Hot irons poof like steam engines, and metal blades snip against the ticking of sewing machines hard at work. After two months of brainstorming, sketching, and crafting their ideas to life, 25 designers were putting the final touches on their geek couture looks at the Her Universe Fashion Show at last year’s Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC).
What is geek couture, you ask? It’s a mixture of fandom and fashion — taking a favorite book, movie, TV show, or character and transforming it into a wearable, high-fashion look. The Her Universe Fashion Show is the ultimate runway for fangirl fashion, a place for designers to turn their geeky passions into works of art. Last year marked Her Universe’s fifth annual fashion show — which takes place during SDCC — with intricate looks inspired by The Nightmare Before Christmas, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Overwatch, and more.
At the end of the night, three winners were crowned and awarded a major prize: the opportunity to design an Avengers: Endgame-inspired collection with Her Universe and Hot Topic. The winning designers were Cynthia Kirkland, crowned the Judge’s Winner for her look based on The Shape of Water; Jane Burson, crowned the Singer Sewing Winner for her Howl’s Moving Castle-inspired look; and Kristi Siedow-Thompson, crowned the Audience Winner for her fashion-forward spin on Ripley in the power loader from Alien.
“It was incredibly inspiring and eye-opening in a way because I didn’t know that there was this little community doing this really cool thing that was combining fandom and geekery with fashion and design, which are two areas of interest for me,” Burson says. “Seeing that there were other people doing this kind of niche thing was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool.’”
Burson’s design was inspired by Howl’s Moving Castle, the 2004 Japanese fantasy film animated by Studio Ghibli, loosely based on the 1986 novel of the same name. The asymmetrical look was split in half down the middle — one side was 100% feathered with a high collar and a feathered fascinator, while the other side featured a corset-pant combination. Burson modeled it herself during the show, with the right half of her body draped in a gown of rooster, goose, and ostrich feathers that subtly fluttered as she sashayed down the runway.
“The outfit was predominantly an homage to the titular character, Howl. He’s a wizard and he has kind of two forms: He has a human form, and then he kind of transforms into this bird-monster creature,” Burson says. “I designed a look that combined those two aspects.”
Prior to deciding on her design, she toyed with ideas of outfits based on Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, Fifth Element, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. She ultimately chose Howl’s Moving Castle because it was her introduction to anime. “I am definitely a fandom hopper. My ideas were kind of all over the map, but there seems to definitely be a thread of fantasy and animation that always makes a big stand in my life because, as an illustrator, I love visual storytelling,” Burson says.
Kristi Siedow-Thompson captured the audience’s hearts with an intergalactic-athleisure take on 1979’s Alien, starring Sigourney Weaver, that catapulted her into the spot for Audience Winner. Siedow-Thompson hadn’t seen the movie until about six months before she started designing the look, but was struck with a burst of inspiration while watching it for the first time.
“It’s funny because it’s an old movie, but I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, wouldn’t it be cool to do a power loader look?’ because it’s kind of an abstract concept that I thought could work really well,” Siedow-Thompson says. She created a high-graphic piece, designed to look like the model is encased inside the power loader.
“She’s wearing this jacket that’s a floor-length trench coat with a high collar that encompasses her like, ‘Oh I’m in the power loader,’ and she is wearing a pair of sheer, kind of cargo pants with her white panties underneath, which I think is also a really important part of the movie Alien because Ripley, Sigourney Weaver’s character, wakes up from her space sleep and she’s literally in a T-shirt and underwear,” Siedow-Thompson explains. “It’s very indicative of her vulnerability, but yet she’s still this really cool, badass lady who ends up pushing the queen alien out of the airlock when she’s in the power loader. It shows her vulnerability that you can see through the pants, plus making those with sheer chiffon makes it a little bit more glam.”
Cynthia Kirkland designed a dress based on The Shape of Water that earned her the spot as the Judge’s Winner. She saw the movie the very last day it was airing in Orlando, Florida, and she left the theater with a spark of inspiration, knowing she wanted to base her fashion show look on the film.
“The dress, in a sense, was a reflection of the love story: the fan theory that Elisa, the female in the movie, was a water god in a past life, just like the creature, because she has the gills on her neck. The story cuts off before you ever really see that resolution, but the fan theories have latched onto it,” Kirkland says. “So I designed a dress based on that idea of Elisa as a water goddess, combining the aesthetic of the creature with the female form.”
