Geek culture has undeniably crossed over into the mainstream. The days when fandoms like gaming and comic books immediately conferred outsider status upon their followers are long gone. In a world where video game companies grow four times faster than the US economy, nerd merchandising is big business.
But the industry suffers from a dearth of options when it comes to merchandising geared towards women. Products that allow female nerds to express their fandom have long been absent from the mainstream, leading even Avengers: Age of Ultron star Mark Ruffalo to take to twitter to beg for Black Widow merchandise. An entire fan campaign, #wewantwidow, featured flash mobs of Black Widow cosplayers, formed with the same goal in mind.
What’s a nerdy gal to do? Create the merch she wants to see in the world, of course! In the last few years, independently run geek fashion businesses have exploded in popularity, rising to the challenge of creating designs that allow fangirls to engage in what many dub ‘everyday cosplay.’ Online retail has allowed these emerging companies offer products to consumers the mainstream leaves behind.
The best known example of everyday cosplay is Her Universe. Founded five years ago by Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the fashion apparel company was one of the first to target fangirls specifically. “I grew frustrated with the lack of attention to and focus on the growing number of female sci-fi fans,” said Eckstein. “When I couldn’t find Star Wars clothing for myself, as a fan, I made the decision to create my own line.”
Her Universe, which has reportedly doubled their sales in the last year alone, sponsored its second runway fashion show in connection with the San Diego Comic Con last Thursday. The show featured 25 designers competing for the chance to have their design produced through the company’s exclusive line for Hot Topic.
We caught up with fans of fangirl fashion and the independent designers and retailers who serve them at the Fashionably Nerdy Comic Con cocktail mixer (FNCC) last Friday at the Lobby Bar at the Grand Manchester Hyatt. Hosted by Fashionably Nerdy co-founders Samantha Mason and Stephanie Pressman, the event drew hundreds of people eager to win gift bags and prizes that offered a cross section of au courant nerdy fashions and merchandise from over 30 sponsors.
Disney-inspired apparel and accessory brand Whosits and Whatsits was one of those sponsors. “I just started making bracelets for fun,” CEO Tiffany Mink said, whose line began as an Etsy store in 2011. “I love that I can give people an outlet to find these things that they can’t find elsewhere,” she said. “I don’t want to wear something that everybody else is going to wear, I want to find something that’s special and really calls to me, and it’s things you can’t always find at Forever 21 or big box stores.”
Mink explained that she likes to create products that are less character driven, and more a subtle “nod” to the things “that only super fans would know.“ Making what she called “a leap of faith,” she quit her day job a year ago to devote herself to running the business full time.
Kimberly Fisher, owner and designer of Girl With One Eye was in attendance, and also sponsored the party. She wore her signature eye patch to the event, which was included in some of the gift bags 20 lucky attendees walked away with. Fisher was inspired to launch her business four years ago after being diagnosed with cancer. “That sort of made me reevaluate my priorities in life,” she said, “I wanted to turn my hobby into my dream job.”
Girl With One Eye produces hand made “one of a kind clothing for geeky and creative types,” according to Fisher, which include Harajuku style dresses and retro patterns that are ready to wear. Fisher said dealing with her illness “reminded me I needed to do what I love.” She is currently in remission, but lost some of her vision in one eye to the cancer. “That’s where the name comes from,” she said, “it’s like: remember why you started this.”
While she feels the fashion industry is finally “starting to catch on” to the subtler, smarter forms of nerd fashion, Fisher said she’s seen that sensibility in the indie fashion community for some time. “It’s taken a long time, Hot Topic and Her Universe is a big part of that,” she said. “It’s not in your face. You can be a geek without being gaudy.”
Caitlin Brown, who had helped Fisher dress models for a show at Hanadoki Anime Con in March, interrupted my interview with the designer to share her unbridled enthusiasm for the brand: “I love every design she put on stage. To me that [Harajuku] style is hard to pull off for a lot of people, but everything she designs looks like anybody could wear it.”
Lace & Lore designer Victoria Ying enjoyed cocktails with a table of friends she’d known since High School including Devon Guthrie, a classically trained opera singer. “You can’t do this alone,” Guthrie said, modeling a popular design of Ying’s: a shiny mint purse emblazoned with a textured 8-bit graphic heart in the center. Guthrie said she brings Ying’s designs when she goes on tour to help advertise the brand.
Ying launched her first collection in March, as a side project with a business partner. Her day job is in film and animation, working on major properties like Tangled, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. The clothing company hit the ground running, already offering a collection licensed with nartuo.com, based on the popular Naruto anime series. After selling artwork at conventions for many years, Ying began Lace & Lore as a new way to showcase her art.
