For geek fashionistas who struggle to find cute, comfortable clothes that reflect their fandoms and accommodate their curves, or who long for quality wardrobe staples that go beyond disposable, flimsy T-shirts, or pine for the luxury and convenience of pockets in that adorable nerd dress, Elhoffer Design has become something of a safe harbor.
With a personal passion for pop culture, a background in costume design, and experience gained from gigs with a couple of major geek fashion companies, Catherine Elhoffer launched a unique one-woman operation that specializes in subtle, playful designs that evoke beloved characters from Star Wars to Harry Potter, Game of Thrones to Ghibli, and Doctor Who to Hamilton.
Catherine’s painstaking, hands-on attention to detail, emphasis on craftsmanship and quality, and compassionate dedication to empowering the “lady-nerds” she knows and understands has gained her a steadfast and appreciative customer base that clamors for her latest offering, whether it’s a dusty rose frock with a floaty skirt inspired by Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo or the perfect, rainbow-striped sweater inspired by a certain Time Lord.
(Pssst, she just revealed part of her Treat Yo Self collection, based on the “Parks and Recreation” TV series.)
When it comes to the limitations of the geek fashion industry, Catherine is wonderfully candid about the never-ending “size/fit” battle, society’s weird beauty standards, diversity as good business practice, and the absolute necessity for pockets in women’s apparel.
Most of all, she’s determined to do what she can to make a difference.
Your fashion company, Elhoffer Design, offers “Geek-Bound” apparel with subtle nods to a wide variety of fandoms. I love that your designs aren’t obvious, but clearly embody the spirit of the characters they portray. How did you arrive at this approach to geek fashion?
So I come from a costume design background with a degree and years of professional costume design work in film/web/TV/commercials, and I use that when approaching designing apparel since it’s all inspired by pop culture icons.
I can take the costumes or character style and break down the lines, colors, textures, and all that work and then funnel it into a fashion piece. I work very organically in that I’m not saying, “Oh, Princess Leia is huge, I need to do something with her silver/white belt printed onto a T-shirt,” but instead let the inspiration hit me when it’s right (for my latest Princess top, that was from seeing a fan art piece come across my twitter feed of her in her white dress … and my brain just clicked everything in place. It needs to be a crop top with an oversized top, raglan sleeve, big hood under a turtleneck … It wasn’t forced).
Where do you draw inspiration for your designs?
Most of my pieces are a mix of character inspiration and modern fashion trends. I do a lot of Google image searching for different fashion styles I want to do (like coming up is flutter sleeves) and then seeing how people are executing that style. I’ll often stumble across other looks or styles and I’ll just pull that image into an “inspo” folder and go through that folder when I’m wanting a refresher for looks I like.
Can you tell me a little about the process that goes into designing a piece?
I always draw something up first, whether it’s hand drawn in my sketchbook or digitally drawn up on my iPad. If it’s a cut/sew piece (like a dress or a blouse), I then normally make a sample piece in my sewing studio first as my factories sometimes get confused by my random ideas, because they’re just different than what’s being mass made right now.
If it’s a sweater, I have to print out the “art” to size so that the factory can program the knit. Then I pick out fabrics/colors or knit styles, pass specs of what things need to be, and wait for samples. The wait can take months depending on the piece. But it’s almost always worth it. Then once the sample arrives it might need tweaks or changes. Almost always notes are needed.
What’s your geek origin story? When did you first discover your geekier inclinations?
I remember watching X-men the animated series when I was 5. I loved that show and ate up every episode. I also got a Sega Genesis when I was 5, and I played it all the time. That was the beginning of the end, honestly.
You studied costume design at university. Why did you decide to pursue this particular art form?
I had joined the local renaissance faire when I was a teenager, and I had taught myself to sew and found that I was kind of naturally good at it as well as loved every second of it. I would whip up costumes overnight and wear them the next day at faire or at different events. And it was fun to see other peoples’ responses when I’d tell them I made something in 10 hours or whatnot. It was a fun challenge.
