Catherine Elhoffer hated fashion design in college.
She went to Washington University in St. Louis to pursue a degree in history, but switched to costume design after her parents insisted she get some practical skills out of her expensive education. It wasn’t until later that she realized how seamlessly costumes could translate into everyday fashion, and her talent at making that happen has become an unexpected career.
“I accidentally tripped into this geek fashion world because I’ve been a huge geek my whole life,” she said. “I completely lucked into this weird niche market that has exploded in the past few years, so it was perfect timing.”
The company introduced some stand-out collections this year, including brand new Star Wars fashions. Elhoffer is the designer behind two of the company’s most recent lines: Age of Fashion and Spider-Gwen. Both collections include items for women that focus on stylish cuts and chic designs, making them perfect to wear everyday or at conventions.
We spoke with Elhoffer to find out how she became a geek fashion designer and her inspiration for these collections.
What were some of your first fandoms you translated into fashion?
Really Lord of the Rings to start with, because I was in Ren Faire in high school. I would do Lord of the Rings into costumes and then I would bring some of my costume stuff into the everyday world like those crazy-awesome sleeves that the elves have. But officially, when I moved out to L.A., it was taking female characters that I loved and bringing them into clothing, like I did a really cool, completely unlicensed Wonder Woman skater dress that just makes me super happy to wear. It’s sewed to look like her costume, but I made one for me and I made one for my friend Chloe and she wore it at Comikaze.
I wanted to do Harry Potter blazers, so I did like a standard blazer but it was Harry Potter House colors. Then I added a wand pocket on the inside…I was just trying to put together ideas for what I should be doing because at the time I was just freelance…I was watching designers on like Etsy and stuff and how they were creating geek fashion and making it their own, and so I really wanted to up the level. One of my big things is I really want pockets in everything, so everything I would do I would put pockets in it somehow. I did a Maleficent dress where it used the animated Disney Maleficent…and on the inside of the sleeve I did this really cool built-in hidden pocket. The dress was just like a sexy black cocktail dress with really, really cool sleeves so you look at it and are like, “Oh, that’s Maleficent,” but modern. I was doing the Disneybound thing like everyday cosplay stuff and that’s really what got me into this, which was just completely by accident. I was doing costumes on sets and they needed a lot of cosplay type stuff, so I started fiddling for them and then they introduced me to some people who do fashion. It was kind of really weird and perfect.
From there, how did you become a part of the WeLoveFine team?
WeLoveFine found me at the end of 2014 after I did the Her Universe fashion show. I started really wanting to make it a real job, because I was freelance and it’s really hard to build a life on freelancing…at the fashion show I met someone who I went to school with back at Washington University, and she put me in touch with a recruiter. That recruiter was looking for a designer for WeLoveFine and she passed them over to me because I was already in L.A., which is where WeLoveFine is based. I interviewed and they loved me and I loved them and I just jumped on. So weird coincidences. If I hadn’t of done the fashion show I wouldn’t have re-met this girl that I knew back in college, so it’s just weird how the universe works out.
How did your two latest collections for WeLoveFine, Age of Fashion and Spider-Gwen, come about?
When I started with WeLoveFine, one of the big things I really wanted to make sure that we did was lines of apparel, because it’s so much easier to show especially women, “Hey look at these six pieces that all kind of go together,” rather than just doing one or two pieces at a time. So with Age of Fashion it was just our Age of Ultron collection to start with. I was really pushing to the powers that be, our creative director, that we should really do something for Age of Ultron for women. Avengers is a huge franchise and film, we should definitely do something for Age of Ultron…so the Age of Fashion title came about I was like, “Guys, this is a terrible pun, but I love it.”
For Spider-Gwen, I was talking to Morgan [Perry] our PR manager who was like, ‘This is a new comic, she’s huge. We have to do something for her.” So I did. We talked about it and she has such a cool costume piece and Marvel’s really doing so many cool costumes now I’m even more inspired, so Spider-Gwen happened because Morgan wanted it, so I made that happen. I mean it was speaking to the powers that be and showing them some really, really cool designs and hoping that they would go for it (which they did) and then making it happen. It was so, so hard not to tell everyone in the world that we were doing Spider-Gwen, because she was like crazy for months and we can’t say anything until we have a solid production ready so it’s really, really tough to not say anything. Morgan would fill me in on tweets that were happening like, ‘Hey, WeLoveFine, you should do Spider-Gwen” and we were like, “Yeah, we can’t say that we are, but we are.” And of course there is even more happening because there are so many Marvel characters to play with that I’m doing so many designs now. I’m overloaded but it’s so fun.
Was it hard to decide on the variety of items to include in the collections?
It was because for me I always want there to be a variety—there are so many different types of women in the world. Like some of us prefer hoodies. I mean for me, I always wore hoodies in college then when I graduated from college I then wanted to wear more cardigans and sweaters and layers that would be geeky while still being chic. So I wanted to give a bit of variety for women. I wish, of course, that the Spider-Gwen collection had a million more things because there’s a ton of other apparel items that you can always do with her, but it was kind of stripping it down to what stuff needs to be on the market, besides everything, and we’re bringing even more to our fans soon. It takes time.
