Last year I had the wonderful privilege of being one of the finalists selected to be in the Her Universe Fashion Show (HUFS), and then ultimately one of the winners! The show is normally held yearly at San Diego Comic Con during the summer but the applications open up in the spring. Since this year’s show announcement is coming up, I thought this would be a good time for me to write up a post about my experience and the many questions I’ve been asked since last summer. (If you want to see the FAQ that includes what the show is, how the contest is run, any advice, etc. please see the second half of this post after my design photos). In 2021 Her Universe held a virtual show, which meant that instead of walking the stage in front of a live audience in San Diego, we submitted a lot of footage that was edited for judging purposes and streaming as part of Comic-Con at Home. My experience is a little different from the in-person show, but a lot of the information is still applicable!
(Most of the photos in this post were taken by lovely friend Natalie while assisted by my other equally lovely friend Kelsey).
For those of you that don’t know, Her Universe and the HUFS was founded by Ashley Eckstein to promote geek fashion. The HUFS is a runway show where designers submit a “geek couture” design which is high fashion inspired by a fandom. The idea is to make something that wouldn’t be out of place on a Hollywood red carpet, rather than a direct cosplay of a character. Although Star Wars, Marvel, etc. are popular inspirations each year, ideas from books, TV shows, and obscure fandoms are accepted as well.
I was selected as the audience’s choice winner, and Teighlor Johnson and Skyler Barrett and were tied for the judges’ pick in Pokemon and Queen’s Gambit-inspired designs, respectively.
My design is called “This is the Way” and was inspired by the Armorer from Star Wars: The Mandalorian. This outfit consists of 5 pieces (a jumpsuit, a cape, a headpiece, a belt, and a purse). I have nods to her helmet in my headpiece, her fur cape in my epaulets, her tools in my appliqués, and the Beskar steel she works with in the fabric of my jumpsuit.
The jumpsuit is made of a silver and black silk and wool challis fabric woven to look like Beskar steel. The jumpsuit has super wide leg palazzo pants (with hidden pockets!) that are full enough to look like a skirt when standing still. The upper sleeves are fitted with a balloon shape in the lower sleeve, gathered into a cuff.
I love this fabric! Below from left to right is a dart, then an invisible zipper, then another dart. Running horizontally is a seam.
I used gold pleather to make a flame appliqué on the bodice to reference the forge where the Armorer works, and accented the appliqués with gold glass beads. The belt is a gold metal band that closes with an art nouveau clasp in the front. Gold chains hang from the belt on each hip.
The bodice has a wide boat neck that creates a peekaboo effect combined with the high-necked red pleather backless “cape.” The brick red cape (lined in the same color) consists of a neck piece that covers the collarbone and extends to the shoulders, and long open “sleeves” that are long enough to trail on the floor, creating a train effect despite having no gown. The cape is open in the front and back so the jumpsuit is fully visible except for the shoulders, which has light brown fur epaulets on the cape. More gold chains hang from the shoulders and across the chest and back.
The cape closes at the neck with hidden hooks and bars. Then the epaulets and chains go on top, and I have hidden magnets sewn into the shoulders of the cape and the underside of the epaulets. The magnets I used are encased in plastic so I can sew them on. Here are some test pieces I did so you can see what they look like:
The headpiece is inspired by 1920s/1930s flapper headdresses and consists of 3 brass bands across the top of the head, attached to art nouveau style large decorative brass pieces over the ears. The front band has small golden spikes like a crown. The bands and ear pieces are wired together but the spikes are attached by drilling holes in the bands and screwing them in. I also added some gold pleather padding inside the ear pieces for comfort.
The purse is a clutch made of brick red pleather and lined in the same fabric as the cape. The purse flap is pleated like the Armorer’s apron and has her tools appliqued in silver. I created the design using my Silhouette Design Software and used glitter heat transfer vinyl.
The purse opens with a magnetic clasp and is decorated with gold metal half moons. As usual, I hand-sew in my labels.
My wig is from Arda Wigs and my shoes are from Miss L Fire.
