Her Universe Fashion Show veteran weaves fandoms into luminscent designs

Most aspiring geek fashion designers dream of competing in the annual Her Universe Fashion Show at San Diego Comic-Con at least once.

Harmony Leiker has lived that dream four times, causing a stir with her ingenious, original creations as a finalist in the show, especially this year when she debuted her masterpiece, a flowing, luminescent ombre gown inspired by Disney’s Tangled

If you follow Harmony on Instagram, where she documents her exploits as founder of Harmonyland Designs, you’ll know she is constantly working on some ambitious, fandom-related projects or making casual cosplay look way too easy as she whips up a quick top, skirt, or dress to wear to Disneyland, the Wizarding World, or a convention.

Carrying on her mother’s sewing tradition, Harmony taught herself the many techniques and skills she’s constantly perfecting and building upon before pursuing a career in costume design for film. A closet nerd in high school who loved Star Trek and Monty Python, she proudly let her geek flag fly after discovering like-minded fans through the Her Universe Fashion Show.

Now, Dapper Day is her “Super Bowl,” Halloween is her jam, and a new challenge is always close at hand, whether duplicating Jeff Goldblum’s elaborate Grandmaster costume from Thor: Ragnarok or embarking on some “conceptually and physically” big dresses inspired by history. 

With her love of vintage clothing, accessories, and fabrics, as well as Marvel, Disney, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, and a steady desire to learn new things and push herself, Harmony makes fandom look good, whether modeling her own creations or custom creating them for others.

You design and create “classy and geeky clothes, wearable art, and costumes” under the banner of Harmonyland Designs. Everything you make is gorgeous and wonderfully detailed. When and how did you first learn to sew?

I began sewing as a kid. My mom sewed a lot when I was young so she got me started. She’s now my biggest champion. Otherwise, I am almost entirely self-taught. I’m quite proud of that, especially because I learned before all the info in the world was available on the internet. School is awesome and you can progress quickly, but it isn’t the only route to learning something new.

What were some of your earliest costume and fashion endeavors?

I was the resident costume person in my high school theater department. That mostly meant renting things, but I made items here and there. One of my early “big projects” was a Joan of Arc costume. I made a corset out of sheet metal. It’s hilariously awful.

You’re well-versed in many different creative techniques and styles. Did you receive any formal training in costume design?

I took a few costume history classes right out of high school, but I mostly learned by reading, having an unrelenting desire to learn new things, and trial and error. So much error.

You worked in costume design for the film industry. What did you learn from that experience?

I learned so much in those years. I jumped right in as a designer in student and indie projects. I was almost always the only person in the costume department. So I designed, did the shopping, dressed the actors, and was the on-set person.

I learned so much about the industry, working with deadlines and a wide variety of people, fighting for my vision, and so many other things. I also learned harsh realities like being taken advantage of, not being paid your worth, working unreasonably long hours, and the frustration that is set politics. I look back on that time mostly with fondness, but I don’t regret leaving the industry.

When and why did you decide to incorporate fandoms into your work? What do you enjoy about it? 

I’ve always been a huge nerd. I spent my high school years wearing Star Trek shirts and quoting Monty Python. I was not popular. When I got out of school, I decided to hide the geeky side of me. I didn’t want to be teased anymore. I spent many years loving all kinds of fandoms, but I was afraid to show it in my clothes.

It was actually the Her Universe Fashion Show that made me see that I wasn’t alone in my love of geeky things. It completely changed my life. I realized that there were awesome people out there who not only wouldn’t make fun of me, but they would be excited to see and buy cute geek fashion. A world of inspiration opened up to then. I’ve been designing around fandoms ever since.

Photo by Norm Tallant

You’re a four-time finalist of the Her Universe Fashion Show, one of the biggest events in geek fashion. What first prompted you to enter?

A friend of mine randomly posted the link to my Facebook page. I thought, “Heck, why not!” I only had a week before the deadline so I sketched out a Tron design and a Game of Thrones one. I gave almost no thought to how I would make them. I never actually thought I’d get in.

Two weeks later, I was at my college and as I stepped into the commissary, the song that plays when Sam Flynn steps into the arcade in Tron Legacy came on. It’s an ‘80s song so it was weird that it would play in there. I checked my email right then and there was the message that I had gotten in! It was crazy!

What was your reaction when you learned you were a finalist?

In this order … What?! Yay! I can’t believe it! This is awesome! Oh no. I have to actually make that dress! I don’t know how to make it. I’m going to be sick. And then I started problem solving it. I had no idea the scope of how big the show actually is.

Photo by Mark Edwards

Your entry in this year’s fashion show, a beautiful, flowy gown and matching illuminated lantern purse inspired by the movie Tangled, made quite an impression. Tell me a little about the process of creating that dress.

This was my dream dress. I had wanted to make an art nouveau/Alphonse Mucha-inspired dress for many years. The problem was that I wanted there to be a lot of metal work in it and I didn’t have that skill set. I kept putting it off. I knew right after my third year that I would only apply one more time. I decided my time had come to make the dream dress because I wanted to go out with something that I truly loved.

