Under the Armor
A Conversation with Manny Lieberman of Black Prince Armory
by Sir Stephan of Wada;s Hill
He has been employed as a carpet-layer, a factory worker, and even a telephone solicitor before moving to San Francisco's Bay Area to make a career working with mentally disturbed children. But the theater had a hold on him, and Manny Lieberman soon found himself acting as a beggar/clown in a California Renaissance Festival during the mid-1970s. From an actor and puppeteer he became a craftsman, and now his designs in chain mail armor are among the most copied in the field. His specialty is women's chain link headpieces.
In 1981, Manny and his brother Frank started Negra-Kahn, a company which made armor, and soon after got themselves a booth at a Renaissance Faire in California. It so happened that the movie Excalibur had just been released, and there was a burst of enthusiasm for the medieval period. The brothers made $10,000 in their first week, and thus their new career was spawned.
Interest tapered off after that initial burst, until Negra-Kahn was not making enough money to support them both. Manny then relocated to upstate New York and began his own company, Black Prince Armory.
When deciding what grade of steel to use in their armor, Manny and Frank took samples of their forged armor rings to a police ballistics range and shot at them with a .45 automatic. After much testing, they found that 302 spring steel was the lightest metal to withstand the .45 rounds at a distance of thirty feet
The significance of using this steel as armor is that it provides superior protection in tournaments, and more importantly, is lightweight when compared to the metal used in the medieval period (35 vs. 75 pounds). This steel will stop swords, arrows, or any other medieval weapon from piercing the mail. In fact, the Black Prince Armory hauberks are strong enough to be used in SEC's tournaments where steel weapons are used. And, of course, being stainless steel means they will not rust. Needless to say, Manny is quite proud of the fact that he was the first to make modern armor from 302 spring steel.
The Evolution of the Faire
During his 20-some years of working the Renaissance Faires, Manny has seen them evolve. In the `60s and `70s, the faires involved consciousness awakening and a creation of reality set against the backdrop of a simulated English faire of 400 years ago.
"The faires still have a certain amount of magic, but now they have become a business," he says, adding, "but that's not all bad." While in some ways the faires have fallen away from their original concept, they are now more lucrative and offer a sense of financial security to merchants.
Manny reports that there is a distinct difference between faires on the east and west coasts. In California, the faires are geared toward an absolute reenactment. These faires give the best feeling for what it was truly like to live in the Renaissance period. On the east coast, however, the faires are more of a Renaissance/fantasy festival, with faire-goers often sporting elf ears or other fantasy attire. These participants have more freedom to act and be creative than their west coast counterparts. While the fantasy element allows more room for art, it also attracts other groups of people less interested in historical accuracy. "Being completely authentic can be restrictive when you're trying to make a living at the faires," Manny explains.
All in all, the Renaissance faires are like a home for Manny. Problems among rennies are few and most often worked out peacefully, though they do, on occasion, have to be settled on the field of battle.
Manny has toured across the country with his booth, and even into South America with the Rainbow Gypsy Theater. One of his favorite faires is Texas because, "the people have a live-and-let-live attitude, and are always willing to help." Although Manny travels less these days, he can still be found at the bigger shows and often works Mardi Gras and the faires in Florida, New York and Massachusetts.
How Does He Do It?
Manny makes chain mail while listening to music, watching TV or meditating. With his armor, he aims for a more fashionable design than an S&M, fetish-type attire. His most popular piece is his hand flower for women, a beautiful, intricately-detailed accessory available for $20. In fact, ninety percent of his income is derived from the sale of fashion accessories, although at times Manny has sold special orders, such as a chain and crystal gown for $6,000 for a Miami company.
The other ten percent comes from the sale of armor. His most expensive piece is a large, long-sleeve, knee-length hauberk that can be purchased for $3,500. When considering the work involved and the level of protection provided by such a product, what true medieval knight wouldn't have paid such a price?
Experience in theater costuming has given Manny a marketing edge, as it is this experience that provides him with his unique designs so popular with his fans.
His work reflects his love of elegance and his desire to give his customer something more than a biker dress. When looking at his work, it would be easy to envision it being displayed in a fashion show, with models exhibiting each piece while awe-struck fashion critics write rave reviews. Manny says that maybe this will happen when he can put it all together.
Perhaps someday another private dream will be fulfilled and Manny will be able to produce the 14k gold headdress he would like to see marketed in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog. It would cost between $4-5,000 to make, and would sell for about $25,000. Not a bad Christmas gift, for both the buyer and the seller!
In his time, Manny has been to more Renaissance faires than most any other faire-goer. The faires haven't made him wealthy, but according to Manny, he's an old hippy who would rather by happy than rich.