Buccaneers find the Gasparilla style at Pirate Fashions

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Tucked away on a quiet street, the simple building at 4006 W Cayuga St. is easy to miss — until you spot the pirate flag waving near the parking lot entrance.

Inside, Pirate Fashions is anything but subtle. A swashbuckling team of employees wander in character, stuffed in corsets and long coats, greeting visitors with a friendly “Ahoy!” There are shelves and shelves of flowing shirts, culottes and loose skirts made from 25 yards of fabric. An entire section is devoted to hats, pins, feathers and ribbons. Next to it is the arsenal, filled with black powder weapons. You will find rows of jewelry and belts, boxes of loose Gasparilla beads. There’s even “Ye Olde Box ‘O’ Boobs,” containing individually wrapped, squishy fake boobs. Customers pay at one of the cash registers perched behind the giant pirate ship that explodes through the front wall.

There is only one ritual you need to complete before going through the gated entrance to enter the store.

“Ring the bell and ask permission to board,” expedition manager Dead Red shouts to each new customer.

Shoppers won’t find costumes here. Captain Tiger Lee of the South China Sea, store owner and merchant king, is very clear that his pieces are historical clothing. A team of three seamstresses and two leatherworkers execute his creations, which he bases on historic clothing designs, using natural fabrics such as silk and linen. In other words, it’s not the limp, itchy, or faintly smelly polyester garments that get crumpled up and stuffed into a bag at a party store.

The prices reflect this. A low-end full outfit can cost around $200. Customize your look by adding trinkets, weapons, or a custom hat, and the prize can easily go up to five times.

“There are no windows. There are no clocks. There is a loop ocean track. It’s like being in a casino,” said leather department manager Devin McCabe, whose pirate name is Devil May Come. “But instead of losing money on slot machines, you lose money on pirate clothing.”

At 65, Tampa native Joe Hughes has competed in 60 Gasparillas. It has closets full of pirate clothing, and a number of pieces are from Pirate Fashions.

He wasn’t shopping for himself that day. Instead, he and his wife, Gloria, brought their 9-year-old grandson, Evan, to find an outfit to wear in the children’s parade.

“He’s growing up so fast,” Joe Hughes said. “Nothing before fits.”

“It’s part of the family tradition,” added Gloria Hughes. “We missed it.”

Evan came out of the dressing room in a white shirt with a black vest and pants.

Lee crouches down to slip a toy gun into Evan’s red belt. Evan glanced in the full length mirror and gasped.

“I love this outfit,” he said.

“See, I know what I’m doing,” Lee replied.

Like most pirates, Lee had a whole other life before getting into the buccaneering business. He once owned a carpet cleaning business. Then he opened a multimedia production company. After that, he found himself as a fantasy photographer, photographing clients in elaborate costumes he bought for himself. For a time, he published an annual “Hot Pirate Babes” calendar.

But as 2008 approached, Lee saw the warning signs that the economy was about to take a dive. He left his home in California and decided to go all-in against pirates, opening a modest shop in St. Augustine, a place with a long history of plunder. After four years, he moved to Tampa, a pirate-loving city, to round up his scurvy crew.

“I try to bring in people who don’t fit in anywhere else,” Lee said.

Dead Red, real name Laura Gasser, was an insurance agent and cosmetics salesman at a department store before coming on board. McCabe, who once saw Pirates of the Caribbean four times in theaters, applied apprehensively after finding a Craigslist ad looking for a “pirate-loving girl”.

To make the team, there is an interview, then a four-day internship to see if it fits. Payment is $250 store credit, enough to cover an outfit that can be used as a uniform. Later, employees get 50% off everything except black powder weapons.

“Typically it takes three months to get someone to the point where they’re useful,” Lee said. “And everyone is cross-trained, which means my seamstresses, my leatherworkers, everyone works on the floor.”

Most of the year is slow at Pirate Fashions, and that’s when the team is focused on building inventory. Seventy percent of the items sold are made on site, in a workshop hidden from customers on the second floor.

Lee views her clothes as an investment – pieces you’ll bring out year after year, for Gasparilla, Halloween, Renaissance festivals or fantasy gatherings. It’s slow fashion, with each garment carefully crafted to have the character of the past while still appealing to the modern customer. Visitors get the star treatment, learning the history of the pieces as the salespirate helps them build an outfit and wear it correctly. It can take an hour to find the right look.

September and October see a rush of guests ahead of Talk Like a Pirate Day and Halloween. Then the Gasparilla season arrives in January. Ten customers a day become hundreds. The day before the invasion, about 800 people invade the shop. It can take a good chunk of an hour just to queue to pay.

The loss of Gasparilla last year was devastating, cutting 35% of activity. To survive, Lee exhausted the savings he had set aside to one day build an amusement center called Pirate World. He didn’t fire a single pirate.

Since May 2021, it has seen a rebound – eight consecutive record months. However, it will always be difficult to make up for a year without a parade, especially with supply chain issues. Yes, even hackers experience delays.

Lee’s advice for buyers?

“Don’t wait until the last minute,” he said. “What I don’t want is more people coming the day before Gasparilla.”

In the back of the shop, Derril McDonald donned a pair of $285 musketeer boots, high enough to come up to his knees and wide enough to add cushiony soles before a long drop on Bayshore. He looked like a movie extra wandering off set, with a long red coat and matching belt, crisp white shirt and gray breeches. He accessorized with a black bandolier slung across his chest, holding a sword that rested at his hip.

“I shop for everything,” he says.

The 50-year-old Indian Shores resident and his wife have tickets to attend a sunset cruise with Gasparilla and an after-party. Her friend had recommended Pirate Fashions to her.

“She said it was the Mecca of everything pirate-related,” Patara McDonald said. “It’s an overload.”

At checkout, McDonalds guessed their total.

“I’m just going to say it’s probably payment for my car?” said Patara McDonald.

“So close,” McCabe said. “$1,040.61. Plus tax.”

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