So when I went to college I discovered the theater costume shop and knew that I had to be there. When talking to the costume design professor, Bonnie Krueger, she looked over my sewing portfolio and, while it was certainly rough, she saw the potential I had. So took me under her wing and I learned so much from her and her decades of experience in theatrical costume design. I don’t know if I would have kept up the program if it wasn’t for her. She was incredibly passionate and always made me feel incredibly special. I also was one student in a program of like three, so it was incredibly small and focused. I was designing a huge 1770s show in my junior year, so I was given opportunities that I was so grateful for.
There’s something very theatrical about geek fashion. How did your costume design degree prepare you for what you’re doing now?
Well, costume is just fashion worn with intent, and knowing how to design a costume, I also know how to strip it down, too. So they really line up beautifully. I can take the work that costume designers have labored over and strip that work down to the bare essentials needed to tell the story of a modern look. What would Daenerys Targaryen wear if she was going to a modern gala? What about Lando Calrissian if he was a modern woman heading to give an office presentation? That’s the costume designing I’m doing now.
I understand some of your earliest costumes were inspired by the St. Louis Renaissance Faire and then evolved into Lord of the Rings-inspired clothing. Tell me about that.
I was hugely inspired by the designs in Lord of the Rings, and as I was in the Faery Guild of the Faire, all of us girls in the guild were trying to basically reenact Arwen and Legolas and like all the looks in that movie. I would make a lot of everyday tops for school that had just crazy flaire that reminded me of elvish fashion from the films. Looking back I roll my eyes, because my sewing needed a lot of experience, but the only way to learn is to just do it and learn from your mistakes.
What was your first professional big break?
For my costume design work, which helped get me to where I am now, it was getting my first feature film costume design title and job on “Yellow Rock,” a Western that really tested my knowledge and craft. I learned a ton on that project, including working with difficult personalities as well as getting first-hand mentoring on Lakota history and fashion.
You worked with Her Universe and designed a Totoro-inspired gown for Ashley Eckstein to wear at the Her Universe Fashion Show at San Diego Comic-Con in 2014. What did you learn from that experience?
I love that gown so much. Everything I’ve ever made helped me learn more about my own personal design aesthetic and how I translate characters to fashion. That dress was a fun way to make a character into a couture, high fashion piece that could be easily recognizable but still incredibly couture and sleek. It’s still one of my favorite pieces I’ve made. I learned a lot about sewing sequins on that one, as the entire bodice is made from drop sequins, and you have to remove a lot of sequins when sewing high-fashion pieces for them to look right.
You also designed for Welovefine, working on items licensed by Marvel and other major fandoms. That sounds like a geek’s dream come true.
I loved what I did but hated my job. I loved working with licensors and making collections that fans loved and I still get recognized for, but the company was incredibly toxic and, while I learned a ton about clothing production, it was a rough year of my life.
Why did you decide to strike out on your own and launch Elhoffer Design?
WeLoveFine fired me, which was a great kick in the ass to do it solo. I was sick of bosses who didn’t believe women would actually spend money on quality garments, who thought my style was too subtle and wouldn’t read as the character or style … and who would fight me on pockets. I don’t like fighting over pockets. It’s a thing everyone needs to just accept already.
What was the biggest challenge of going solo?
Growing my audience was my biggest fear. I only had 2,000 followers on Instagram when I was fired, and I knew those 2,000 people/accounts weren’t going to be able to keep me afloat. So I started taking orders from friends for dresses or pieces, and then would post pictures of the commission as it was being worked on. I grew pretty quick, which then had even more people reaching out to me to commission apparel.
What do you enjoy most about running your own business?
Freedom. I love not having to be talked down to by higher-ups who think they know better than me or who think I’m a fake geek girl. I’ve developed relationships with a few factories in Los Angeles who never talk down to me or think I don’t know what I’m doing (though I will joke with them that I am Science Cat and have no idea what I’m doing).
Elhoffer Design’s motto is “helping lady-nerds feel amazing and powerful.” How do you feel your clothing accomplishes this?
To start with, I size my product to women with curves. So my fit is much more accommodating to women with boobs and hips, and when you get a garment that fits you beautifully you instantly feel better about your day. Pockets help, too, because phones don’t have to be shoved into a bra or lost in a purse. And I use simple lines and colors to evoke characters that inspire us all, and when you dress yourself in the morning and put on a top or sweater that reminds you of Khaleesi or a character you love, it’s impossible to not channel that power throughout your day as a reminder that you are a queen and deserve to be treated as one.
