Furry fandom is a big (and radically misunderstood and misrepresented) tent, covering not only those who identify with animals—fictional or real—but anyone who appreciates anthropomorphic critters, too. Furries express their affinities through everything, from art and literature to roleplaying on forums and in person as various "fursonas." But by far the most conspicuous and best-known elements of the fandom are fursuits, the humanoid animal outfits some furries don to more fully inhabit a fursona.
Although far less ubiquitous in the fandom, and far less often overtly sexualized than shows like CSI and outlets like Vanity Fair have made them out to be, fursuits are still prominent in the culture. Longtime intra-fandom journalist (and fursuiting husky dog) Patch O'Furr refers to them as "the theatrical soul of furry," acknowledging that, since the mid-2000s, they have become "the furry thing."
Yet while most now recognize furries by these suits, few outside the scene think about where said suits come from. You might assume they're repurposed mascot costumes—but you'd be wrong. Fursuits are, you'll notice upon close inspection, better fitted and intricately crafted, made for show and individuality. Which raises the question: Who's pumping out all of these bespoke and often exceptionally well-executed suits, crafted just for furries?
The history of the fursuit is relatively short; just a bit over 30 years old, technically. (More on that in a bit.) The big makers who have emerged from this young part of the scene are folks like Mixed Candy, Don't Hug Cacti, One Fur All, and Made Fur You, all of which have turned this tiny culture into a viable enterprise. Another of these notable fursuit makers is Phoenix. A furry herself (she dresses as a purple malamute), Phoenix started making suits in 2008 at age 15 and now runs The Phoenix Nest, a Minnesota-based, hand-crafted fursuit maker with an extraordinary eye for detail—"carefully made with both appearance and durability in mind," their site reads. "We are very excited to bring your adorable critters to life!"
Phoenix, who believes her operation is about average-sized for an established maker, says she takes fursuit commissions once a year. "Around 200 submissions," she said. She accepts around ten, citing time as an issue; but as a sought-after maker, she has the freedom to work with customers based on how well their ideas gel with their own sensibilities.
Every maker has his or her own style and process. Some only model their suits on real animals and opt for naturalistic features, while others go more fantastical or cartoonish. The price of suits can vary widely, but a hand-crafted, professional made fox or hound or unicorn (or whatever you want) full suit usually runs between one and three grand at the very least. According to Dogpatch Press, a furry news site, $4,500 is "a general high range for standard commissions."
And entrepreneurial crafters have come up with all manner of add-ons that drive prices way up. You can add cooling or camera and audio systems, hyper-realistic eyes that follow people around, eyelids controlled by magnets, or jaws that move at will. For evidence of this, one need look no further than this highly specialized cheetah made by Primal Visions, which features an arduino system that moves the eyes and mouth, and triggers growls based on bio-feedback. Purchased by a furry named Spottacus in 2014, it cost a whopping $17,500. And Spottacus isn't done quite yet—he's currently eying a design that costs $25,000, a pretty penny for a cheetah.
"I'm told Hollywood FX stuff, like with animatronics and more, can add at least a zero onto the highest fursuit prices," said O'Furr, which means some may hit six-figures after full modding.
This is extraordinary when you consider fursuits have not always been a part of the fandom, which sprouted out of underground comic and zine circles in the '60s and '70s and coalesced in the '80s, with furries initially circulating zines and letters. The term wasn't even coined until 1993.
A proto-suit made an appearance at the first ever furry convention, ConFurence 0 in Costa Mesa, California, in 1989: Hilda the Bambioid, the brainchild of a Disney mascot wearer and crafter named Robert Hill, based on a popular sexualized anthropomorphic character of the fandom era. But the next few conferences saw, as furry historian (and non-suited fan) Fred Patten recalls, no fursuiting, not even another Hilda sighting. Instead, the furries of the early '90s wore costume tails and ears, which they may have picked up by overlapping with the nascent anime and sci-fi fandom convention circuits.
However furries with mascoting cred (like Hill), Hollywood costuming experience (like Lance Ikegawa), or just a strong desire to inhabit their fursonas by applying some tailoring and crafting skills, puttered away, and slowly started gaining attention. By the mid-'90s, their suits were crude. But they'd started to get some play in the community. Around the same time, the furry convention circuit expanded and the nascent internet banded the fandom together, facilitating the spread of ideas.
"Once it got going," said Jurann, a polar bear in the fandom since 1994 who got his first suit around 2000, "within a couple years, you had people promoting themselves as fursuit makers and making a suit every month or two."
These early makers practiced intense experimentation, informing each other of their techniques and putting out how-to guides for newbies, the ultimate being Critter Costuming, a 2004 manual by Adam Riggs, a.k.a. Nicodemus Rat.
Some folks still use these guides to craft their (often low-quality) suits for cheap. But by the mid-aughts the craft had become so specialized and demand within the fandom was high enough that a few makers were able to turn fursuit crafting into a living.
From then on, many suit makers, Phoenix included, have operated on a commission model, with furries sending in either specific designs or open-ended requests to designers. If a maker takes on a design, or agrees to invent something, they request specific measurements to use in creating a perfect fit. Most makers offer partial suits, which just include a head, tail and paws; three-quarters, which add on hip-to-feet bits and are often worn with a baggy shirt or jersey mascot-style; or full-suits, the most visible and best known of the lot. The suits take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to painstakingly handcraft every element of the suit from scratch.
Several fursuit review sites have sprung up to help furries find their ideal style, but also to weed out unoriginal, fly-by-night, or otherwise sub-par suit makers. "There can be high turnover," said O'Furr, especially as people dipping a toe in the industry realize how much labor is involved, and how hard it can be to develop a style and a following. But the suit watchers I've spoken to suggest there are a few hundred makers active at any given time, about a hundred of whom have some longevity and enough business to stay afloat. Only a few dozen can command high prices and have earned a great deal of respect within the scene.
Beyond those tiers, there's also a huge market for designs made sans commissions by big makers, or for used suits, on auction sites like FurBuy, which emerged as a community-focused alternative to cavernous eBay. At any given time they have up to 200 suits up for auction. Smaller auction sites and venues like Etsy also have a few suits for sale at any time. And furry conventions always have in-person sales areas, Dealer's Dens, featuring suits.
Taken together, this suggests many thousands of suits are created or change hands yearly, amounting to millions in sales.
"People are constantly getting new characters and fursuits," explained Phoenix of the perpetual market, especially those with novel designs or mods. "Some people have a dozen fursuits of different characters."
There's also a ready market for fursuiting skills outside of the fandom. "As fursuits have gotten higher and higher quality, and fursuit makers have made a name for themselves, they've been approached by sports teams to make their mascots as well," said Jurann. That seems to be true of municipal agencies and other organizations as well.
But the market is also bolstered by the perpetual growth of the fandom—and suiting specifically. New conventions spring up across the world almost weekly, notes scene expert Fred Patten, and social stigmas weighing down furries have finally begun to fade a bit. Most new furries are in high school or college according to Jurann, so they'll likely have even more to spend on suits moving forward. And more of them will likely buy suits than in the past, with the possibility of multiple purchases. Patten suspects media coverage focusing on fursuits has exposed more people to furry fandom and will likely increase their popularity, much like cosplay-focused coverage of anime, comic, and sci-fi conventions has built norms around dressing up.
Because of these factors, suit making will likely grow not just in volume but also complexity and expense. "The fursuit market will continue to grow," said Patten.
So if you're looking to buy a fursuit, get it now. It'll only get crazier and more expensive with time.
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.