TAMPA — Tucked on a quiet street, the plain building at 4006 W Cayuga St. is easy to miss — until you spot the pirate flag waving near the entrance of the parking lot.
Inside, Pirate Fashions is anything but subtle. A swashbuckling crew of employees saunters around in character, stuffed into corsets and long coats, greeting visitors with a friendly, “Ahoy!” There are racks and racks of flowing shirts, breeches and sweeping skirts made with 25 yards of fabric. An entire section is devoted to hats, pins, feathers and ribbons. Next to it is the armory, stocked with black powder weapons. You’ll find rows of jewelry and sashes, boxes of Gasparilla beads in bulk. There’s even “Ye Olde Box ‘O’ Boobs,” containing squishy, individually wrapped fake breasts. Customers pay at one of the cash registers perched behind the giant pirate ship exploding through the front wall.
There’s just one ritual you must complete before crossing the roped-off entrance to get inside the store.
“Ring the bell and ask permission to board,” the head shipping wench, Dead Red, hollers at each new customer.
Shoppers won’t find costumes here. Captain Tiger Lee of the South China Sea, the store’s owner and merchant king, is very clear that his pieces are historic clothing. A team of three seamstresses and two leatherworkers execute his designs, which he bases on historic clothing patterns, using natural fabrics like silk and linen. In other words, these are not the limp, itchy or vaguely smelly polyester garments that come crumpled and shoved in a bag at a party store.
The prices reflect that. A full outfit on the low end can cost about $200. Customize your look by adding on baubles, weapons or a personalized hat, and the price can easily jump to five times that.
“There’s no windows. There’s no clocks. There’s a looping ocean track. It’s like you’re in a casino,” said leather department manager Devin McCabe, whose pirate name is Devil May Come. “But instead of losing money to slots, you’re losing money to pirate clothes.”
At 65 years old, Tampa native Joe Hughes has attended 60 Gasparillas. He has closets full of pirate clothes, and a number of pieces came from Pirate Fashions.
On that particular day, he wasn’t shopping for himself. Instead, he and his wife, Gloria, brought their 9-year-old grandson Evan to find an outfit to wear at the children’s parade.
“He’s just growing so fast,” Joe Hughes said. “Nothing from before fits.”
“It’s been a part of the family tradition,” Gloria Hughes added. “We missed it.”
Evan emerged from the fitting room in a white shirt with a black vest and pants.
Lee crouched down to tuck a toy gun in Evan’s red sash. Evan peeked in the full-length mirror and gasped.
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“I like this outfit,” he said.
“See, I know what I’m doing,” Lee replied.
Like most pirates, Lee had a whole other life before he got into the buccaneer biz. He once owned a carpet-cleaning business. Then he opened a multimedia production company. After that, he found himself as a fantasy photographer, shooting clients in elaborate costumes that he bought himself. For a while, he published an annual “Hot Pirate Babes” calendar.
But as 2008 approached, Lee saw the warning signs that the economy was about to take a dive. He left his home in California and decided to go all-in on pirates, opening a modest shop in St. Augustine, a place with a long history of plundering. After four years, he moved to pirate-loving Tampa to assemble his scurvy crew.
“I try to get people that don’t fit in anywhere else,” Lee said.
Dead Red, whose real name is Laura Gasser, was an insurance agent and department store cosmetics salesperson before coming aboard. McCabe, who once saw Pirates of the Caribbean four times in theaters, apprehensively applied after finding a Craigslist ad seeking a “pirate-loving girl.”
To make the team, there’s an interview, and then a four-day-long internship to see if it’s a good fit. Payment is a $250 store credit, enough to cover an outfit that can be used as a uniform. Later, employees get 50 percent off everything but the black powder weapons.
“Generally, it takes three months to get somebody to the point where they’re useful,” Lee said. “And everybody gets cross-trained, which means my seamstresses, my leatherworkers, everybody works on the floor.”
Most of the year is slow at Pirate Fashions, and that’s when the team focuses on building up inventory. Seventy percent of the items sold are made on site, in a workshop tucked away from guests on the second floor.
Lee views his clothing as an investment — pieces that you’ll bring out year after year, for Gasparilla, Halloween, Renaissance festivals or fantasy gatherings. This is slow fashion, with each garment designed carefully to have the character of the past yet still appeal to the modern shopper. Visitors get the star treatment, learning about the history of the pieces as the salespirate helps them build an outfit and wear it properly. It can take an hour to find the right look.
September and October see a rush of guests ahead of Talk Like a Pirate Day and Halloween. Then Gasparilla season hits in January. Ten customers a day becomes hundreds. The day before the invasion, about 800 people swarm the shop. It can take the better part of an hour just to wait in line to pay.
The loss of Gasparilla last year was devastating, cutting out 35 percent of business. To survive, Lee burned through the savings he’d set aside to one day build a game center called Pirate World. He didn’t lay off a single pirate.
Since May 2021, he’s seen a rebound — eight record-breaking months in a row. It’ll still be hard to make up for a year without a parade, though, especially with supply chain issues. Yes, even pirates are experiencing delays.
Lee’s advice for shoppers?
“Don’t wait until the last minute,” he said. “What I don’t want is more people to come the day before Gasparilla.”
In the back of the shop, Derril McDonald slipped on a $285 pair of musketeer boots, tall enough to creep up toward his knees and wide enough to add cushy insoles ahead of a long stumble down Bayshore. He looked like a movie extra wandered off set, with a long red coat and matching sash, a crisp white shirt and gray breeches. He accessorized with a black baldric slung across his chest, holding a sword that rested at his hip.
“I’m shopping for everything,” he said.
The 50-year-old Indian Shores resident and his wife have tickets to attend a Gasparilla sunset cruise and after-party. Her friend had recommended Pirate Fashions.
“She said it was the mecca of all things pirates,” Patara McDonald said. “This is overload.”
At the cash register, the McDonalds took a guess at their total.
“I’m just going to say it’s probably my car payment?” Patara McDonald said.
“So close,” McCabe said. “$1,040.61. Plus tax.”