- Posted July 26, 2009 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Action figure collecting (with kung fu grip)
I Make My Own Original Uniforms
I started collecting the 1960’s era GI Joes in the mid-80s, getting them mostly at garage sales and by placing ads in the newspaper. In about five years I had almost every figure, uniform, and vehicle in the original line. Sure, there were a few tough pieces like the nurse and the jungle fighter that I could never find, but I had pretty much everything else. What could I do now?
I noticed that, except for the Green Beret, virtually everything else was from the WWII era. There was only that one Vietnam era uniform, and this was the time period I was most interested in. So I decided to make my own!
I have worked as a graphic designer and sculptor, so I had the background to sculpt and cast my own plastic pieces. I went out and bought a bunch of Vietnam era military gear, including vintage uniforms, pouches, web gear, hats, and other goodies (no M16 though). I sculpted accurate scaled-down versions of the pouches, canteens, guns, and accessories, made rubber molds, and cast enough for a squad of guys.
I have also worked as a screenprinter, so I meticulously duplicated the intricate tiger stripe camouflage pattern in exact 1/6 scale and printed up some material using a small fine art screenprinting press. Then I drafted my wife, a fashion designer, to sew up some scale uniforms using the real items as a basis for the patterns. She did fantastic work, and all of a sudden I had my own Vietnam era SEAL team!
By now it was the early 90s and GI Joe collecting has become a little more mainstream. Collectors are talking to each other, making their own magazines, and using this wonderful new thing called the Internet to get in touch, and to buy and sell Joes. I posted a few photos of my SEALs and people asked if I would sell them. I hadn’t really thought about before, but I said sure, and made a few uniforms.
They were very well received, even though there were rather expensive. After all, it took a day or two just to make one uniform, so even at $150 or so we weren’t making that much. These early buyers showed off their new Joes and word spread. Quickly, we were inundated with requests for these uniforms. No one else was making anything like this, GI Joe was not even in the toy stores at that time. There was simply no other way to get Vietnam era uniforms for your Joes. Lots of collectors had nearly complete collections and had run out of new uniforms and figures to hunt for. Some guys made dioramas or made minor modifications to commercially produced pieces, but at that time there were only a couple of other people making complete custom uniforms.
My wife and I were floored by the demand for our uniforms. I contacted a well known GI Joe dealer, Cotswold Collectibles, and they ordered 100 uniforms! I knew I had to take this ball and run with it. So in 1993 I dropped out of college and quit my job, and my wife left her job as well, and we went into the custom 1/6 scale uniform business full time. We called our company Tripwire Toys and we went for it.
We made a few more pieces, enough to have a small but reasonably complete line of Vietnam era uniforms, printed up a small catalog, and ran ads in toy publications. The orders flooded in. We went to conventions, including one on the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier docked in New York, driving 3000 miles from our home in northern California. We were interviewed by several reporters, including John Michlig, the man behind the re-issue of the original GI Joe in the form of the Masterpiece Edition book and figure set, as well as author Susan Faludi, though our interview did not make the final edit of her piece for Vanity Fair.
Every piece we made was from our own designs: my original sculptures and camouflage designs and my wife’s patterns. Nothing was copied or knocked-off. Our emphasis was on accuracy and detail, and most of the pieces were made while holding and looking at the real, full-size item. We even had people think our items were real and try to order them for actual use, including someone from procurement for the nation of Malta.
Everything you see in the above photos was made by us, except for the figures themselves, the boots, and a couple of items of gear.This is just a fraction of the pieces we offered but it gives an idea of what we did.
Over the years the Tripwire Toys line grew to over 5000 pieces, including 50 or so complete uniforms and thousands of different sizes and colors of separate pieces. We branched out into modern uniforms, with an emphasis on special operations forces like SEALs and Green Berets, as well as police, SWAT, and some foreign forces like SAS and GSG-9. We also added WWII uniforms, firefighters, and a separate line for female figures like Barbie. We worked with active duty and retired military and police to make sure our uniforms were accurate. Many guys happily sent their own gear so we could use it as a basis for our patterns.
We got so busy that wait times for uniforms stretched to three or four months. A lot more people started selling their own custom work, some of it was quite good. The number of GI Joe collectors swelled and the major toy companies, including Hasbro, took notice. Hasbro brought back the 12 inch GI Joe, though with limited articulation and less-than-accurate uniforms. A few more years passed and several new companies entered the 1/6 scale action figure market, including 21st Century Toys, Dragon, Blue Box, and others. The quality of the figuries grew by leaps and bounds, and even more collectors entered the market, attracted by the huge variety of affordable, high quality, mass market figures and uniforms.
Eventually the inevitable happened and demand for our expensive uniforms (with the three month wait) began to slow down. We had contacts in the Chinese toy manufacturing industry, and one of our good collectors was an investment banker, so we had an opportunity to take the leap and get into the mass market ourselves. It was one of the toughest decisions we ever had to make, but we decided not to do this since it would turn us into little more than administrators. Over the course of our business we did less and less creating and ever more manufacturing. We had become little more than assembly line workers, filling order after order and making fewer and fewer new designs. Our original love was for the creation of these wonderful uniforms but our success had, in a way, become our undoing. We were suffering from severe burnout and needed to do something different.
In the end we sold many of our designs to the major toy companies. You can see our work in a lot of the 1/6 scale uniforms sold in the late 90s and early 2000s. It has been suggested that our work was outright stolen by several of the big manufacturers but I will not address that issue here.
It was an amazing experience to create these miniature, historically accuarate uniforms, and to see the joy they brought to our collectors. It was flattering and very satisfying to know that so many people have our work in their collections. Several celebrities and politicians own our work, as do a large number of military and law enforcement personnel. I still have a huge GI Joe collection, as well as many of our original designs, including prototypes, limited edition pieces, and of course the original sculptures and patterns.
Now I work as an Adventure Sculptor, making fine art sculptures based on adventure sports like scuba diving, rock climbing, and hiking. I also do commissioned portrait sculptures and specialty figurines. You can see my work at http://www.paulivy.com.
Running Tripwire Toys was one of the best experiences of my life. I met so many good people, made a lot of friends, and shared many a Joe experience. If any of my old buyers read this, feel free to get in touch, my contact information is on my web site. GO JOE!