Tiffany is a writer interested in sharing stories concerning the human experience, artistic dedication and social / environmental justice. As a young girl growing up on the coast of North Carolina...
Long golden horns with furled tips, tall top hats stacked with skulls and lace and ornate headdresses with stones set front and center may seem like the costume closet for Game of Thrones. Or perhaps a piece like this lives in your own closet as festival wear or simply Sunday afternoon attire. For Paul Hersey and his wife Jennifer Murphy, these are the items that fill their to-do lists each week. The two began costume design and creation business Organic Armor in 2007 in L.A. just before moving to Asheville in ’08. Their latex-based costumery has flourished since, gracing everyone from mermaids to Gothic villians to bellydancers around the globe.
“The belly dancers love us and we love them because they’re so into their costumes. They want to be unique and dramatic and our products are perfect, especially for a dancer, because it’s comfortable,” says Jennifer. “Even though it looks like some crazy bone and wild metallic thing, it’s super lightweight and so easy to move in. “
A former programmer in L.A., Paul spent his spare time at festivals and raves and soon began developing costumes for himself and his friends to wear, experimenting with papier-mâché and leather. After each party, a new batch of requests would come in for something similar and Paul soon found himself using sick days and vacation time to keep up with demand.
He discovered his tribe at Burning Man, and through trial and error while costuming there he developed the latex blend he’s critiqued and perfected to what it is today. The majority of Organic Armor's work is sold online, with custom requests bringing in the majority of their business, and through a small shop that holds a collection of their work. They also run online as well as in-person workshops, teaching others how to do what they do from start to finish.
“There are seven steps," says Jennifer. "We create a base out of fabric and use mold making, which is one of the classes we teach (called oogoo mold making).
“Take for example a set of antlers: Paul sculpts a set, makes a mold, casts them in rubber, attaches them to the fabric, adds all kinds of accents [and] many layers of rubber and other materials so the rubber accepts the paint. Then we seal it and add gems and all kinds of adornments and doodads. And that’s how everything is made.”
If you’re an avid cosplayer, festival-goer, or just a curious artist who would like to test your hand at crafting your own costumery, their online course gives you 24/7 access to eight video tutorials and online support and discussion while you’re creating. If you’re in the area, you can also join the in-person intro course and learn directly from them in their studio in the River Arts District.
“I really love interacting with everyone in the groups. People are really excited while they’re creating and sharing their works in progress in the private Facebook group or in-person," says Jennifer. “When we teach the live workshops, Paul and I do it together and everyone receives hands-on instruction while we both walk around teaching and helping to guide the process.”
One recent commission piece they took on was the creation of a lionfish set for REEF.org, a grass-roots organization working to conserve marine ecosystems by creating citizen scientists. The lionfish is a venomous predator native to the Indo-Pacific oceans that is finding its way to the Atlantic, destroying marine life in it’s destructive path as an invasive species.
Organic Armor created a striped silver and black vest with bursts of blue throughout and an intricate upper shoulder piece mimicking the pattern of the lionfish. The costume will be worn by REEF.org’s spokespeople as they travel around the U.S. hosting trips and events to educate the public on the lionfish. They'll encourage fishing for it and will bring in chefs to demonstrate recipes for cooking and serving it.
“Every commission we make, we learn something, There’s always some little challenge to 'Oh my god, how are we going to make it do that?' and Paul always figures it out,” says Jen. “He’s really a perfectionist. It’s got to be comfortable. It’s got to feel good on the body and move well because he loves to wear costumes himself. So he’s worn them all night long dancing somewhere and wants to make things that feel good so you don’t have blisters or a headache from wearing it when you do.”
Join the online course to work at your own pace and learn how to make your very own custom costume-wear, or join the next in-person workshop July 9th here in Asheville. Take a peek at their past custom work online and RSVP to the workshops on their Facebook page.