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Photo: Seawell Productions/UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals

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How Making Star Wars Costumes Became a Charitable Act

Star Wars fans are meant to fear the dark side of the Force, to want to conquer evil in order to save the universe. Hate it, they should, as Yoda would say. So how did a worldwide charity group form out of a bunch of fans who enjoy dressing as the "bad guys?"

"I can't speak for everyone, but would you rather take a selfie with Darth Vader or a guy in a bathrobe?"

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That's Greg Lee, otherwise known as TK 60918, 501st Legion member since 2013. "Our slogan is ‘bad guys doing good,'" he told me. "Vader and Stormtroopers are iconic and we look a lot cooler than our ‘good' counterparts."

The 501st Legion (also known as Vader's Fist) was not a preexisting Star Wars entity. Named by founders Albin Johnson and Tom Crews in 1997, the organization was started "for the express purpose of bringing together costume enthusiasts under a collective identity within which to operate," according to their website. The organization quickly grew from fans mostly dressed as Stormtroopers to bounty hunters and other villains from Star Wars.

While members could frequently be found at the local comic or sci-fi convention, the 501st looked for more reasons to get together. Charity was the perfect solution.

Seawell Productions/UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals

The 501st have worked with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the American Cancer Society, the Red Cross, and countless other organizations through the years. They participate in hospital visits and birthday parties for children with serious illnesses, fundraising walks, anti-bullying and reading encouragement programs, and polar plunges. They also welcome charitable donations to organizations in their name in exchange for their appearance time. Do you recall Daniel Fleetwood, the Star Wars fan with a terminal illness who was granted a viewing of The Force Awakens before he passed? The 501st made him a Star Garrison "honorary member," one of a select group of fans and creators who have contributed in some special way to the saga.

The group since been canonized (not in the religious sense of course, though some fans certainly treat Star Wars as their religion) by Lucasfilm, first in a Star Wars novel called Survivor's Quest then the novelization of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and eventually the Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV show. And, yes, they even have official action figures.

If that sounds like a fan group you'd be interested in joining, you may want to sit down first (which may be difficult if you've already put on your Stormtrooper armor).

"To join the Legion you need to be 18 years old, and you need to own a costume that meets the Legion's acceptance criteria," Brian Anderson, Legion Membership Officer for the 501st, told me (a full rundown of how to join the 501st can be found on their website). He oversees the process of adding new costumes to their official database, which is no easy task for either party thanks to some very specific costume creation criteria.

"I can't speak for everyone, but would you rather take a selfie with Darth Vader or a guy in a bathrobe?"

While there's 301 characters to choose from in their database currently, a character isn't added to the list until the first completed suit is approved. "The approval process is a back-and-forth with the Legion Membership Officer, the detachment leader [special interest groups focused on certain types of costumes], and the costumer," Anderson explained. "During that process, we haggle over what details will be required for the costume, how the finish should be, etc. — always trying to balance high quality with achievable standards."

It may be a while until members dressed as characters from J.J. Abrams' new film are seen at your local children's hospital or parade. There are only two Star Wars: The Force Awakens costume types active right now, which Anderson says includes "73 approved First Order Stormtroopers, and eight approved Kylo Rens."

"It is definitely a struggle, and those of us who opt to do it early are always prepared to change course as more information is discovered," says Anderson of the process for creating costumes from an unreleased film. He's currently hard at work on a Force Awakens Snowtrooper. "I have some coloring book pages hanging in my workshop because it was helpful to see what an artist thought a Snowtrooper looked like when distilled down to black lines," he told me. "I've already had a few revisions. I think I'm on my third helmet since I started."

Lee, however, is one of those 73 new Stormtroopers. He describes the building of a costume as a "detailed and gruelingly tedious process" with many people involved.

"Countless hours of research goes into scrutinizing every last aspect of the costume down to what correct screw head was used. You take screen grabs from the trailer, a page in a magazine, an online interview or a toy, and you do your best to make it look like the materials you have," he told me. "After all the parties involved are happy with their research, far more talented sculptors than I work tirelessly ‘til they have a base model to work off of. Overall, putting together a kit is like putting together a model airplane on a much larger scale, with no instructions."

Photo: Redback Garrison/501st Legion

The financial dedication to these costumes is just as involved. Lee told me the cost can range from $600 to $1,800 per costume and that he's spent $7,000 on his costumes in 2015 alone. Anderson says a single Boba Fett costume wound up costing him over $5,000, while he's spent in excess of $15,000 on costumes over the last 12 years.

Lee's costumes range from Tusken Raiders to an Imperial Gunner to Jawa, but of his First Order Stormtrooper from The Force Awakens he says, "I like the concept of a trooper and being one of many. Darth Vader does not necessarily keep the gears in the cog moving; the workers and soldiers do. I like the nameless, faceless aspect of being a Stormtrooper."

