After months of talking with friends, family, and readers of No Man’s Land about their geek fashion frustrations — as well as my own — I finally sat down in March and fired off a blog post that attempted to encompass some of our most common concerns.
I addressed this open letter to Ashley Eckstein, founder and general merchandise manager of Her Universe, because she is one of my personal heroes. My thinking was that as a pioneer – and let’s just say it, a total badass — in geek retail fashion for women, she’s uniquely positioned to be a formidable force for change.
The letter focused on geek fashion’s “size problem,” which includes a host of issues that make shopping for clothes a source of disgruntlement for many woman, such as inconsistent sizing or labeling of sizes, lack of availability of plus-size products, and higher prices for plus-size clothing.
To my surprise, the letter went a teensy bit viral on Twitter. Apparently, it struck a chord with geeks of all genders, as well as some founders of independent fashion companies.
I’ll be honest. I wasn’t expecting Eckstein to respond. She’s busy overseeing a fashion empire that’s connected to such brands as Hot Topic, BoxLunch, and Disney, so I was pleasantly shocked when she responded thoughtfully and graciously with a series of tweets.
Despite her promise of a more in-depth response, I again figured that might be the end of it, but in early April I received an email from Eckstein’s people asking if we could set a date for a visit to Her Universe headquarters in Los Angeles.
Eckstein was about to embark on a tour for her new book, so we set a date for late June. I drove to City of Industry, where a sprawling facility houses the headquarters and a distribution center for Hot Topic, its Her Universe and BoxLunch divisions, and sister company Torrid.
The Hot Topic offices are as fun as you would expect of a major geek brand. When you enter the lobby, you’re immediately greeted by the sight of sofas crammed with pillows representing several major fandoms, as well as Eckstein’s personal giant stuffed Porg, dubbed “Porgy Carter.”
I was ushered into Eckstein’s Alice in Wonderland-themed office, which boasts colorful painted murals, a quirky selection of comfy chairs, and a table cluttered with Alice-themed curios — many of them holding candy, a smattering of Star Wars collectibles and, of course, more Porgs.
Eckstein greeted me, decked out in a stunning black and red Edna Mode-inspired ensemble she’d selected for a meeting with Disney later in the day. I expected to spend a few minutes with her and then be handed off to her assistants, but Eckstein spent almost three hours with me, escorting me through a comprehensive tour of the behind-the-scenes workings of Hot Topic and its sister operations.
We began by chatting with a couple members of the Her Universe design team, who Eckstein describes as “pioneers” in geek fashion. They spoke to me about some of the challenges specific to designing fashion for lady geeks.
“The fangirl is very blunt and honest,” senior designer Mandy Weaver said, adding that these customers will definitely speak up if designers fail to accurately represent the details of a particular fandom.
“Everything has to be done with intention,” designer Symantha Perrera agreed.
“You’re not making something pretty. You’re making something pretty that represents something to someone.”
For this reason, Eckstein said, Her Universe focuses on the licensed property first. Trends come second.
Although they take current fashion trends into consideration, “the two don’t always go hand in hand.” The challenge is to “merge” fashion with licensed properties.
Perhaps more importantly, the process of arriving at an accurate fit for a piece of clothing begins with the design team.
Designs are sometimes altered for plus sizes, but Perrera said they aim to keep the aesthetic of a design the same, whether it’s a juniors or plus-size garment.
For instance, a piece of plus-size swim wear might sport a higher waist and more stretch than a junior piece so that it fits the wearer’s body better, but aesthetically it would basically look the same.
Eckstein said her concerns about fit were one of the reasons she sold Her Universe to Hot Topic in 2016.
“When we started Her Universe, we were just a T-shirt company.”
With a laugh, she detailed how in early Her Universe fit sessions, “We held (the shirt) up to our bodies and said, ‘Does this fit right?’”
Later, Eckstein explained, “I never intended to sell Her Universe. I could not cater to my plus-size customers without Hot Topic. … I sold my company to try to cater to plus-size customers.”
Before my visit to Her Universe, I was not aware of the fact that there is a science and a technical process to sizing. It includes a series of “fit sessions” with a team of “fit models” who try on garment prototypes and offer feedback as to comfort, fit, quality, length, and other factors. Hot Topic uses fit models who represent every plus size offered.
“We had all sorts of fit issues before we came here,” Eckstein said.
As part of the Hot Topic family, Her Universe has access to the technical design department headed up by veteran senior technical designer Frank Rodriguez, who oversees fit sessions and holds Her Universe to the same rigorous standards as Hot Topic and also Torrid, which is the gold standard for plus-size shopping to a certain demographic of lady geeks.
On the day of my visit, I sat in on part of a fit session in which two models wore the same outfit, one in a juniors size, the other in a plus size.
When it comes to fit, the process always begins on a size 7 or medium, Rodriguez explained.
As far as plus-size fashions go, the team attempts to “mirror” the juniors design as much as possible.
“You don’t just size up,” Eckstein said.
“Plus is a separate style is how we see it,” echoed Hot Topic production manager Cynthia Park. “It goes through several rounds of costume exercises separate from the juniors (pieces).”
To illustrate the concept that plus-size garments are considered a separate design from the juniors, Frank laid out two pairs of basic black Hot Topic jeggings.
The juniors pair sported one button at the waist. The plus-size design had a second button, an addition made after fit model Danielle raised concerns about a less-than-flattering bulge issue.
Details like the extra button do cost more, Park said, and so does any extra fabric required.
