Con Diaries, Cosplay, Fashion, Geek Culture, Opinion

Remember The Fangirls: The Commercialization of the Her Universe Fashion Show

This year marked the third Her Universe Fashion Show at San Diego Comic Con, and it was definitely the biggest show yet. The Her Universe Fashion Show is a new genre of geek-related entertainment that I hope we see at other comic cons, because it really is an appreciation for geek fashion and the fans who make it, but in a different way from the traditional masquerade or costume contest. These couture gowns are meant to be inspired by fandoms, but are wholly original creations.

You may remember last year’s winner, this stunning convertible Sailor Moon gown that transitioned from Usagi’s school uniform into a gown inspired by her transformation sequence into Sailor Moon, which involves light, ribbons, and little else.

Her Universe SDCC 2015: Tiffany Chien, Photographer,

“Usagi’s Transformation” (Sailor Moon) by Leetal Platt

Her Universe SDCC 2015: Tiffany Chien, Photographer,

“Usagi’s Transformation” (Sailor Moon) by Leetal Platt

This year’s offerings were no less stunning, and included several that transformed, like this gorgeous Wonder Woman gown.

Her Universe Fashion Show SDCC 16, Tiffani Chien Her Universe Fashion Show SDCC 16, Tiffani Chien Her Universe Fashion Show SDCC 16, Tiffani Chien

"Diana on the Town" by Adria Sanchez-Chaidez

“Diana on the Town” by Adria Sanchez-Chaidez

As always, there was a range of fandoms represented, from the contemporary to the nostalgic. Dresses inspired by movies released this year, including several inspired by The Force Awakens

"First Order of Fashion" by Rose Ivy

“First Order of Fashion” by Rose Ivy

"Report to My Division" by Lindsay Hamilton

“Report to My Division” by Lindsay Hamilton

"The Force is Strong in Her!" by Judith Armas Orellana.

“The Force is Strong in Her!” by Judith Armas Orellana.

As well as the Judge’s Winner, a Furiosa-inspired gown by Hannah “Hanime” Kent.

"Oh What a Gown...What a Lovely Gown!" by Hannah "Hanime" Kent.

“Oh What a Gown…What a Lovely Gown!” by Hannah “Hanime” Kent.

There were, for some reason, several dresses inspired by Harry Potter, which I suppose is more proof that Harry Potter is the fandom that will never die, including the Audience Winner, a Maurauder’s Map-inspired gown by Camille Falciola where the Map appeared and disappeared as the model walked the runway. 

"Expecto Patronum" by Erica Williams

“Expecto Patronum” by Erica Williams

"I Solemnly Swear I'm Up to Couture" by Camille Falciola.

“I Solemnly Swear I’m Up to Couture” by Camille Falciola.

"The Story That Lived" by Tanya Apuya.

“The Story That Lived” by Tanya Apuya.

"The Always Dress" by Selina Zawicki "Szmoon."

“The Always Dress” by Selina Zawicki “Szmoon.”

"Newt's Menagerie" by Harmony Leiker.

“Newt’s Menagerie” by Harmony Leiker.

Nostalgia also seemed to play a key role, with dresses inspired by the 1980s films Labyrinth and The Neverending Story.

"Ode to the Goblin King" by Sarah Rader.

“Ode to the Goblin King” by Sarah Rader.

"Falkor" by Jesse.

“Falkor” by Jesse.

And while the clothing is stunning, part of the appeal of the Her Universe Fashion Show is the designers themselves. Short bios and videos of the designers accompany the fashion show, and this year, thanks to Her Universe partnering with Comic-Con International’s streaming service Comic-Con HQ, a reality TV show that showed the designer competition behind the scenes, Project Runway style. The episodes range from 11 minutes for episode 1 to the 41 minute finale of the fashion show itself. Unfortunately, the short form makes the show feel even more commercialized in the sense that they can sometimes feel like commercials for Her Universe and Hot Topic.

It’s when the show gets away from the format, to Eckstein interacting with the contestants one on one, that the show shines. As you learn their stories and see their struggles, you get to know these incredible designers, and as they are mostly women designers when mainstream fashion is still dominated by men, it’s nice to see. As a platform for women to talk about other woman fans about designing and creating clothing based on things that inspire them–that I would pay to see. For a month, anyway.

But the commercialization and success of Her Universe has, like any good narrative, also created problems because of its own success. One of the most egregious examples of commercialization was Eckstein’s Lego Ahsoka Tano gown.

Ashley Eckstein's Legos Ahsoka Tano dress, by Lego artist Nathan Sawaya, fashion designer Andrew MacLaine.

Ashley Eckstein’s Legos Ahsoka Tano dress, by Lego artist Nathan Sawaya, fashion designer Andrew MacLaine.

