The moment I was greeted by Brands on Sale owner Johnathon Weeks at his warehouse in the desert town of Banning, Calif., I recognized the dentist. The dentist who became a viral Internet villain overnight after shooting a beloved African lion named Cecil for sport. Or, at least, what I took to be the costume version of him.
“This is Jonathan Crymes, our marketing guy,” said Weeks. “Do you recognize him? He’s the guy who wore the Cecil lion-killer costume.”
The costume Weeks was so proud of had dominated my Twitter feed one day in late August, after setting the Internet ablaze in outrage when it was released. It featured a photo of Crymes — a thin, kind-eyed dude with a mischievous smile — dressed in a white, blood-splattered dentist outfit and glasses. In one hand, he gave a thumbs up; in the other, he held a decapitated lion’s head.
“Is it weird to see your photo all over the Internet?” I ask.
“It’s not just the Internet,” he said, pulling out a 2014 issue of the New York Post with a photo of him in a hazmat suit next to a giant block-letter headline reading “Sick or Treat.” “This was last year for the Ebola costume that we did.”
Though Crymes’ real job is to help write the descriptions for these controversial costumes — the most recent being a nautical infant onesie titled “ Anchor Baby” — he’s also the unofficial “face of the brand.” Since Weeks officially launched Costumeish — one of the many online retail sites that make up his company — in 2009, that brand revolves around a growing trend in Halloween costumes to be both rabidly current and borderline inappropriate.
“The more unique, the more crazy, the more offbeat, the more it sells,” Weeks said.
Costumeish is just one of a handful of online vendors that have jumped on the market for Halloween getups inspired and popularized by Internet memes. The one out of three Americans of all ages who dress up for Halloween each year, spend roughly $2.5 billion on costumes, according to the American Retail Federation. And though the majority of those costumes are the standard princesses, zombies and superheroes that have populated the streets every fall, retailers have found a growing market for outfits inspired by current events that are idolized on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. What was once a category filled mostly with homemade and niche costumes is now driving a fast-paced, sometimes risky manufacturing race for the freshest and most controversial costume for sale.
Though costumes inspired by current events have been around since as long ago as the Richard Nixon administration,the news cycle of today’s media landscape churns out temporary heroes and villains at an ever-accelerating rate. As Bloomberg News points out, 1982’s Johnson & Johnson Tylenol pill recall — a national scandal — resulted in demand for poisonous pill costumes. And the 1994 O.J. Simpson murder trial made masks of the former NFL player “one of the hottest-selling Halloween items in the country,” according to the Los Angeles Times. But in the last five years, according to many online retailers, these ensembles have come less in the form of national news stories, and more in the form of Internet oddities like “pizza rat” and buzzwords like “Netflix and chill.” Sensing an opening in the otherwise crowded mainstream costume market, smaller online retailers have come up with thrifty ways to replicate these social media stars.
“The goal of doing a meme costume is brand awareness, or authority to show that we’re on top of what’s trending every day,” Troy Eaves, the vice president of marketing at online retailer HalloweenCostumes.com, told Yahoo News. The Internet-meme market, he says, constitutes “a different demographic for us.”
Given the unpredictable nature of viral content, retailers typically have two options for piecing together last-minute outfits that mirror the Internet’s characters du jour: Make do with what’s on hand, or design something from scratch and put in a rush order. Most of the time, Eaves’ company focuses on creating outfits with the accessories it already has in stock. For instance, last year Eaves put together a DIY blog post on how to dress up as the famed (but unfortunately unreal) “three-boob girl,” using prosthetic breasts, a pink lamé Jem costume, and a brunette wig. This year, his team has put together similar posts for costumes depicting theVolkswagen emissions scandal, a Burger King “green poop” Whopper couples costume, and — of course — Netflix and Chill. (For novices, this refers to a cozy — exceedingly cozy — evening spent watching streamed content at home.)
Jack Bhasian, founder of TrendyHalloween.com, takes a similar pastiche approach. He has sold Halloween costumes out of Target-sized brick-and-mortar locations for the past 22 years and began an online business six years ago.That was around the time Bhasian noticed that his customers were requesting certain items to craft their own outfits — things like mustaches and rubber horse heads, although not usually at the same time. Now, his company keeps a running list of possible meme costumes on a board in the office, and sometimes commissions a few samples of the most popular items. As soon as he hears that people are requesting an item — for instance, emoji masks or a lion’s mane — he confers with his staff about how to craft a corresponding costume from existing merchandise, which he will also display together in his stores. If he thinks a costume has “sticking power,” he’ll attempt to work with an American manufacturer to customize an item that already exists and churn it out before the holiday hits. Usually his deadline for last-minute costumes is Sept. 15, but other groups like Costumeish or online retailer Yandy will push the deadline to as late as mid-October.
