Her Universe Fashion Show winner discovers her design destiny

Kristi Siedow-Thompson is having a moment. If you’re an aspiring fashion designer or a geek fashion enthusiast and haven’t heard of her, it’s time to study up.

A three-time finalist of the Her Universe Fashion Show, one of the main events at San Diego Comic-Con, Kristi won the competition in 2018 with her stunning trench coat design inspired by the yellow Power Loader from the final scenes of Aliens. 

Her participation in HUFS — presided over by geek fashion guru Ashley Eckstein — changed her life, propelling her from amateur seamstress to freelance fashion designer whose work has been featured on Hot Topic racks and, most recently, in the season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race. 

A former app designer who was forced to reexamine her career goals after a layoff, Kristi entered the 2015 fashion show on a whim, using the sewing skills she learned from her mother. Her first design was a highly structural dress themed after the evil Empire of Star Wars. That experience led her to get serious about fashion, move to New York, and enroll in the Fashion Institute of Technology.

After a sobering HUFS rejection in 2016, she made a strong return to the show with a Stranger Things Upside Down-themed dress. In 2018, her Power Loader design whipped the HUFS audience into a frenzy and she found herself among the winning designers, who have since become her best friends. 

Kristi’s victory led to a collaboration with Her Universe on an Avengers: Endgame fashion line featured online and in Hot Topic stores. Suddenly, fans were rocking her designs at conventions and premieres. 

Just a couple weeks ago, Kristi’s flair for graphically-striking design earned her more attention when a gown she created for her friend, RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant and eventual winner Yvie Oddly, was featured in the Season 11 finale. 

Kristi will continue her winning streak next month at San Diego Comic-Con as a judge at this year’s HUFS competition. Her Power Loader design will also be on display at a gala for the new San Diego Comic-Con Museum on July 17 and throughout the convention weekend. 

If you’re a fledgling designer looking for inspiration and killer tips, look no further than this interview, in which the HUFS winner discusses her journey and dedication to mentoring and inclusiveness. 

You’re a freelance fashion designer and three-time finalist in the Her Universe Fashion Show, and you won in 2018. You said participating in the fashion show changed your life. In what ways?

When I first entered in 2015, I did it on a whim because I had a few designs I was working on for a geek wedding runway show for Phoenix Comic Con (Phoenix Fan Fusion). I sewed on the side as a hobby, and really only made a few things for myself and some local drag queens and dancers.

When I started to research geek fashion, I came across the entry for the Her Universe Fashion show, which was only on its second year. I said, “What the heck?” and submitted some drawings. I was BEYOND thrilled to get into the show, and it was the first time I thought about doing fashion or costuming full time.

After the competition, I came back to Denver and within a month found out I was getting laid off. Instead of looking for a new job, I decided to take some time off and decide what it really was that made me happy. The competition made me realize that fashion design was this amazing undeveloped passion I had, so I ended up moving to NYC and doing a year of fashion school.

Also, the community of designers behind this fashion show is completely life changing; it’s this group of incredibly fun people who all have both an interest in fashion AND geekdoms, so there are some lifelong friendships to be made, even if you don’t win!

Your mother was a seamstress and you grew up sewing, but you’ve said you had no idea what you were doing when you first entered the Her Universe Fashion Show competition in 2015. Tell me more about your sewing background and how you went about creating your first HUFS design, which was inspired by Star Wars.

My mother has been a huge inspiration for me growing up sewing. She always made whatever weird costume ideas I came up with as a child for Halloween, so I definitely was raised with no boundaries on creativity. She sews interiors like fancy curtains, pillows, and window coverings, and I discovered that there’s a different learning curve to sewing clothing.

When it came to my first year in HUFS, I just tended to make up my techniques as I went along. I knew nothing about pattern making or draping, other than just kind of copying what I had seen people do on Project Runway. I had no concept of certain technical aspects of sewing, like fabric grain, ease, fit, etc. But I think I made it in because I had really interesting concepts that knew no bounds of the technical.

