In the 11 years since Shawnee resident Ruth Lampi co-founded Five Wits, the business has grown to rank among the top companies in cosplay wig sales. In just the past several months, Five Wits sold several hundred colorful and distinctive wigs at conventions from New York to Midwest City.
Lampi said she has found her dream job.
“I started the business because I love cosplay,” said the energetic, 34-year-old redhead. “I’ve always loved festivals and conventions and fairs.”
She and her fellow Wits often costume themselves for the cons. A couple years ago, they dressed as characters from Naruto, a manga and anime series about teen ninjas. They’ve also donned red-shirted Enterprise uniforms from the original Star Trek — outfits infamous among fans “because those characters invariably die.”
Buck Berlin, owner of New World Comics at 6219 N. Meridian, said he thinks cosplay is booming simply because people like to dress up.
Halloween comes only once a year; cosplay conventions are held year-round.
He added that cosplay is a great way for fans to play with their own identity — or perhaps to briefly escape from it.
“They don’t have to deal with who they are,” Berlin said. “You know, ‘I’m not me right now.’” Heather Self, owner of One Stop Animé at 123 24th Ave. N.W. in Norman, said more and more people are getting into cosplay.
“It’s escapism,” said Self, who often dresses up while working as a vendor, selling costumes, props and patches. “It’s a way for people to become something they’re not. A lot of them get into their roles and start acting like that character.”
Many cosplayers like the attention they get for a particularly good costume, with fellow con attendees snapping pictures and showering them with compliments.
“They like to get the applause, get that kind of ego stroke,” Self said.
‘Leap of faith’
“Like so many of our fans, I am kind of a huge nerd and have been forever,” Lampi said.
When she and her friend Jessica Van Oort started Five Wits, it was just the two of them hand-sewing Jedi robes, Renaissance-style cloaks and capes, and anime outfits. They sold the costumes online, as well as at fairs, festivals and conventions.
Lampi, a self-proclaimed “tortured artist, storyteller and novelist,” also sold sculptures she created.
The pair named their fledgling company after a concept that originated with Aristotle and gained currency during the Shakespearean era. The theory of the five wits held that, in addition to the five senses, there are five inward capabilities: imagination, memory, fantasy, estimation and “common wit.” A year or so into their venture, Lampi was looking for a particular style of wig, but not finding what she wanted.
She decided to design her own and, after unsuccessfully looking for a U.S. manufacturer, found a Chinese company to handle production.
The manufacturer required a minimum order of 30 wigs.
“It was kind of a leap of faith sending hundreds of dollars off to another country. I was learning customs rules on the fly,” Lampi said, adding her biggest concern was making sure the company was not using sweatshop labor. “My manufacturer employs lots of college students working their way through school.”
Five Wits stocks up to 300 wig styles at a time, with each costing between $30 and $50. Some are already considered classics, but Lampi also solicits suggestions for new styles on the company’s Facebook page.
“Customers are pretty good about turning us on to new things,” she said. “We have fun naming [the wigs] ridiculous names.”
Examples include Gothic Lolipocalypse Covered in Bees, Heavy Metal Police Chief and, for the Hobbit-loving crowd, Second Breakfast Barefoot Burglar. The wigs may be inspired by certain characters, but Five Wits designers work to make them versatile.
One “multitalented” product is the Transformation Sparkle Bishie Boy wig. Spiky and red with a shock of blond in the front, it is used for characters from Star Driver, Pokémon and Kingdom Hearts.
“We try to carry wigs that will work for two or three things,” said Sara “Birdy” Hannon, Five Wits’ first official employee. “You can get base wigs and clip in bangs and ponytails.”
Frequent road trips to festivals, fairs and cons are both fun and lucrative for the ladies. Although Van Oort has a fulltime position as a tenured dance professor at St. Gregory’s University, she still travels to some shows.
“It’s like living in a constant sleepover,” Lampi said.
In 2007, Van Oort’s mother died of breast cancer, so last October, Five Wits donated some wigs to survivors of the disease, and 20 percent of the proceeds from sales of pink wigs was donated to cancer research organizations.
As sales grow, so does Five Wits’ creativity.
“Wigs are really fun,” Lampi said.
“It’s a fast way to create a new identity. Add a wig and it’s a big change.”