One of your priorities is creating fashions for “all shapes and sizes.” Unlike many fashion companies, Elhoffer Design really seems to be doing that. Why is this important to you?
Well I’m a solid XL, even a 2XL in some brands. I’m not small. I’m not skinny. I’m not thin. And I love myself and my body, so it’s about time that I look as good as I feel in my skin. I’m also super short, so I design things that can be hemmed to look good on me, but I have tall friends who also want to feel like queens, so I try to be a bit more diverse with my designs so they can work on different lengths. It’s hard, because mass made clothing (even in the small runs I am doing now) means that you can’t custom make for each person to fit them best, but I try to make pieces that can be easily adjusted to fit different bodies.
I love that the models you use in your promotional photos are incredibly diverse, not the cookie-cutter types we tend to see in fashion advertising. What’s the thinking behind this?
Well, from my past work experience I found that customers responded when you’d show more than one body type on a site. Also, as a human who also shops online, I like when I can see it on someone more like my shape to make sure I can pull it off. Also, I have a marketing degree, so I know a bit about how to sell things. In general, the more information you can give a potential customer about the product they’re buying, the more likely they are to purchase from you. So why not apply that to clothing and show variety? I can’t accomplish that with every piece every time, because often I’m the one taking the pics and asking friends to model for me, but I am trying my damn hardest as a business of one.
You’ve said fighting the “size/fit” battle is never-ending. What are some of the hurdles you encounter in making clothes that anyone and everyone can feel comfortable in?
Well for bigger shapes in particular there’s a ton of different shapes to design for. Pear, Apple, Triangle, Inverted Triangle … like, not everything can work on every body. But I tend to work with nicer fabrics that have spandex knit or woven into them, which can help fit just a little nicer and a little better on bodies.
I’m also constantly battling society’s standards of beauty and comfort. A lot of women think crop sweaters means they crop just under their boobs and shows off their tummies, so I have customers who are hesitant to buy my cropped cardigans. But I had a customer message me this past weekend who was so thrilled she took that risk on the crops because they pair perfectly with her flared dresses, so it’s a huge hurdle for customers.
Do you think the geek fashion industry in general is doing enough to fight this battle?
Oh, no. The geek fashion industry is still a subset of the fashion industry, which is also doing a terrible job at this as well. Big companies are still making money on whatever they make, so why change the model or fit? It’s selling. If every person stopped shopping from the retailers that are known for poor fit, they’d change their fit instantly. But they’re making money so no need to change.
What would you like to see change in that regard?
I mean, I want real pockets in everything. Not small ones, but real substantial ones. Feminine fits should be for people with boobs, because smaller chested humans can always get things tailored down, but letting things out is nearly impossible with the way modern clothing in manufactured. And decent pattern grading is crucial. Nothing is graded well in the mass market. But I really don’t see that changing.
For those who don’t get the pocket thing, why do so many women get excited about that?
Those who don’t get it tend to be cis dudes. Pockets allow freedom. You don’t need to carry a bag that hurts your back or shoulder, you don’t have to worry about losing that bag or getting it stolen off of you while walking. When I go to Disneyland I don’t need a bag, I can fit a water bottle, phone, keys, and money in my pockets. It makes it easier to ride the rides, to relax, and to have fun.
Your customers seem very personally invested in your company (they can participate in preorders, which help fund new designs, for instance). How do you cultivate this level of loyalty and trust?
Well, I try very hard to respond to everyone quickly and basically always appear to be online. It started back when I was doing handmade and I’d post progress pictures and reply to questions and all, because I run my own social media. And as I was starting out doing preorders it was crucial that my customers trust that I’m actually going to deliver the preorder, because there are companies in the geek world who take preorders and then don’t deliver on time or don’t deliver … at all? So I don’t ever want people to think my company is like that.