Yes, the gown is stunning. Yes, it’s cool to see that it’s actually made out of Legos. But it’s still basically a walking advertisement for Legos.

The bigger problem is that Eckstein says in Episode 1 of the Her Universe Fashion show that Her Universe is a community for women. But as Her Universe has achieved increasing commercial success, with various lines being sold through retailers like Think Geek, Hot Topic, and now Kohl’s, it’s now excluding plus size women by not offering the same styles available to straight sized women.

That doesn’t seem very community-oriented to me.

And this is a problem that Eckstein needs to address. In the early days of Her Universe’s partnering with Hot Topic, she made certain that the entire Avengers clothing line, designed by the winners of the 2014 Her Universe Fashion show, was available through Torrid in addition to the junior sizes available at Hot Topic (even though there was a delay, and the collection was not available immediately.) There was a concerted effort to correct that with the Star Wars: The Force Awakens collection designed by the winner of the Her Universe Fashion show in 2015. But during that same time, several Her Universe collections have been made commercially available without plus sized options.

The fact that many of the designers in the Her Universe Fashion show could not purchase the clothing that Her Universe sells commercially is a problem. But I also weigh this with the fact that Eckstein makes sure to have real women of all sizes walking in the first part of her show when they preview of Her Universe’s upcoming lines. And many of the designers are not straight sized themselves, and choose to walk the runway wearing their own designs. That’s wonderfully empowering.

There’s also a break during the show when the judges deliberate, and audience members are invited up to walk the runway. That’s empowering too.

The author wearing the Her Universe Captain America dress from Torrid, and a hand-knit Captain America shield.

The author wearing the Her Universe Captain America dress from Torrid, and a hand-knit Captain America shield.

The author wearing the Her Universe Captain America dress from Torrid, and a hand-knit Captain America shield.

The author wearing the Her Universe Captain America dress from Torrid, and a hand-knit Captain America shield.

So I hope that Eckstein knows that I appreciate everything she does to empower women of all sizes, and I hope that she’s able to partner with different retailers in the future to create fashion lines with all the pieces available in all sizes, and in stores. (Looking at you, Kohl’s, with your “online only” Junior Plus options which consist of two t-shirts and zero cute dresses or rompers). And I implore her to remember the fangirls who make this success possible. Plus sized women have money too, and I want to spend it. So I’ll be over here, waiting for my Captain Marvel dress.

Forthcoming Captain Marvel dress by Her Universe.

Forthcoming Captain Marvel dress by Her Universe.

Check out the gallery below for more pictures from the 2016 Her Universe Fashion Show at SDCC!


  1. iola

    July 31, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    The outfits and the models were all seriously stunning and jaw-dropping this year. Not a bad one in the bunch!

    I’m super confused by the OP’s complaints about the “commercialization” of Her Universe and their subsequent related events. Her Universe IS A BUSINESS. Of course it’s commercialized??? The entire point of the company was to address the fact that women have buying power and the merchandisers were largely ignoring or misfiring on that. Her Universe is a celebration of women, including women to own a small business, build it into an empire, and bring up other female creatives and small business owners (ie the fashion and graphic designers of the lines) at the same time. It’s not a charity?

    As women let’s not tear into another woman and her female designers over making a buck and staying somehow commercially “pure” as we line the bank accounts of countless male fashion or geekery CEOS with barely a noise.

    The lack of comparable plus-size choices is definitely a concern, but we all know that from the start Ashley has tried to make sure that those were available. I remember the early days when she avidly listened to fan feedback and had transparency on the problems she faced and that she was trying to get a wider range in there. And then she did. Ashley has obviously worked in good faith to give us all geeky chic to wear so I have to think that if there is a lack of that in stores that it’s not Ashley we should question, but perhaps the stores themselves. After all, Ashley doesn’t make the store orders!!! If Kohl’s still mistakenly thinks plus-sized beauties are somehow not wanting cute dresses and thus don’t order them or put them in stores, then are THEY not the problem? I doubt Ashley is #1 not offering those options and #2 would turn down orders for such things.

    Clearly it’s these stores we need to be harassing and petitioning. They’re the ones with the power here.

    1. Kate Tanski

      July 31, 2016 at 4:51 pm

      Let’s just be clear: When I talk about the commercialization of Her Universe, I’m not being critical of Ashley Eckstein’s success. My point is to talk about the consequences of that success. I argue there’s a correlation between the increased number of commercially available lines, and the lack of those lines being available for plus sized women, which I think undermines the Her Universe message of providing clothing for all women and empowering fangirls. It’s not for all women if I can’t buy 50% of the clothing they’re putting out there. And I think that’s hugely important when you see such a diverse range of body types on the Her Universe Fashion Show runway. Is it a systemic problem in the fashion industry? Absolutely. Which is why a business like Her Universe insisting that all their clothing be available in both plus size and straight sizes would be hugely important.

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