The dress features a mermaid-style silhouette and origami type of fabric with pleating, structured gold fins, and crystal elements that reflected the light on stage. “To bring the whole piece together, the little clutch, or the purse of the dress, [represented] the egg that kind of initiates the love story between Elisa and Creature, so it was a nod to that,” Kirkland says. “The fact that we only have two months to create these designs from pretty much start to finish is quite a marathon, but I was ready to tackle it that year.”
Taking home the Judge’s Winner award was “an incredible feeling,” Kirkland says. “You are appealing to people who are in the industry, know their stuff, know what they want, what they’re looking for, and somehow, you nailed it all.”
Kirkland’s says that Marvel is her No. 1 fandom, making the fashion show prize — a chance to design a Her Universe Avengers: Endgame collection for Hot Topic — a dream come true. “Honestly, I thought maybe the collection would be Fantastic Beasts because that was the new movie that was coming out that year, so I didn’t even expect Marvel, but when they announced it, I was blown away,” Kirkland says.
The completed Her Universe Avengers: Endgame line includes dresses, skirts, T-shirts, jackets, sports bras, and more based on different Marvel characters.
One of the standout pieces is the Marvel Avengers Thanos Oh Snap! Satin Bomber Jacket, designed by Siedow-Thompson. It’s a purple-and-gold satin bomber jacket featuring a galaxy and infinity stone design on the interior lining, embroidered cursive “Thanos” text on the left chest, and the Infinity Gauntlet in a finger-snap position on the back with the phrase “Oh, Snap!” embroidered underneath it in cursive.
“That was one of the pieces that I initially submitted in our first round, and there were literally no changes to it. It was really exciting to have a piece that was like ‘OK, we love it as is,’” Siedow-Thompson says. “Plus, it’s just a funny piece. I’ve been saying ‘Oh, snap!’ for years. It’s funny because I will catch myself saying it now, I’ll be like ‘Oh, snap!’ and then I laugh at myself and I’m like, ‘I took that and made it fashion.’”
Siedow-Thompson thinks back to the initial meeting the day after the competition when the winners sat down with Marvel and the Her Universe and Hot Topic staffs. “Somebody said something, they’re like, ‘Maybe one of you guys can do some Thanos merchandise. That might be a challenge.’ And I was like ‘Challenge — question mark?!’ I will do that because I love a good challenge.”
Burson says that the Oh, Snap! Jacket is one of her favorite pieces as well, along with the Nebula workout gear, also designed by Siedow-Thompson; the Rocket Raccoon denim shortalls with faux leather accents and cuffed hems, designed by Kirkland; and the Hawkeye tank and Thor black denim vest that she designed herself.
Burson even had the pleasure of seeing Avengers fans out and about in real life wearing some of the Her Universe designs. “I was like, “Oh my gosh, there are people out in the wild wearing the stuff we designed; this is so cool,” Burson says. She even stopped the people to take photos to send to Kirkland and Siedow-Thompson.
Kirkland’s favorite piece from the collection is the Iron Man dress she designed. “My favorite part of that dress is the zipper front with the arc reactor. It zips down and you can reveal the arc reactor because it’s such a big, iconic moment for Iron Man and Tony Stark anytime he reveals that, so I really wanted to incorporate that into the design,” Kirkland says. “The big, big message with that dress that I was thinking about was the fact that throughout the Marvel universe and in the comics, anyone can wear the Iron Suit. Not only Tony Stark. It’s also Pepper Potts. It’s also Riri Williams if we go back to the comics, and I love her. So I wanted to really have the arc reactor be a centerpiece of that design so women everywhere could kind of feel like, ‘I too am Iron Man.’”
Burson, Siedow-Thompson, and Kirkland will be at the fashion show again this year — but this time as judges. “It’s almost bittersweet this year to judge because I am passing the torch,” Kirkland says. “The designs are always mind-blowing because you have such incredible talent that’s surrounding the show now. I joke with my friends now that I’m judging, with this sheer amount of talent that comes in every year, I’m literally just like ‘Woah, I’m glad I don’t have to participate again because holy cow!’”
The Her Universe Fashion Show gets more competitive every year, but ultimately, it brings designers together to share their love of pop culture and fashion. “I love this competition; I love working with the people. Being nerdy is just part of who I am,” Siedow-Thompson says. “Being a part of such a cool opportunity in the biggest geek event in the country is pretty amazing.”
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Summer 2019 Issue No. 4, click here to read more!