I legitimately was treating it like a sculpture that year, which I think, based on my knowledge,  turned out pretty successfully. I made this crazy skirt out of PVC pipe that I could take apart in order to put it in my suitcase. I later met another competitor that copied the technique for a square-shaped dress in 2017 based on about 2 seconds of footage backstage from my look.

It was super fun to know I inspired someone with my creativity, even if the sewing part wasn’t super well done that year. The fun thing about the Her Universe Fashion show is that each year I have created a piece, it has been the best thing I have made up to that point. I love the fact that the competition has been a benchmark for me to measure my improvements.

Your participation in the fashion show actually inspired you to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology and earn a degree in fashion design. What was the most important thing you learned during your studies? 

I think the most successful artists out there take time to learn the rules of their art before trying to break them. There was a point in the fall of 2015 where I was creating a small collection for an ArtWear show in my hometown in Colorado and I kept running into issues that were purely based on my lack of sewing knowledge. I knew I could create something that looked good in a photo, but ultimately the fit and sewing was not great and up-close the garments were a mess.

I discovered that FIT had a one-year program that covered all the knowledge I lacked: draping, pattern making, sewing, fabric theory, etc. I was in my early 30s at the time, so I wasn’t jazzed about going back to school for too long because I like living in the real world of work, so it was the perfect place for me. So long story long, the most important thing I learned was all the basics of garment construction, because it allows me to create any out-of-the-box concepts I have in the RIGHT way.

In 2016, you entered the Her Universe Fashion Show again, but your design wasn’t accepted. What did you learn from that experience?

It’s so cliche to say, but not getting in was the best thing that happened to me. I think sometimes it can be easy to coast when you have good ideas, but aren’t growing year over year. I honestly think my submissions in 2015 were better than 2016, and I definitely played it safe because I knew I’d be moving from Colorado to New York during the construction process. It was probably for the best that I didn’t compete that year, but it also lit a fire under me that I wouldn’t have had if I had made it that year. I felt I really earned getting back in for 2017.

Photo by Brian Sims.

In 2017, you were once again a HUFS finalist with a wildly original design based on the TV series Stranger Things. What was your thought process in creating that design?

I remember thinking I needed to challenge myself and make the hardest possible concept I could think of, which ended up being an actual upside down dress. It was very abstract and avant garde, but it was exactly how I felt I needed to reenter that competition.

Also, it was important to me to cast a model with a disability because of the under-representation of the disabled in fashion. My Eleven was a wonderful model named Katie Fleck who has Elhers-Danlos syndrome, a joint disorder. We made sure to incorporate her crutches into the design, which I think was very successful.

And, of course, in 2018, you became a HUFS winner with a fabulous design inspired by Ripley and the Power Loader from the famous finale of Aliens. How did you come up with this concept?

I had actually never seen the movie Aliens in full until the end of 2017 when my husband and I were going through an ‘80s movie kick. I loved the visual sci-fi style of the movie and, sometime in December of that year, I had a lightbulb moment to do a Power Loader jacket when brainstorming concepts for the show.

So many people start thinking about designs for the show super early, and I’ve always had an ongoing list of things I could mine for ideas. The Power Loader is such a memorable piece of movie history, as well as a very graphic image that translates over into my style of fashion super well. I wanted to go as high fashion as possible, so doing an oversized trench coat really fit into that narrative. The graphic text and imagery around the concept also just felt really “me.”

You really stepped up your design game in 2018. What pushed you to do that? 

Honestly? I really wanted to win. In 2017, I remembered looking at Rose Ivy’s winning jacket for her Dr. Strange look, and thinking about how technically excellent the sewing was on her piece. I knew going into the competition I needed to get my sewing and fit to levels I’d never accomplished before. I think I always have good concepts, but have suffered in the execution part. In 2017, I was working to the very last second on my Upside Down dress, and still I felt like if I had more time to test it, it could have turned out much better and more well made.

