The Mandalorian Mercs: A Star Wars costuming group that embraces customization and culture

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Dec 20, 2016, 6:13 PM EST

The Mandalorians of Star Wars are a unique and fascinating group. Upon hearing the name you might first think of Boba Fett, but the Mandalorians have grown to become so much more since the appearance of the bounty hunter in The Empire Strikes Back. Their culture has been expanded on in numerous ways over the years, earning them many fans, some of which don the iconic armor themselves as part of the Star Wars costuming group the Mandalorian Mercs.

The costume club was founded by Tom Hutchens and it all started thanks to Hutchens playing a Mandalorian character in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Star Wars Galaxies. When he went to DragonCon with his wife and saw some people dressed as custom Mandalorian characters, he thought he could try to do the same and bring life to his Galaxies character so he could wear the costume to places like conventions. Hutchens began to research how to make a costume and found that there wasn’t really a specific resource available for custom Mandalorian characters. He brought up the idea of starting such a group with some friends he met while gaming and now, about a decade later, Hutchens told Syfy Wire the group has about 1,700 costume members and about 57 chapters worldwide. He’s watched the organization grow a great deal during this time. Hutchens has seen a lot happen on the backend as he’s dealt with Lucasfilm, Disney, and their financials since the group is a registered non-profit in the U.S. Their charity efforts have also expanded.

“We have a little charity fund that we run throughout the year called Little Warrior International. We use that to help children and families in need pretty much worldwide and act to help respond to natural disasters and things like that so that part has grown exponentially,” he said. “I think the first year we raised like $250. Now last year we raised about $12,000 and this year total we’ll bring almost $20,000 in for it. That’s probably the best part of watching everything is how much we can help others outside of our group.”

The group works fundraising into their existing events such as conventions that clans may attend. For example, one of the things they’ll do at events is the Mandalorian Bounty Hunt where you can hire the clan to go and arrest a friend to be put into a fake cage they have set up for a certain amount of time. They will also sometimes sell merchandise. According to Hutchens, they’ll occasionally also do events for specific charities like Make-A-Wish.

Photo credit: Matt Zeher

Other groups like the 501st Legion may raise money for charity and focus on Star Wars costumes as well, but the Mandalorian Mercs is unique among these related organizations. Hutchens sees the group standing out for its charity work, but even more than that for how they focus on custom costumes. They accept canon characters like Boba Fett and Jango Fett, but Hutchens said being mostly custom means it’s hard to find two members that look alike.

“We allow a person to kind of put themselves and sort of their own personality, their own creativity into the character so it’s not just random stormtrooper TK-421. You’re actually your own character. This is your own part of Star Wars,” he said. “That I think is what appeals the most to people is the amount of creativity that we do allow and the amount of customization and the character having such a personal touch to the maker of it.”

Michael Moller, a Mandalorian Merc member in the Australian Sandhawk clan, also sees the level of customization as how the organization stands out most obviously from the rest of the costuming groups.

“It always makes me proud of our collective skills that we have so, so many Mercs with screen-quality costumes, regardless of their screen accuracy because of our custom nature. We are the skittles of the Star Wars costuming world,” Moller told Syfy Wire in an email interview.

As a Merc, Moller has attended pop culture conventions around Australia, Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando, as well as parades, photo shoots, and hospital visits. According to Moller, his costume like many “is a constant evolution and it’s never actually ‘complete’”

“However, I took about six months to build my initial costume to approvable level, and in some kind of stroke of genius, was approved on May the 4th 2012. It’s not inspired by any one character, but takes ideas and elements from several,” he said. “For example, I’ve gone back and forth between Boba and Jango style vests, have had Boba style upper body plates and Jango style lower body. The visor shape was inspired by the famous Marrow Sun Custom helmet, and the colors just seemed to work for me.”

So what about the Mandalorians exactly has attracted all these fans and captured thieir imaginations? What made Moller a fan was their “no-nonsense attitude, the lack of dealing with drama that made no sense.”

Michael Moller in orange and grey with Swift in purple and maroon, and Nassik in green and black.

“The fact that you don’t lead them, you make smart decisions that they would have made on their own. The reverence for family, no matter who you were born to. And, of course, looking absolutely awesome whilst doing it,” he said.

Hutchens sees those aspects as being attractive to many fans and members of the Mercs. The awesome armor and the family aspect draw fans to them. To Hutchens one of the attractive things about the characters is also how they’re portrayed as “the most feared non-Force using warriors in the galaxy.” They’re characters people worry about, don’t want to mess with, and want to remain on the good side of even in the cartoons Star Wars Rebels and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

“If you’re more of a Star Trek fan than a Star Wars fan, think of them as the Klingons of Star Wars because they really are the only characters in Star Wars, from the date that they started becoming popular around 2007, that have such a rich culture that’s been written about them. They have their own language,” he said. “They have such a great culture when it comes to family and that kind of thing and I think that’s what people can relate to those things in real life as well. Because you can have as much individuality as you want when you make the costume, but then you’re also part of a unit that really feels more like a family than it does as a chapter of an organization so that’s a huge appeal.”

For those who want to join the group, information about membership can be found on the website along with costume templates and tutorials. Before joining, Moller said he’d never made a costume before so it is doable for complete newbies interested in becoming involved. He just advises potential members remember to not take it too seriously as they strive for perfection and that “you can spend lots of time, or lots of money.” Hutchens also recommends reaching out to members in a local clan, who can help based on their experiences.

“We do have an approval process where you apply, you submit pictures, and then we judge your costume based on how well it adheres to our guidelines. It is a fairly strict process. Because we are a custom group we have to take a little more care in how we present ourselves because as custom you can get a little bit crazy sometimes with some things,” he said. “So we want to make sure it looks like it would come from one of the Star Wars movies. Like if you were watching a movie you might see that character in the background.”

The Mandalorian Mercs certainly have a lot to offer Star Wars fans. Whether it’s the cool armor, the Mandalorian culture, or the appeal of customization, these Mandalorians might be just the costuming group you're looking for!