Character builders

Why Toronto has emerged as a global centre of mascot costume-making

Character builders

Photo by Jenna Marie Wakani

Mascots often define a brand. Just think of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger or Kraft’s Kool-Aid man. And if you see one in person, there’s a good chance the costume was made in Toronto, where a thriving industry has emerged selling to clients around the globe. “Toronto is the mascot mecca of the world,” says Christina Simmons, president of Loonie Times Inc., one of the half-dozen mascot companies in the city.

Why Toronto? “I think we just put more TLC into them,” says Simmons. Unlike mass-produced mascots made overseas, Toronto’s mascots are conceived by bona-fide artisans. Take Sugar’s Costumes Studio, founded in 1980 by Peter deVinta, an Italian immigrant who comes from a long line of tailors. (His father, Joseph, now 91, was a master tailor in Italy who worked for top military generals.) A medium-sized firm, Sugar’s makes upwards of 400 mascots a year. Some are famous, like the Blue Jays’ Ace, and others obscure, like the Calvary Chapel’s California Nuts for Jesus: PJ, Al, Wally and Hazel. DeVita just shipped Nahkool, a date palm tree and mascot of a town in Bahrain.

The companies hire from nearby schools, like OCAD University and Seneca College, who pump out sculptors, designers and sewers. “When you’re making a custom character like the Honey Nut Bee, you need a fashion design graduate so they can do the pattern drafting and do the math to look like the design,” says Mike Chudleigh, president of 1-800-Mascots, another local firm.

Perhaps surprisingly, the $5-million mascot industry was insulated from and even grew during the recent recession when companies operating with restricted marketing budgets saw a $3,000 costume as cost-efficient advertising compared to a $100,000 television commercial. The mascot’s success also suggests that old marketing methods can still sell. Yet people always want more. Lately, says Simmons, clients are demanding “things that move and eyes that blink.” A recent creation: a mascot for an American movie theatre that shoots popcorn from its hands.

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