Last-minute manufacturing is a requirement for businesses who play the meme costume market down to the wire. The most well-known example this year was Yandy’s $90 sexy pizza rat costume. It came about simply: Yandy employees were talking about the viral video of a rat dragging an entire slice of pizza down some subway steps, and an investor suggested doing a costume. Working with some preexisting sexy mouse outfits they had in stock, the company asked its designers in L.A. to attach single pizza slices to the sides of the costume. Within two days, they had 15 orders, which immediately sold out. The company used that information, and a pre-order count, to estimate how many more it should produce. Typically Yandy commissions only a couple of hundred orders for in-the-moment figures like pizza rat or “The Dress” (based on a viral photo of a frock whose colors were of great contention earlier this year), for fear that the meme may lose its staying power. It still has plenty of three-boob girl costumes left over from last year. According to the company’s vice president of merchandising, Pilar Quintana, these flavor-of-the-month costumes sell in the hundreds, as opposed to the company’s more mainstream creations, which sell in the thousands. Nevertheless, the press Yandy has generated on sites like BuzzFeed, Time, Slate, Jezebel, and, yes, Yahoo News makes the effort more than worth it.
“I feel like this is the year of the meme costume,” Chad Horstman, CEO of Yandy, told Atlas Obscura.
Andrea Rosen would agree. In 2009, she and her friends Kelly Reeves and Lindsey Weber launched “HallowMEME” in a small bar on New York’s Lower East Side. The event, which encouraged people to dress as their favorite Internet memes, drew about 150 people — mostly consisting of, as she describes it, the “NYC digital media cabal.” Each year after, more young Internet dwellers showed up in homemade costumes, eager to display their insider knowledge of the most obscure and ridiculous online phenomena. By 2014, the event drew about 800 attendees in both New York and L.A. and was routinely covered by the mainstream media.
“Across all six years, the costumes were amazing feats of homemade handiwork,” Rosen told Yahoo News. “What was always cool about HallowMEME was that you probably couldn't find a store-bought version of anything you'd want to wear, so the pressure was on to MacGyver [read: fastidiously create] your own Haters Gonna Hate outfit.”
But the fact that Yandy’s pizza rat costume exists is evidence to Rosen that meme-inspired costumes are no longer a rarity. She, Reeves and Weber chose to discontinue the event this year because, as the event’s website says, “Internet culture IS mainstream culture.”
“A group of dedicated agencies have sprung up to help brands exploit Internet culture,” Rosen said. “And another group helps unwitting victims of memes capitalize on their fame.”
If anyone knows how to exploit Internet culture, it’s Weeks. The entrepreneur specializes in designing bombastic, politically incorrect or simply absurd Halloween ensembles. This year, in addition to the controversial Cecil the Lion Killer and Anchor Baby costumes, he also released outfits depicting Fox News host Megyn Kelly as a giant bloody tampon (referencing Donald Trump’s crass comments about her), a transitioning track star in a wig dubbed “Bruce Gendered,” and a peanut with patriotic pants to represent the would-be political candidate “ Deez Nutz.”
Weeks recently gave me a tour of his 55,000 square-foot warehouse, which, he says, holds over a million Halloween costumes. The jeans-clad, baby-faced 34-year-old commutes to this middle-of-nowhere workplace in a black Denali SUV from Palm Springs, where his partner has a hair salon. He’s a peppy, upbeat guy, and he is inspired to make new costumes — both controversial and not — from basically anything: “I’ll be eating an avocado salad and say, ‘Well, there’s no avocado costume.’” (Hence the avocado costume).
His design studio in the middle the warehouse is littered with evidence of his past creations. Sketches for sexy mermaids are stuck on the walls, colorful reams of blue and yellow fabric overflow the shelves, and a half-made Anchor Baby prototype sits on a large, cluttered sewing table. Next to it, a yak hat, complete with horns and beady cartoon eyes lying atop a mannequin head, stares down visitors as they enter.
Though much of Costumeish’s inventory comes from outside vendors, almost all of Weeks’ meme costumes are conceived and prototyped by him and his longtime design assistant, Jennifer Flores. As a result, the duo also receive all the ire one should expect when publishing something controversial on the Internet. Weeks’ costumes are routinely covered by national and international sites. When he announced a baby pot leaf costume— in which Flores’ son was photographed for the site — Fox News lambasted him. And Flores was criticized on social media. This year, Weeks released a “ Clock Bomb Boy ” costume modeled on Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old who was arrested after his teacher thought his homemade clock was a bomb. Only after receiving numerous calls and emails that the costume was Islamphobic did he remove it from the website.
Generally, however, Weeks has no real limits. Despite more than 126,000 signatures on a petition to get him to remove his lion killer costume, Weeks is determined to keep it on the site (and, he says, it’s selling well). But he also doesn’t choose sides. After the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced it would produce its own “dentist killer” costume, he helped the organization make it a reality. Under the “Hot Takes” section of his website, you can now buy a lion costume that comes with a severed dentist’s head.
“We’re capitalists,” he says with a grin and a wave of his hand. “This is capitalism at its best.”