In 2018, I started so early. I was testing concept ideas as early as February of 2018 so that if I was accepted, I would know exactly how I was going to make this thing. It was important to me to not run out of time, and if something was sewn just a little off, still have the time to take it apart and try it again. Of course, there are small things on the piece that I consider “errors” but nothing can be totally perfect. My goal was to make the most perfect garment that I possibly could, and I feel like I achieved that.

Photo by Frank Guthrie.

How did it feel when you were announced as a winner?

I think I knew I had clinched it after my model walked the runway. I have video of myself watching her and I’m just sobbing because the reaction from the audience was so intense. I had literally put EVERYTHING I had into it, so I felt really good about that, and really overwhelmed at the same time. If I hadn’t won, it likely would have been my last year, as I think putting everything forth like that and not walking away with a win would probably mean it wasn’t the right competition for me.

But I did win and, honestly, winning was amazing. However, I was almost more excited for the judge’s winner, Cynthia (Kirkland), as we both had bonded over getting in one year and not the next. We were like the comeback kids, and sharing the win with her and Jane (Burson) was truly the best part for me.

A lot of us are curious about what it feels like to participate in the fashion show. What’s the general atmosphere like behind the scenes?

For the most part, it’s a real team mentality backstage. All of us have bonded online while making our looks by way of a Facebook group. It’s wonderful because people share progress on their looks as well as posing questions about different processes. Everyone really helps each other out and cheers each other on. It’s a super supportive community overall, and I definitely have made many great friends over the years.

What about when you’re up on the stage and runway?

The runway is a trip because there are SO many people in the audience. It’s kind of a whirlwind if you’re not modeling though, because you get to do the final walk and then file out to hear the winners at the very end. I remember friends from previous years cheering for me in the audience during the final walk-through, which was so validating and amazing.

Kristi receives hugs after being announced as a winner at the 2018 Her Universe Fashion Show. Photo: Frank Guthrie.

You’ve said that one of the highlights of doing the show is being part of the community of designers. Have you built many relationships during your three years of participation?

The network I have built solely from this show is incredible. I have a bunch of contacts in the fashion community that introduced me to others who have introduced me to others. Contacts in this show have led to awesome opportunities, such as working with Lucasfilm backstage at The Last Jedi booth at New York Comic Con a few years ago with my friend Laura Ortiz.

Not to mention the other really strong friendships; Cynthia and Jane, my co-winners, are literally two of my best friends now. Leetal Platt, the 2015 audience choice winner and I have also become best friends, both living in New York City and pursuing fashion. Hannah Kent and Lyndsay Orndorff, winners from 2016 and 2017, and I have started a business meetup where we share our small business strategies biweekly since we’re all doing similar things with our fashion careers.

And not to mention all the other amazing people I’ve met through the show. I’ve had countless meetups with fellow contestants when they’re visiting NYC. Also, I literally started calling WonderCon “Friendcon” because there were so many Her Universe Fashion Show people that I got to hang out with. It’s unreal what it’s done to my social life.

You recently wrote a post on your blog (kristiinthecity.com) featuring some of the designs that weren’t accepted to this year’s fashion show. You’ve also written a seven-part blog series offering guidance to potential HUFS designers. Why is it important to you to offer advice and encouragement to aspiring designers?

Someone recently posed an icebreaker question to me that was, “If you got famous, what would you want to be famous for?” and my immediate reaction was to say, “Helping people.” As soon as I won, I really wanted to give back to the community. I think it’s easy to get caught up in details or things you think the judges will like rather than just being true to yourself as a designer. I felt like I cracked the code on the fashion show last year and wanted to give that knowledge back to people.

I always look back on certain points in life and wonder what it would be like to have had more of a mentor, so I try to be that mentor for people as best I can. Ultimately, it IS about working hard, but there are ways to work smart too that I think people miss.

I also think there is such value in showcasing the work that isn’t accepted. As the competition grows, it gets harder and harder to make it in, but it doesn’t invalidate the work someone has put into their designs. I have seen blogs in the past showcase designs, so I thought with the popularity of my blog, it seemed right that this year it would be me.