The lantern scene in Tangled is an endless source of inspiration to me and it seemed so logical to make my dream dress inspired by a movie about living your dreams. There’s a huge amount of detail in the design, which is something I’m known for. That meant a lot of prep and thinking things through. I have never done so much testing on a garment before. Before I submitted it, I made darn sure that I could execute my vision perfectly. This dress has so much personal significance to me. I was positively obsessed with creating my masterpiece.

What was especially challenging about this project?

For the most part, it came together so smoothly. I think the other designers were annoyed with me because I only ever had good news while making it. The previous year was such a terrible ordeal. Everything went wrong. Having the Tangled dress work up so well made me feel like the design was blessed by fairies or something.

The only thing that was challenging was the metalworking. I took a college course in jewelry making and metalsmithing specifically for this design. I had to learn so much in an area I had no previous experience with. That headpiece was the first real project I ever made, which is ridiculous.

I told my teacher my plan for it and he thought I was crazy, but totally capable of doing it. I’m so glad he was right! All the metal pieces in the design were made with my own two hands from sheet metal and wire. Even the frying pan chain links! It was a lot of work, but totally worth it.

As well as your work being featured in the shows, you’ve modeled your creations. Is that something you enjoy?

I didn’t model my first year. My model was wonderful and so patient with me. The next year, I decided that it was so much easier to do fittings on myself whenever I wanted. Plus, the outfits fit me so I can wear them afterwards. Also, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun to walk that runway with all those people cheering for the design I put so much work into.

As an insider and veteran of the show, what’s it like behind the scenes?

It’s a very different experience every year, but there are some things that are consistent. You get to meet all of these talented people who all have such diverse backgrounds and personalities, but we all have this one unique thing in common. It’s really cool. I’ve met some wonderful people that I’m so lucky to now call my friends.

It never feels like you have enough time. We all feel like we’re scrambling at the last minute no matter how much time we’ve put in. It’s crazy backstage, but in that excited anticipation way.

This show is a LOT of work. I haven’t had a spring/early summer in four years because I’m inside sewing every day. Everyone who enters should be fully prepared for that. But the rewards are totally worth it. There’s a reason I came back so many times!

You’ve said participating in the show has pushed you to take your “sewing skills to the next level.” In what ways?

I’m not an inherently competitive person … except with myself. Every year, I want to show something unique, use new techniques, and make something more elaborate. For instance, my Fantastic Beasts dress was only supposed to feature the outlines of all the creatures on the front. Once I did that, I looked at it and felt like I was capable of more. 250 hours later and I had fully filled in those outlines with beads, sequins, embroidery, and applique. I never would have created that elaborate if it weren’t for the show.

You also do custom work for historical reenactors, cosplayers, formal events, and Halloween costumes. What are some of the more memorable custom pieces you’ve created?  

I made a really cool 1950s Poison Ivy dress for a cosplayer friend. It was my first cosplay and when she wore it to Comic Con, she got a ribbon from the costume designers guild. That was really encouraging that maybe I was on to something with my designs. I’ve also really loved some of the Renaissance Faire costumes I’ve made. I love making historical pieces. There’s so much detail and beauty in all the handwork. I’m hoping to do more of them down the line.

Judging by your Instagram, you’re constantly sewing or working on a project. You’re always whipping up a Disney-themed or Star Wars-themed outfit you can wear to the theme park, a convention, or a fandom-related event. I’m sure it can’t be as easy as you make it look. What drives you to create so continuously and prolifically? 

Yeah, it’s definitely not easy, but it’s a great challenge. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun. My closet is overflowing these days. The reason I do it is my brain never shuts off. I wake up in the middle of the night all the time with ideas that I have to fully think through before I can go back to sleep. I can look at anything and come up with a design inspired by it.

I’m constantly creating because I know I will never get to make everything I have designed. It’s a race against the clock to make as much as I can while I can. I don’t find it tiring, though. I have a wonderful day job that gives me a lot of free time. It seems like such a waste of creating time to just sit around without a needle or a pencil in my hand.

You do a lot of Dapper Day outfits, cosplay, and elaborate Halloween costumes for yourself. Tell me about some of your favorite creations. What do you enjoy about this type of dressing up?

For Halloween I like doing straight cosplays. I love running around trying to embody a character. It’s nice to get to be someone else for a while.

Making an exact replica is fun and challenging, but my real passion is making original designs inspired by a character or fandom and that’s where events like Dapper Day come in. I get to be creative, but I also work within certain limits. It like a game to see if people get what you’re doing.

I also adore vintage fashion from the ‘20s-‘50s. It’s tons of fun to translate characters I love into a certain decade. Two of my favorites are my Te Fiti dress from Moana and my Paperman ensemble. They both have a lot of personal meaning for me and I worked really hard to do the source material justice. Basically, Dapper Day is my Super Bowl.