So communicating online with customers is crucial. Live streams also help my fans and customers see that I’m a single human. While I certainly have teams at my factory, it’s me doing the bulk of the back end work on my site. I want to grow to being more people, but I also want to grow my business safely so I can’t just hire people to do everything for me.
One of your collections, Love is Love is Love Apparel, helps support LGBTQ groups that focus on reducing suicide and aiding in education and support. Why is this cause close to your heart?
Well I have plenty of friends and family who are LGBTQIA, and I want them to know that they’re loved and important and matter. After Lin Manuel Miranda’s speech post-Pulse, and then the recent administration’s hatred towards LGBTQIA humans … I wanted to try and do something. We all have to try and do something.
What do you personally like to wear?
I live in high-waisted leggings and oversized tops when working.
One of your recent projects is a collection inspired by Valiant Entertainment’s Faith, available at ThinkGeek. Tell me more about that collaboration.
Well, Valiant reached out to me asking if I’d be willing to work with them on a collection, and I can’t say no to that. Once we had ideas and samples, we brought Think Geek into the collab and they were incredibly interested in the designs and collection. It was a long process but was so incredibly rewarding!
You’ve said that Star Wars was your original fandom, but you’re “cooling” on it. Why is that?
Well the fandom is getting a little intense online with the new movies and a lot of people hating on them. That, and I loved the EU (Expanded Universe) so hard and it’s still rough for me to not have a character like Mara Jade to really love. I’m also not a huge fan of the animated series, which seems to be where Star Wars fans are living right now.
I’m also finding, as an adult, it’s hard to give all my time or love to any fandom and it’s hard for me to blindly love things. So my white-hot passion for Star Wars as a teenager has definitely cooled as my fandoms have diversified and my life has become more complicated.
When it comes to geekdom, you have a dazzlingly wide variety of interests. Why don’t we do some fun questions pertaining to your various obsessions?
What’s your Hogwarts house?
How many hours have you spent playing “Legend of Zelda”?
Too many. Probably 3,000+. I’ve played the SNES one through probably ten times across eight platforms/emulators … And “Breath of the Wild” already has 500 hours logged.
Which incarnation of Star Trek is your favorite and why?
“The Next Generation.” Picard is my captain. Always.
Team Spike or Team Angel?
SPIKE. Angel only was good after getting a soul. Spike turned good and then went out and GOT a soul. I love Spike.
Who’s your favorite X-Man?
Kitty Pryde. She has a DRAGON.
Do you know all the “Hamilton” lyrics?
Almost all. I’m still not fluent in “Yorktown.”
Do you Twitter-stalk Lin Manuel Miranda like the rest of us?
Which movie Mr. Darcy is the best Mr. Darcy?
Colin Firth. Though Matthew Mcfadyen is so gorgeous …
What are some of your favorite Disney movies, characters, attractions, etc.?
Hercules, Buzz Light Year Ride, and Princess Aurora.
Which Studio Ghibli movie is your favorite?
“Howl’s Moving Castle.”
You recently returned from exhibiting and doing panels at WonderCon in Anaheim. What was that experience like this year?
It was interesting! It was my first major convention to sell at and I learned a LOT about the show. I love doing panels, too, cause I love talking about all my experience and sharing my knowledge!
Along with your Elhoffer Design work, you create costumes, such as the Princess Leia outfit recently worn by John Barrowman at Awesome Con. What do you enjoy about that?
There’s nothing I don’t love about working with John, he’s such a sweetheart and always wants to make the most CRAZY and awesome costumes! He always wants the “Barrowman Flair,” which is just so enjoyable as a designer to have that freedom to have fun!
Do you do any cosplay yourself?
The only cosplay I’ve ever done to a con was Thor-Girl. And that was so much fun but incredibly exhausting! I hate wigs and makeup, so cosplay is not my forte. That’s why I love bounding. Much easier and more comfy!
What are some of your future plans or dreams for Elhoffer Design?
Grow bigger, make more money, hire my qualified and incredibly talented friends, team up with some amazing designer friends on collabs, keep getting bigger and bigger!
Are there any fandoms you haven’t tackled yet that you’d like to transform into fashions?
Jurassic Park/Dinos. I wanna do NASA, too. Not sure if those qualify as “fandom.”