Melrose Park, IL

Co-owner Franco Pacini sees comfort as a differentiator for the longstanding mask-maker.

The Zagone brothers, Bob and Phil, started making masks as Be Something Studios in 1974.

In 2005, Phil’s sons — Phil Jr., Tony, and Rich — took over the business with Pacini and recently retired artist Bill Ystrom as Zagone Studios. Pacini has “been a friend of the family since I was 10 years old,” he says.

Nearly 50 years after the company’s start, the manufacturing process hasn’t changed much. “It’s extremely hands-on and hasn’t varied that much from the very beginning,” says Pacini.

A sculpture becomes the basis of a master mold to make plaster molds then it’s time for Zagone’s proprietary formulations with natural tree latex. “The process is still the same: pouring latex inside a plaster mold, waiting for eight to 10 minutes, depending on how thick you want the actual face to be,” explains Pacini. “You then empty the mold and wait for the latex to dry. It takes about four hours, sometimes five, depending on the weather conditions, and after that, you pull the mold and put a little cornstarch inside it so it doesn’t collapse on itself, vulcanize it by putting it in a standard dryer.”

Lastly, employees clean off the excess latex and add paint and components by hand, but there’s a catch. “We can only use a mold, believe it or not, 35 times,” says Pacini. “Thirty-five pours, and the definition on the mold is lost. We literally have to start from scratch and have another mold ready. That takes up an enormous amount of space.” It follows that the 23-employee company operates out of a 32,000-square-foot mask factory in Melrose Park.

A Masked Evolution

What has changed are the masks themselves. Over the years, the Zagones have had a hand in numerous major mask innovations, from ventilated masks to ones with full-mouth movement to UV reactive masks.

Zagone Studios is known for making very wearable masks with high levels of articulation. “Our mantra is to make something that an actor can wear, whether it’s a haunted house actor or just a kid trick-or-treating, can be comfortable staying in costume for an extended period of time and deliver a great experience,” says Pacini.

The company eschews licensing in favor of developing its own characters. “More than being Halloween or horror art, we try to work on characters,” he adds. “That’s what we’re known for: Once you put the mask on, it grows into something of an experience. A lot of our competitors, they’re looking for fright and horror art, but they’re difficult to wear. You’re not going to get that from a Zagone product.”

Pacini says Zagone Studios is going large “so it has a bigger presence, like a mask like the Overlord. It’s quite unique — it’s about three feet tall.” An actor can easily “eat, drink, interact and have some fun.”

A History of Artistry

The catalog includes more than 600 active products, and Zagone Studios’ vault includes molds for another 1,000 classic masks. “The artwork dates back to the early ’70s,” says Pacini.

Zagone Studios also offers private-label manufacturing to other mask brands, he notes. “We’ll manufacture for other people, where they’ll create the artwork, and then we work with them on creating the master mold and manufacturing.”

As mask manufacturing moved offshore in recent decades, “It’s been really tough,” says Pacini. “Last year, with the increase in labor costs and components logistics were nuts. It’s been really super tough.”

The silver lining? “When people try to copy us, they really fall short. We have companies trying to steal our intellectual property daily.”