Hot Topic

Earlier this year, Her Universe debuted its Marvel collection, inspired by Avengers: Endgame. You designed two of the pieces, the Thanos Oh Snap Bomber Jacket and a Nebula-inspired sports bra and shorts. This was a collaborative effort, right? What did the design process entail?

We had our first meeting with Marvel and the Her Universe and Hot Topic staff less than 24 hours after the competition. I don’t know if past winners were as collaborative as we were, but since Cynthia, Jane and I get along really well, we definitely shared our designs with each other all through the process.

We had an initial 2 weeks for our first rounds of designs, and then a few more rounds every couple of weeks based on the feedback we got from the team. It was a short turnaround just to make sure it could all get made before the movie release at the end of April. Hence the immediate first meeting.

But the designs for the characters I chose were all mine. More changes were made to the Nebula look to fit what best sells in Hot Topic stores so, for instance, I started with a full track suit and we changed it over the rounds to shorts and a bra. The Thanos Jacket is almost exactly the same as my first round design however, so it varies.

Are you a big Thanos fan?

Hahaha, who is? I mean, other than Tini Howard who writes the Thanos comic series. I know the nerds will revolt, but I actually hadn’t seen any Marvel movies other than Black Panther at the time of my win. That first week after Comic Con was me literally watching 3-5 movies a day trying to catch up with the franchise.

It was actually very fun for me to watch them all in a row, and great for my brainstorming process. During the first meeting though, someone on the team suggested that Thanos might be a difficult character to come up with designs for, which was a cue for me to say, “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.” I personally love creating designs for the antagonist characters. Most of my cosplays are based on the bad guys, so it’s definitely in my wheelhouse.

Was it tricky to come up with a design based on Nebula? She’s not the first character that comes to mind when I think of fashion.

This was another choice based on our initial meeting. I think Cynthia turned to me and said something about how Nebula is a really interesting character who has had to endure a lot of pain in her arc, so I was immediately drawn to her. I decided to design based on her skin and the colors on her head, because I think that’s the most interesting part about her. Her clothing isn’t as memorable as her skin color, much like Thanos.

What’s it like to see fans running around wearing something you designed? Or seeing your designs in Hot Topic?

Oh man, it’s crazy. I like going into Hot Topics and telling the people working there that I’m the designer. When I was in Colorado recently, I went to a store with my friend and told the teenager running the counter that it was my design and I thought she was going to have a heart attack. She gave me a bunch of coupons and then was falling over herself to help me get a fitting room to try on stuff. A definite celebrity moment.

You were part of a couple of Her Universe-related panels at WonderCon this year. It seemed like it was a really happy reunion for you and other winning designers. Tell me about that experience. 

Like I said, Cynthia and Jane and I have achieved a kind of BFF status. Usually, when Her Universe books rooms for us, we each get a separate one, but we requested a room all together. They got us this amazing Residence Inn room with bunk beds and stuff so it was like a 2-day slumber party. We have really bonded through this process, which has been amazing. Since Jane and I aren’t huge into cosplay, we don’t often go out to conventions out of state. However, because of how much fun we had together, we’ve made a pact to try and return to WonderCon together next year.

I understand that you were originally a graphic designer and didn’t intend to go into fashion design. What prompted you to change directions?

As often is the case, my career change was prompted by a layoff. I essentially had my dream job in graphic design; I was a UI/UX designer for an app that centered around storytelling and the music industry. Unfortunately, it was a startup and we didn’t quite make it, so the company folded and we all lost our jobs.

I interviewed for a few jobs earlier in the year because it was getting a little apparent that things weren’t going well for us, but the interviews always left me feeling frustrated because the jobs just didn’t seem right for me. My husband was able to support us both, so he suggested I take some time off to figure out what I really wanted to do.

Over the next few months, I kept getting fashion and costuming gigs without trying, and I realized how much I liked making things. That led me to research schools and ultimately move to New York. My experience as a graphic designer really helps me every day in my fashion career, so I am so thankful for it.

Have you always been interested in geeky things? Why do you think you’ve been drawn to geek fashion specifically?

