately, they escaped with only minor, fixable, damage to the bumper. They're in good spirits as they race to create costumes based on characters from the video game series Assassin's Creed. Hale will be Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Her costume is a variation of one that she has already made for herself. Landman will be a courtesan. She won the costume construction lottery when the two found a bodice and skirt inside the boxes of scraps. The pieces need to be reworked and she'll have to sew a few other items to complete the outfit. Still, Landman says she feels guilty that they stumbled upon some almost ready-made bits. That's why they're making two costumes when only one is required of the pair.

Contestants rummaged through boxes of fabric before starting work on the costumes.

Liz OhanesianContestants rummaged through boxes of fabric before starting work on the costumes.

Hale and Landman start talking Project Runway. One quotes Tim Gunn's famous phrase, "Make it work." The other remarks, "Tim Gunn doesn't know he's a cosplay hero." A woman working at an adjacent table turns around and joins in the conversation for a minute. Project Runway is a show that means a lot to these cosplayers. Landman says she watches Project Runway and thinks, "I could so do this." She adds, "Then the judges say it looks like a costume and, oh, I could never do this."

Landman's talent is for costumes. She's had a love of elaborate ones since childhood. By the time she hit her mid-teens, Landman was dressing up as characters at anime conventions. That's when her mom, a professional seamstress, said that she needed to learn to sew.

Hale was a theater major who gravitated towards cosplay when she was going through hard times.

"Cosplay really saved my life," she says. "It introduced me to a lot of new friends and a lot of people who were not involved in drugs or alcohol or the kind of things that can ruin a person's life. It's been a huge positive influence on my life."

Of the two, Landman is the master craftsperson. She sews quickly and expertly. Hale's talent is performing, becoming the character. "I have to make my performance better to make up for my craftsmanship," she admits.

They work at a fabric store and travel with friends to various conventions in the U.S. Usually, they bring along a sewing machine for the excursions. Tonight, they lugged Hale's Singer Simple into the executive suite. It's a smaller machine that travels well and can capably handle the alterations they might make inside hotel rooms. Since there's a shortage of functioning machines in the room, Hale and Landman let others work on theirs when they don't need it. Still, the contestants are short on time and some have found alternative means of attaching pieces of fabric.

Cory and Elyse Campos are siblings from Glendora who competed in Project Cosplay.

Liz OhanesianCory and Elyse Campos are siblings from Glendora who competed in Project Cosplay.

At a nearby table, Elyse Campos, 24, is turning herself into Rapidash, a character from Pokèmon. Her brother Cory, 20, came up with the idea after they saw a bunch of orange chiffon amongst the fabrics. When Elyse and Cory, who are from Glendora, head out to conventions, they wear the costumes she makes. Usually, she sews them. Tonight, though, she turned to a hot glue gun for assistance. Thanks to the sticky stuff, Elyse was able to fashion a dress plus furry ears and leg warmers. She also glued together vinyl scraps to turn them into hooves.

Project Cosplay is testing the contestant's resourcefulness as much as their craftsmanship. When you spend months working on a costume, you can hunt for the best materials to create accurate details. When you have three hours, you need to think fast. James Hill did just that. He grabbed two water bottles spotted in the room to complete the arsenal attached to his waist. In the last few minutes of the competition two friends/competitors stepped in to help him paint his accessories. Finally, Hill had completed his cosplay. He was now Eren Yeager from the recent hit anime and manga Attack on Titan. He made a chibi, or very small, version of the costume, simply because there wasn't enough foam to build full-size weaponry.

Cally Hale and Maya Landman show off their completed costumes based on Assassin's Creed.

Liz OhanesianCally Hale and Maya Landman show off their completed costumes based on Assassin's Creed.

Hale and Landman also finished on time. Landman did much of the sewing. Hale took care of the patterns. Together, they assembled two costumes in three hours. They made most of the items from scratch. The found pieces - like the bodice - were altered. They used scissors to punch holes in it so that they could lace it with ribbon. Landman also added binding to the bodice. They fixed a drawstring skirt and embellished it with more fabric. After the judges spent a few minutes deliberating, Hale and Landman won for the best video game costumes. Hill won too, for the best manga/comic book costume.

At the beginning of the event, the organizers were quick to point out that the competition wasn't about winning. Throughout the few hours we spent inside the executive suite, that was clear. Project Cosplay was about meeting the challenge, testing your technical skills and creative thinking abilities. More than that, though, it became a big group project. The costumers were working on their own efforts and were pit against each other in competition. Yet, every few minutes, you could hear someone shout out advice to another contestant or see them pass supplies to each other across tables. What mattered was that everyone in this room could "make it work."

(Disclosure: Last weekend, it was announced that I'll be a Guest of Honor at Anime Los Angeles 2015. This year, I went as a regular attendee.)

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