TAMPA, Fla. — Before Capt. Tiger Lee of the South China Sea wore that title, he was a photographer.
“I had a failed business, and a friend said ‘hey, have you thought about a life in piracy?’” Lee said. “Because I had not before that. He was out of Hollywood. He threw big pirate parties for companies.”
Lee eventually landed in Tampa and opened Pirate Fashions. He calls the 4,000 square foot building the largest pirate store in the world.
Over the past 14 years, Lee and his crew have dressed over 80,000 people for Gasparilla. Lee explains there are three major categories of pirate outfits: street, casual and formal. While looking for the perfect costume, he wants aspiring pirates to know it’s going to take more than one or two pieces to fully play the part.
“A lot of people make the mistake of putting one shirt on looking at it and thinking ‘I don’t look like a pirate,’” he said. “Because it’s a combination of a whole bunch of items to get that look.”
Taking a walk through the dozens of shelves at Pirate Fashions, you’ll find everything you need to become a pirate. Three-quarters of what you’ll find on the sales floor is designed and made in-store, according to Lee.
The magic happens upstairs in the sewing room, led by Billy Bobbin. But when she’s not in pirate garb, she’s known as Alex Kelly. Alex and Tiger work together to design the pieces, drawing inspiration directly from the Golden Age of Piracy in the 1700s.
“Everything is handmade,” Kelly said. “A lot of people just get stuff straight off of Amazon and we have these people that have these eclectic pieces that we hand make here and they’re really unique.”
As Kelly sits at the sewing machine, she enjoys being able to get creative while also learning about and honoring history.
“Silhouette is always very important to me because I really want to get proportions right, especially on different people, difference sizes and heights,” she said.
While the big-ticket items tend to be the coats, vests and breaches, Lee said no pirate look is complete until you have the hat and, of course, gold.
“You can just be a blah spectator that doesn’t get involved,” Lee said. “But when you don the outfit, you become immersed in it and you have more fun and people will interact with you more.”
Lee and his crew are now preparing to batten down the hatches as the last wave of customers come in, scouring for the perfect costume before the cannon blasts on Saturday morning.
You can find Pirate Fashions off of Dale Mabry Highway. If you need some last-minute pirate gear, they are open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Gasparilla day.