The company specializes in designing their own fandom-inspired textiles, as well as accessories. “It’s almost like a secret handshake, like this dress,” Ying said, gesturing to a black dress made of stretch fabric with a repeated pattern of orange clouds. “People know it and they’re like: ‘Oh my god, that’s such a cool Akatsuki dress!’ Before you wouldn’t have had that, you would have been limited to t-shirts…it’s secret and kind of fun that you guys are in the club together.”
The inspiration for designer Jesse Thaxton’s look, which walked the runway at the Her Universe fashion show the night before was easier to identify. Thaxton’s couture evening gown included a large black and green head piece that recalled the Giger-styled creature from the Alien film franchise. “Years ago when I was in school I’d talk about how my inspiration was The Fifth Element and Blade Runner,” Thaxton explained, “ they’d give me these looks like ‘What are you talking about?’” Undeterred, Thaxton knew she was on to something and hatched the idea for her label Melancholic Designs while still at school.
In its fourth year, Melancholic Designs sees Thaxton designing for a wide range of clientele. Based in Dallas, she does a lot of mainstream shows for socialites, but still manages to “sneak” her geek inspired touches into those designs. “A lot of the silhouettes can carry over,” Thaxton said, “the sharp shoulders of some of the sci-fi looks, the leather and textured materials.” Thaxton credits her career in fashion to her participation in the cosplay scene, which ignited her interest in creating clothes.
Newcomer Camille Falciola of Frakkin Frocks may not have been selected to show at the Her Universe runway this year, but she did design the dress Pressman wore to the FNCC mixer: a sleeveless, retro piece with a flared skirt made from fabric featuring characters from The Real Ghostbusters cartoon. Falciola began sewing only 3 years ago, though you wouldn’t know it from the quality of her garments. Sporting a Star Wars patterned bolero, she said she still felt the nerd fashion market had some growing to do.
“A lot of the clothes I see are targeted to more of a younger crowd, a lot of juniors stuff,” Falciola said. “I mean I love Hot Topic and I give them all my money, so don’t get me wrong, but all of their stuff is marketed towards teens and early twenties. I’m still in my twenties but I love more classic cuts.”
Hot Topic’s partnering with Her Universe seems the best example of a mainstream company seeking to grow the quality of its fangirl fashions. Comicmix.com writer Emily S. Whitten came to the FNCC mixer wearing the Loki-inspired dress Her Universe and Hot Topic produced, which was designed by last year’s winner of the SDCC fashion show. She described herself as “a longtime advocate for geeky fashion-forward options for women.”
Whitten, who has written about the nerd fashion scene for several years, said that upon arriving at the mixer she “immediately met some of the great gals involved in organizing the event, and we hit it off, bonding over our shared love of each other’s clothes.” She ended up sharing a table with a couple she’d just met, joining them for dinner. “They seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the event as well,” Whitten said, “we ended up feeling like we’d each met a kindred spirit.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Pressman and Mason of Fashionably Nerdy, who formed their group to help “fans find designers and designers find fans.” The pair were moved to form their vlog channel and website after Mason appeared on a makeover show for reality television that attempted to represent her nerdy identity in a more fashion-forward way. Mason was dissatisfied with the results, and realized there was a real need to curate nerd fashion resources.
Pressman agreed, and with Mason produces fashion segments and a website that seeks to connect the growing nerd, comic and gaming communities to fashion that helps them express their identities. “Even in our own backyard,” Pressman said, “smaller communities don’t have the access to designers. We wanted to find a way to connect…and build a global fashion community. Fashion is such an easy way to connect people”
“I think Ashley creating Her Universe helped to take geek fashion to a whole new level,” said Mason. “There’s cute things that just weren’t around before. The good news is that brought out all these other designers.” She gave We Love Fine as an example, saying the company originally only sold t-shirts but has expanded to include dresses and now specifically tailor their garments to better fit women’s bodies.
“We definitely saw the demand for more fashion-forward, fandom inspired pieces,” said Morgan Perry, a publicist for We Love Fine when asked for comment. “We’re thankful to have talented designers on our team who are in touch with the community as they are true fans themselves and we’re excited to push the boundaries by offering collections that are ‘for fans by fans.’”
The for fans, by fans market appears to be ever expanding, if the attendance at both the Her Universe fashion show and FNCC mixer is anything to go by. Will other mainstream companies take note and follow Hot Topic’s lead? Only time will tell, but for now independent designers and labels continue to offer creative options to women looking to wear their hearts on their sleeve with fandom fashions.