Ashley Eckstein, creator of sci-fi fashion company Her Universe, the voice of Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and 501st "honorary member," was a longtime Star Wars fan, but wasn't aware of the extent of the organization's mission until after she started working with Lucasfilm. "I did not realize that this group of fans uses their free time and their own money to build costumes to wear to events to bring joy to other people's lives," she explained. Eckstein's background in fashion also gave her a deeper appreciation of the 501st's impressive costuming skills. "The costumes need to be movie quality and they honestly look like they've stepped out of the movie screen." She's already seen a few Force Awakens Stormtroopers in person and says, "It's a completely different costume than the classic and prequel Stormtroopers."

"I'll give you a great example of why it's so hard to get these costumes going," Lee said. "Kylo Ren's gloves alone have gone through at least three different changes, every time there is a new trailer there is a new seam that's discovered."

That's a hurdle Dawn Bright (a.k.a. SL-13377), member of the 501st Garrison out of Southern California, knows all too well. Fortunately she had a slightly easier time with it thanks to seeing Kylo Ren's costume on display at Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim this past April.

"I stood in line for 45 minutes and I had my husband with me and a camera, so I could get every single angle," she told me. "I was floored by how beautiful the costume was."

The couple wound up taking over 700 photos of the costume that day. After the convention Bright scoured the Los Angeles fashion district for the perfect materials and got to work immediately — and then Vanity Fair put out a Force Awakens photo spread featuring the character without a helmet.

"Building this costume has been the most grueling and time-consuming costume I have ever made," Bright, who submitted her first draft of Kylo in May, says. "In the end I made two surcoats, three midcoats, three pairs of sleeves, two pairs of pants. I own four helmets and three pairs of boots. I have never spent this much time or effort on a costume, but it all paid off when I was approved as the Legion 1st Kylo Ren in early November." A "Legion 1st" is a costume yet to be completed by anyone, Bright explained. "This costume has special and specific approval made by the LMO, a CRL [Costume Reference Library] guideline is then written based off of that."

Gwendoline Christie, who plays Phasma, poses with the 501st Legion's new Stormtroopers at the LA premiere of The Force Awakens. Photo: Todd Williamson/Getty Images

Captain Phasma, the widely-discussed character played by Gwendoline Christie and outfitted in chrome armor, is a big question mark in the 501st Legion community ahead of the film premiere. Anderson told me he doesn't know anyone "tackling Phasma yet, but I'm sure she's coming." Turns out, it's the next challenge Bright is taking on.

"I'm one of the few Legion members that does not own a Stormtrooper and being an avid fan of strong females in the Star Wars universe, I chose Phasma," she said. "However, the costume is a very long and drawn-out build process, so I am working slowly. I hope to have this costume completed not long after the premier."

Speaking to this costume's particular challenges, Anderson explained, "It would be very easy to say Phasma has to be chrome-plated, but then you're basically saying that it has to be a multi-thousand dollar finish job. Ultimately it will come down to a vote amongst the members of our First Imperial Stormtrooper Detachment."

"Even at her young age she has already dealt with people telling her that girls don't like XYZ. I just remembered her eyes getting wide when I told her that [Phasma] was a she."

The 501st connects Star Wars fans in need of help and fans that are able to give, but the legion is also a generational force. Lee mentioned he watched the original trilogy with his father when he was young. "[He] worked very long hours so the time I did get to spend with him was precious. He enjoyed the franchise and I, in turn, enjoyed spending the time with him." So Anderson is passing his love of the franchise — and costuming — onto his 4-year-old daughter, Mina.

"One of the first costumes she ever wore out to conventions was an Ewok [at 18 months old]. We gave her a foam tipped spear and set her loose on the 501st," he told me. "The other suit she wears often is her Stormtrooper. Since she's so little, we can't do hard armor yet. She has the Disney Stormtrooper pajamas that she wears with a knit Stormtrooper helmet hat."

Anderson says the Force Awakens characters are clicking with her much more than the classic trilogy. "Once she learned that the ‘the shiny stormtrooper is a lady,' she got very interested. Even at her young age she has already dealt with people telling her that girls don't like XYZ," he said "I just remembered her eyes getting wide when I told her that she was a she. Since then she's stolen all of my Phasma toys." That includes his LEGO Phasma, who "has a generic black head under the helmet. As soon as we opened the box, she went and found a 'Lego lady face' for her and swapped that out so that you'd know it was a girl in there."

But it's charity, not just costuming, that runs through the veins of the 501st. Lee's father is a social worker and admits outreach has always been a big part of his family.

He recalls a time he had to be admitted to a hospital and his family and friends visited him every day. Lee watched as they developed relationships with those less fortunate around him, making sure they knew someone cared. He said, "As a member of the Legion, I would like to think that showing people that we care, in some small way, brings hope to those less fortunate people and a smile to their faces."


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