You’re a runner and you’ve even incorporated some geek fashion into that hobby. Tell me more about that. 

I became a runner thanks to Ashley Eckstein, actually. She was going to run the Dr. Strange 10k at Disneyland and wanted company. I had thought about racing someday so I signed up to do it with her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to run the race, but I ran it anyway. Then I tried the Star Wars 10k because I wanted to “run Solo,” which led to the Dark Side Half to the Avengers Challenge.

Now I’m training for my first (and only) full marathon at Disney World. I must admit one of my main motivations for these races is making the outfits. I got to run through Disneyland in a Squirrel Girl costume! How awesome is that?!

You’re obviously very into Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. How often do you visit the Disney theme parks and what do you like about spending time there?

Those are my big four. I’m at the park at least a couple of times a month. It’s my stress relief. I don’t know why it doesn’t get old. I like being silly and having a childlike sense of wonder. Being an adult out in the world is hard. Shaking that off for a few hours of innocent fun is fabulous therapy.

Do you have any dream Disney cosplays you’d like to do in the future?

So many. I don’t even know where to begin. I can’t believe I haven’t done Edna Mode yet. I named my cat after her, for goodness’ sake! Oh, and with the new Mary Poppins coming out soon, I know what I’ll be spending a lot of time working on next year.

Favorite Marvel movie and Marvel character?

I don’t think I have a favorite movie, but I did recently realize I have done three Thor-based cosplays so I’m probably a Thor girl. He’s not too hard on the eyes either.

Favorite Star Wars movie/property and character?

Empire for sure. As a kid, Leia was my girl. My brothers loved Star Wars so it loomed large in my house. The only girl for me to relate to was Leia. As I got older, I realized just what a fabulous character she actually is.

What’s your Hogwarts house?

Ravenclaw through and through

Are you looking forward to the upcoming Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald?

Oh. My. God, Yes. I can’t wait! 1920s! Magical Creatures! Newt! It’s like they made these movies specifically for me.

Are you into any other fandoms?

I love Laika films. I’m a huge stop-motion fan. Jurassic Park! Monty Python will never get old. I’m not a huge Star Trek person anymore, but it will always be special to me.

You’re currently working on a cosplay of The Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok. Tell me about that. And are you going to channel your inner Jeff Goldblum when you wear it?

I like to do silly costumes for Halloween. I knew I was going to be at Disneyland this year so I wanted to do something under the Disney umbrella. I thought I could have a lot of fun running around as The Grandmaster. I wore it a few days ago and it did not disappoint. I talked to the Cap and Black Panther in character. Gah, such a blast! I loved being Jeff Goldblum for a day!

The costume turned out to be a real pain to make. I nearly gave up a few times. I’m so glad I pushed through though. It came out great and I’m really proud of it! I’ll definitely be wearing it to some cons next year.

I understand you also have several “big dresses” in the works. Can you give me any hints about them?

They are historical. I’ve had them in my head for over a decade. They are conceptually and physically big. One is based on a fandom. That’s all I can say right now, Stay tuned …

You have a special fondness for vintage fashion. How were you introduced to vintage and why do you find it so captivating?

My mom and grandmother are both lovers of vintage fashion. I absolutely get it from them. I love the silhouettes. The amount of work that was put into clothing of the past is so inspiring. And the accessories! There’s nothing like a well-made vintage hat. There’s a class and sophistication that I don’t find in modern clothes. I’m fairly certain I was supposed to be born in a different time.

If I’m not mistaken, you collect some vintage pieces. You’ve even got a “hat wall.” Tell me about some of your prize vintage fashion items. 

I have a substantial vintage collection. My mom got me hooked on it. We have been trolling vintage shows and shops together for 20 years. I have a 1940s wedding dress I got for about $50. I wore it to my senior prom. I have a hat from the 1860s that’s in excellent shape. I recently bought a 1920s velvet suit that I’m especially fond of. I have so many pieces, it’s hard to narrow it down.

You also hoard vintage and special fabrics until you find the perfect pattern or idea. I love that. Any particular fabrics you’re holding onto right now until inspiration strikes?

Yes! I bought some purple tartan in Scotland two years ago. It’s not vintage, but it’s special. I can’t commit to a design for it. I also have some vintage trim that belonged to my mentor who passed away. How could any garment ever be special enough for it?!

Do you have any future goals or dreams when it comes to fashion design?

I’m a big dreamer so there’s always something I’m working towards. I am expanding my jewelry skill set right now. I’m working on some pieces that will be going up for sale next year. I’m so excited to share these new, unique items with everyone! Seeing other people wearing my work again is a big goal for me. I’m also an artist, but I haven’t been working on it much lately. I really want to find new ways to incorporate fine art with fashion.

What’s left on your geek bucket list?

Hmmm. I’d like to try doing a large-scale cosplay. Something that’ll turn heads.

The thing about having the drive to continually create is that for every project I check off the list, I come up with five more. The bucket list will never be complete. It’s daunting, but I’m up for challenge.

 

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