Here is a video I made showing off some close-ups, when the online voting opened.
The talented artist Dani Balangawa drew this lovely portrait of my winning design and sent it to me as a surprise!
I was short on time and worldwide shipping was a little dicey at the time I was getting my materials so I bought a lot of things that I knew could get to me quickly. A lot of the items, especially the metal findings, may also be found through my usual sources of Aliexpress, eBay, and craft stores.
- Silver/black silk/wool challis: Fabricmartfabrics.com
- Red polyester satin: Fabricmartfabrics.com
- Gold pleather: Fabric.com
- Silver nylon taffeta lining: Fabric.com
- Shannon Fabrics faux wolf fur: Fabric.com
- Silver zipper, magnetic purse snap: Fabric.com
- Gold bugle beads: Amazon (affiliate link)
- Gold chain: Amazon (affiliate link)
- Gold spikes: Amazon (affiliate link)
- Gold half moon crimps: Amazon (affiliate link)
- Magnets: Amazon (affiliate link)
- Gold belt base: Amazon (affiliate link)
- Brass banding: Whittemore-Durgin
- Stamped brass: Etsy
Thank you for reading so far! Now for the FAQ!
Where can I see examples of past Her Universe Fashion Show entries?
You can watch last year’s show on the HUFS blog, which also has links to photos from earlier shows. The site also has archives of footage from previous shows. I highly recommend you review those so you don’t inadvertently submit any similar designs.
What is the selection process like?
There is an online application where you can submit up to 3 original designs plus a written description. You will also be asked for a personal bio, info about your design/sewing experience, and some portfolio images. There may be additional questions about how you heard about the show, if you have any previous press, what you think about geek fashion, etc. You can also include links to your social media and personal website and an optional video about your designs.
Up to 25 finalists are chosen by a selection committee that consists of Ashley Eckstein and employees of Her Universe/Hot Topic. Those finalists are the ones that will appear in the HUFS during SDCC. There is one winner picked by judges at the show, and a second winner picked by audience voting. There can be more than two winners in case of a tie.
What should be in your portfolio/video?
The portfolio is a chance for you to show that you can complete your design. HU does not want to select a person who has a great sketch but doesn’t know how to sew. Your portfolio should demonstrate your skill and experience and prove you can deliver a finished item on show day. Personally I recommend submitting a collage for each image so that you can show some close-up shots of your details and accessories made, plus make sure that some of the skills and materials in your submitted designs show up in your portfolio. For example, if you submit embroidery or leatherwork you should show you have experience with embroidery or leatherwork.
The video is optional. There is a time limit of 5 minutes but it is a chance for you to talk about your designs and show off your personality or inspiration. You can hold up sketches, show off fabric swatches if you have any, etc. Not everyone submits a video with their application but I feel like it’s a great way to explain difficult concepts and convince them you should be in the show.
What is the general time line?
Generally, applications open in spring after WonderCon and the show is in July during San Diego Comic Con. In 2019 (live show) applications opened April 1 and closed April 19, notifications went to finalists on April 26, and the show was July 17. In 2021 (virtual show) applications opened March 18 and closed April 2, finalists were announced April 16, and the show aired July 23 but we had to be finished with our designs and submit photographs/videos by June 4 in order to give them time to edit the footage.
What prizes do the winners get?
The judges’ pick and the audience winner get equal prizes. Winners are invited back the following year to judge the next contest at SDCC and their travel is covered. There is also a cash prize (I’m not sure if the amount varies each year), a chance to design a collection for Her Universe/Hot Topic, and royalties from that collection.
What is the HU/HT collection? Do you get your designs reproduced or get to choose the theme?
The collection is determined by HU/HT based on their licensing agreement with an upcoming movie. The 2021 winners designed items to come out in time for the 2022 Jurassic World movie. Some past winners have designed Star Wars, Marvel, and Wonder Woman items. The collection is mean to be casual/streetwear garments and are sold online at HU and in HT shops.
Do you have to have a ticket to San Diego Comic Con to apply?