For me, when I started with WeLoveFine, they do such cool sweaters and I never ever thought of that. I never thought of sweaters as a geek thing but, oh my gosh, after touching them I was like, “I have to do a ton more sweaters.’ So Spider-Gwen was really great for cardigans to me, because I thought about the girl that just started her first job or is maybe even a professional already but wants to still show her love of this really cool character. So the cardigan for me was a must have. Then, obviously, the hoodie, because the hoodie is just a great cosplay piece, it’s cosplay ready, and then the tank because we realized after designing the line it’s coming out in summer time and I was like, “Well, we haven’t really thought of like cold weather, warm weather. We need to think of the warm-weather climate, especially thinking about Comic-Con.” … Then of course leggings, I live in leggings, so we got a few new leggings. What’s really cool about the leggings is that I’ve been pushing to bring in higher-quality leggings, so we worked for months on getting better quality fabric, nothing too sheer. I wanted to do a high waist because a lot of our customers are bigger girls and I’m a bigger girl too so I prefer a higher waist…a lot of the stuff is because I’m like, “Oh I need this. I don’t want to have to be making it on my own so I’m going to have WeLoveFine do it!” Which is great.
What did you think of the excited response to the lines, especially Spider-Gwen?
It wasn’t really a surprise. She [Spider-Gwen] has a huge fanbase so to give the fans that, I knew that they would be very vocal about their excitement. We’re a really small team, so we all do everything. I was pulling numbers and I was like, “Oh my god, oh my god!” It was overwhelming to me how quickly people were willing to buy stuff, which was great and it really showed our bosses that she is a really strong character. It’s always questionable when you add a new character to the universe as to whether she’s going to be the real deal—whether she’s actually going to be popular—so it showed the powers-that-be that she is a substantial character, she has a fanbase, and a fanbase that’s willing to spend money on products of her. So of course they were like, “Yeah, do all the Spider-Gwen.” Which is fantastic because now we can do even more things for our fans and customers, which I think they’re going be even more excited about. There’s still really, really great stuff coming up. It’s so hard to keep quiet! It was overwhelming. It felt so good to know that we’re doing stuff that people really, really like.
How did you become involved with designing Ashley Eckstein’s Totoro gown at the Her Universe Fashion Show at San Diego Comic-Con last year. How did you decide on Totoro?
I became involved with Ashley because I was working with Nerdist on a few show concepts as well as like their regular stuff and Ashley was coming to them for something else and they were like, “Hey you two need to meet, you need to work together. Ashley has a geek fashion company and Katie you’re a geek and you do fashion and costumes,” and I was like “OK.” So she started talking about the show and what she wanted to do and at first she wasn’t sure what fandom she wanted to pick from, and then when they had locked in the [Studio] Ghibli license, she wanted to announce Ghibli. It was between Totoro and Kiki because those were the first two things they were doing and I was like, ‘Well, Totoro hands down of course.” I already had a pool of ideas of like different Marvel dresses, different Star Trek dresses, but then it became Totoro. I did probably 15 different Totoro concepts of what they could be and then she picked that particular silhouette and I finessed it a little bit more and that became the dress…My influence was Zac Posen, because his silhouettes are to die for. I sent her a few of his silhouettes, and was like “I really want to mimic this designer, but do it as a geek piece.”
It was a long process though. I started talking to her in January and the show was in July. I started to build in late May so I had like a month and a half to finish the dress…
As geek fashion continues to grow, what are some areas you hope will get more attention in the future, or that you think need improvement?
Right now we need a ton more stuff for professionals…and designing stuff for adult women. I’m in my late 20s, and granted I work a pretty chill job, but there are women my age or over who are huge fans of Trek or Star Wars that want to wear their geeky stuff to work. They have office jobs and they don’t get to wear leggings and oversized shirts for a living. So I really want to work to bring fashion to women of all ages, and men, of course.
I really want to increase the quality of everything too. I think it’s really awesome, I love in the Age of Fashion line we did the tanks but I really want to bring more fashion pieces to it and trying to steer away from just reprinting or just sublimation and doing embroideries and appliques and making the whole quality truly increase which is also, back to the sweaters, which is why I’m obsessed with sweaters right now. They’re all just like knit-in and the quality is just phenomenal.
Is there any fandom or type of clothing that you haven’t designed for yet that would be a dream area for you to work in in the future?
Harry Potter and Game of Thrones leapt to mind! I always wanted to do Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Thankfully WeLoveFine has a huge variety of licenses that I kind of get to run the gamut, but I think if we got Game of Thrones or Harry Potter I would die…
I’m obsessed with Marvel so the majority of what I’m doing right now at WeLoveFine are Marvel products…but I mean I could do so many things here, it’s so cool. They have Bee and Puppycat, which is adorable…there’s so much to play with here it’s overwhelming. I love it.
I have to work more on some men’s stuff because we do need some more men’s things. We’ve heard about the Spider-Gwen hoodie, about how they want a men’s version because it would be so cool. That’s one of the things I loved with Spider-Gwen, the fun male response…we work with what our fans want so there’s some fun stuff coming out soon.
Photo via WeLoveFine