The costume crusader
By MARIA ELENA BACA, Star Tribune
Last year, when professional wrestler Michael Brinatte became unemployed, he started looking for a new niche. He may have found it, in an unlikely place.
As part of his Hero Gear operation, Brinatte creates “battle suits,” masks, capes, singlets and other accessories for “real-life superheroes.” His clients are people immersed in the culture of comic books and science fiction, who take on superhero personas (and costumes) to do good, whether patrolling the streets, donating blood, or coordinating toy and food drives.
A mention in a recent City Pages article on the national phenomena of “real-life superheroes” has drummed up interest in Brinatte’s business and brought media exposure. Over the past few weeks, he’s participated in radio interviews broadcast locally, as well as in San Diego and Lexington, Ky. He also has a part in an upcoming documentary, made by an Ohio filmmaker, “Your Friendly Neighborhood Hero.”
Brinatte, 39, has wrestled locally for 15 years, most recently under the villain persona “Jack T. Ripper.” Although Brinatte’s friends call him by his wrestling name, it seems an unlikely match. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he’s got the bulk to be scary, but in conversation, he’s affable and enthusiastic about his avocation.
A corner of Brinatte’s New Brighton apartment is draped with swatches of Spandex: blue, gold, a white-blue harlequin pattern. A pile of masks and a completed costume — singlet and vest-cape — lay on the couch, along with an assortment of tagboard patterns. A work station includes stacking cases of notions, his computer, which he uses for design work, and a docking station for his sewing/embroidery machine, which happened to be in the shop.
He started making his own science-fiction and Star Trek-themed costumes when he was in high school; his most formal training was seventh-grade home economics. (He made a pillow.)
Brinatte made wrestling costumes for his buddies on the circuit, and more recently for some friends who auditioned for the SciFi Channel reality show “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” which gives people an opportunity to test their mettle as self-made heroes.
In less than a year, he’s made at least 32 costumes and about 50 masks.
Most often, he makes contact with people who have a superhero interest, or they hear about him through word of mouth. They work together, via phone, e-mail or MySpace messages to create a design that the client likes and that Brinatte knows he can make and will work for what the client wants to do.
‘A whole lot of talent’
Desiree Portner, of Dallas, also known as Ninjarella, said Brinatte contacted her last May, after seeing her MySpace page. She had auditioned for “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” and was plotting another audition. But she needed a new costume.
Brinatte took her idea for a logo and created an embroidered chest shield. He made suggestions for color and shape.
“When we started, I wanted a full-mask costume, but he said I have a lot of personality in my face, so we’d try to put a lot of detail in the suit,” she said. She had auditioned with a fire theme and a blue suit. “He said blue is a cold color, and we should try a warmer color.”
Together, they added stripes and color and, over about a month of talks, agreed on a design.
She waited apprehensively for the suit to arrive.
“When I pulled it out, and when I saw it my jaw dropped,” she said. “I was completely in awe of how it looked. It looked like something out of a comic book. He’s got a whole lot of talent.”
Brinatte charges $80-$120 for his suits, which take him less than six hours to complete. Kid-size suits are usually less than $40.
It’s been important to him to keep prices low. “I try to make a profit without making too much because a lot of people don’t have a lot to spend,” he said, adding that some people in the “real-life superhero” community choose to keep the investment a secret from their families.
Hero Gear doesn’t quite pay the bills yet. Brinatte has worked other jobs as he tries to make the costume business take off.
“It’s a lot more satisfying than anything else I’ve done as far as making money,” he said. “I find it satisfying enough to design these different looks. If they like it, that’s cool.”
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409