No, you do not need a SDCC ticket to participate in the show or come watch as an audience member. The HUFS is held at a hotel during SDCC, but is a separate event. Finalists in the show are also often gifted a pass to SDCC.
Do finalists have their costs covered?
No, you are responsible for buying your own materials for your design, and covering your own travel to San Diego. As stated above, you do not need to pay for a SDCC ticket. If you win and are invited back as a judge, then your travel is comped for your subsequent trip.
Is there an age limit?
You need to be at least 18 for HUFS. (One year there was an affiliated junior design contest for minors, but that was different from the main runway show). There is no upper age limit and you don’t have to be fresh out of design school. There are people in the show in their 30s and 40s, with established careers and/or kids doing this for fun.
The contest is called the HER Universe Fashion Show. Are men allowed?
Yes, male designers are allowed to participate. In past runway shows male designers submitted womenswear, but during the 2021 virtual show the finalists could also present menswear designs.
Do you have to model the clothing yourself?
No, you can have a friend model the clothing if you don’t want to wear it yourself and many designers prefer to hire a model for various reasons (runway experience, having a particular look in mind, ease of fitting, honoring a particular culture, etc.) However, many people also love modeling the clothing themselves! It is up to you.
Do you need to be a great fashion illustrator or submit professional drawings?
No, the design sketches just need to be able to convey your vision clearly to the selection committee. You are also allowed to include written descriptions and your sketch can be a collage that includes pics of fabric swatches, etc. You can also use your optional video to describe your design.
You are allowed to hire a pro artist or friend to polish up your designs, as long as all the ideas are your own. For example, maybe you’re not confident about rendering fabric or comfortable about your illustration skills, you can have someone do your final sketches, as long as they are not helping you design.
For myself, I have submitted before using my own drawings, and have also applied by having my drawings translated by costume illustrator Emily Hasty. You can see below my original sketches and notes and the professional rendering by Emily.
Here is the sketch from Emily I submitted as part of my HUFS application.
What is the “portfolio review” at WonderCon?
At WonderCon, a few months before SDCC, and before the HUFS application officially opens, the Her Universe/Hot Topic team will usually host a portfolio review at WonderCon. (This is separate from the HU panel that consists of the past year’s winners that will be judges for the year). This is a chance for aspiring applicants to have a few minutes with some HU/HT reps to get some quick feedback about their designs. This is completely optional, and is a nice bonus for anyone who’s already attending WonderCon who wants a second opinion, but is not a requirement to enter. (The HU/HT reps may or may not be the same people on the final selection committee).
Is there another place to get feedback?
There is an unofficial Facebook group called “The Workshop” that is a support group consisting of many past finalists and people who are interested in applying. It’s a friendly place to ask questions or talk about your designs.
I also highly recommend you read the fantastic blog series “So You Think You Can HUFS: An Insider Guide to the Her Universe Fashion Show” by show veteran and previous winner Kristi Siedow-Thompson. It’s full of great information.
What is the HU panel you referred to at WonderCon?
The panel consists of the previous year’s winners and gives info on the upcoming show plus a sneak peak at the HU/Hot Topic collection that is being released.
Would you recommend participating?
Absolutely! I had a wonderful experience and the people involved in the show (both organizing and participating) were lovely. The HU/HT staff provided lots of guidance, were available for questions, and were really responsive. Prior to applying for the first time I had talked to previous finalists about the general vibe to see if HUFS was something I wanted to join. Everyone I asked said that it was the type of show where people hyped each other up and helped each other backstage so please keep that atmosphere going if you participate! Since the 2021 show was virtual, we had weekly Zoom meetings hosted by HU and a private Facebook group. People were offering to help each other shop for materials in the LA Fabric District or mail spare supplies. When online voting opened the participants were encouraging their followers to check out the other finalists as well. It definitely felt more like a bunch of theatre kids banding together to put on a show rather than competitors in a pageant. I am very grateful to have been part of this experience and am looking forward to being a judge this year and cheering all of you on!