This touches upon a frequent complaint of many shoppers feel that higher prices for plus-size clothes are discriminatory.
Eckstein explained that in order to keep plus-size costs equivalent to juniors, the price of juniors clothing would have to be raised and that would frustrate many shoppers’ expectations of what they should have to pay for a particular garment.
Rodriguez and Eckstein said things are slowly changing in the geek fashion industry when it comes to fit.
“In the beginning, the geek fit was really small,” Eckstein said. “It’s something that we work on.”
“We like a curvier girl,” Rodriguez agreed. “It’s important to me that (a plus-size customer) feels just as good and just as comfortable” as one who wears a juniors size.
Danielle talked about some of her own struggles with inconsistent sizing and vanity sizing.
“As a plus-size woman, it kills me. It can start to mess with (a woman’s) head.”
She said she can attest to the dedication of the Hot Topic team’s plus-size adjustment efforts.
“It makes me feel special to be part of the process.”
After the tour of Hot Topic, Eckstein took me over to the headquarters of Torrid, where I talked with Daniela Pastor, senior manager of brand marketing.
Torrid’s offices boast a wall covered in customer’s Instagram photos to remind them of their demographic on a more personal level and large quotes scattered throughout the building from a diverse array of figures, ranging from Jonathan Swift, to Hillary Clinton, to Tina Fey.
Just one example: “Men and friends come and go in your life, but a good bra is forever. – Anonymous.”
Torrid has great success with their intimates and active wear lines. The company also has a rapidly growing licensed fashion business that is mostly conducted online. They have licensing deals with Disney, Universal, Sony, and Fox, among others.
“These properties now see us as a major player,” Pastor said.
Mostly, though, the Torrid team is preoccupied with making clothes that fit.
“Fit is huge for us,” Pastor said, noting that their customers aren’t shy about giving feedback.
Whereas most companies might size clothes up from a 1, Pastor explained, Torrid starts with a size 18 model and then sizes up or down according to what’s needed.
They use custom-made plus-size mannequins for the fit process and an array of fit models who come from within and outside of the company.
Torrid has also hosted elaborate, personalized focus group sessions with customers.
Pastor said one of their shoppers’ biggest concerns is, “Why don’t you show a Size 30 model” in promotional materials?
The lack of representation in print materials was echoed by fit model Danielle.
“You don’t see anything over a Size 14 print model,” she said.
Eckstein praised social media and its abundance of bloggers and vloggers for partially addressing this problem by allowing women to see other women modeling clothes and thereby get a better idea of how they might look on them.
She said she realizes, however, that “it’s frustrating to see technically a plus-size fashion on a Size 12 girl.
Pastor said the lack of models of a certain size portrayed in print materials has to do with a shortage of these women in the fashion industry in general. Perhaps a larger issue is the expense of manufacturing sample garments, which prohibits an extremely diverse range of sizes from being featured in advertising and promotions.
Ordering samples in more than three different sizes can sometimes raise costs by millions, she said.
Eckstein’s personal frustration, and it’s a topic she returns to again and again throughout my visit, is with the term “juniors.”
“Why is it called juniors when women are wearing it?” she said.
It’s clear she’d like to see this label go away at some point, even if her team expresses doubts the term will ever be retired.
The most telling thing I learned from my tour of Her Universe has to do with the retail industry in general. Eckstein and her colleagues explained that different sections of a retail store are run by separate buyers. So the juniors, plus, women’s, maternity, and other departments are all operated independently of each other.
Plus-size stock is often determined by how much space is available in a certain department within a store. The ultimate decision rests with the individual buying and merchandising teams.
Retail companies also base their fit specifications on their own customer demographics, which is why you might be a medium when you shop at one store and an extra-large when you shop at another.
“We’re gonna have this problem as long as different retailers have all different fits,” Eckstein said.
“We’ve established enough credibility as a brand where we get to use our own fit.”
So a Her Universe medium is the same as a Hot Topic medium and they’ve carried that over to their partnerships with the Disney Store and other retailers who don’t insist upon using their own specs.
Eckstein said she and her team are always open to fan feedback and concerns.
“We appreciate the feedback. We have an expert team to fix it and back it up.”
Fit model Danielle said she’s seen progress during her time working in the industry.
“Things have changed. The people who want to see the change, they’re going to have to demand it.”
According to Eckstein, “the biggest way to change things is with your dollars.”
When it comes to plus-size fashions, where a majority of sales tend to take place online, if customers don’t buy the products, retailers assume they don’t want them, she explained.
Though no magical quick-fix has yet to present itself in an industry where one standard system of sizing seems impossible, Eckstein said she and her colleagues are trying to improve things.
“We can do as best as we can.”
On a personal note, my visit with Her Universe helped clarify the geek fashion size issue, but also increased my awareness that this is an incredibly complicated problem. I think some perceptions about sizing might change if consumers were made more aware of how the process works within the industry. I confess I was clueless about nearly all of it before my tour.
While it’s frustrating that size issues seem like an ultimately unsolvable puzzle, I feel there is a lot more to be done on the part of retailers. I’m hoping Her Universe and other companies who care will continue their efforts to do more and more in service of their customers. Let’s hope the industry at large will begin to see this issue as a challenge they can and should confront.
I also think we should keep the dialogue going on this subject within the geek community and continue to demand change. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you’ve read here.
Have you been enlightened? Do you have questions? Suggestions for solutions or ways geek consumers can take action? Let’s keep this discussion going! Comments are welcome and encouraged!