I’m one of those people who dives deep into a fandom and kind of get obsessed with the stories and characters. I remember getting super into Sailor Moon in junior high and wanting to draw everything in anime style. I also always loved costumes and Halloween, so when I discovered that comic cons and cosplay were a thing, I got really into that.

I never wanted to recreate a costume strictly, I always liked adding my own flair or design details to it. After that, once the Her Universe train hit me, it was super apparent how little clothing was made for women in the geek realm. It’s really crazy how it’s changed in the last 5-10 years.

What are some of your favorite fandoms?

I am a ride or die fan of Wonder Woman since forever. My first cosplay was Wonder Woman, which was really a Halloween costume I just wore to my first convention. Because of my work with Hot Topic, I’m also a huge Marvel fan. And I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, so that will always be in my heart. Honestly, I just love good stories with interesting characters. I love creepy stuff like Aliens, Carrie, and other movies that border or jump right into the horror movie realm.

You’re not limited to geek fashion, however. Your brand, Kristi Siedow-Thompson Design, specializes in custom designs for events with an emphasis on inclusiveness and creating looks for women of all sizes and abilities. Your diverse clientele includes plus-size women, disabled women, and drag queens. Why is this focus important to you?

I think what drives me most in fashion is inclusivity, and oftentimes clothes that claim inclusivity are still missing a group of people. Disability in fashion is so underrepresented, as well as plus size above a size 20.

I know I can’t do it all right away, but I want to make sure I am thinking about the human race as a whole when I design. The best example of this that I have seen is a swimwear company in NYC called Chromat. Their runways and marketing materials show an intense understanding of what inclusivity really looks like. I interned there in 2017 and they taught me so much about that mindset.

You were the women’s wear finalist from Fashion Institute of Technology at the 2017 Cerebral Palsy Foundation’s Design for Disability Gala. What prompted you to enter this competition? 

One of my goals in pursuing fashion was to be able to create adaptive garments for people with disabilities. I have a lot of connections from my time in Denver with people in wheelchairs or other mobility devices from a theater company I got to perform with. I have PTSD and an anxiety disorder, so I qualified to perform with Phamaly, a theater group consisting of all persons with disabilities.

As I made more and more friends, I kept getting feedback about how hard it was to find clothes to fit, and if they were adaptive, they were mostly ugly and sterile. I made it a personal goal to learn more about adaptive wear and how to make it.

Tell me a little about the designs you created for the gala. 

I worked with three amazing women and created custom looks based on their individual needs and requests. For Minda, who is an Iron Man athlete and the first woman to complete an Iron Man Triathlon with a hand cycle, I did an athletic jacket and leggings. I made the neoprene jacket shorter in the front to accommodate her seated position in her wheelchair.

Yesenia is a busy woman who is also a quadriplegic who needed clothing that is easy to put on and off. The neoprene pants are created with a magnet closure in the back, which snaps together easily, making it easier for her caregiver to help her dress.

Finally, Hilda has always wanted a dress to wear that fit her comfortably. This gown was created in an L-shape with a side zipper so that it is as comfortable as possible for her seated position, and easy to put on and take off on her own.

Are there currently many fashion options for people with disabilities? What would you like to see change within the industry when it comes to serving this demographic?

This is an area of fashion that is getting more and more popular and mainstream, but still has a ways to go before this kind of clothing is accessible for everyone who needs it. One of the biggest issues with serving this demographic is people often treat disabled people like they are “inspirational” by just living in the same world as abled-body people.

Often people forget or don’t even realize how the world is set up to exclude mobility devices. There is this “savior” mentality that people have when working with disabled people. One of my goals in creating adaptive wear is to work with designers that actually have disabilities because I think it’s important that they get to lead their own movement.

One of your designs was recently featured in the Season 11 finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, worn by Yvie Oddly, who took the crown. How did you become involved with this project? Tell me more about your work on the dress. 

Yvie and I have known each other for a few years, actually. When I lived in Denver, I used to backup dance occasionally for Nina Flowers’ show, Drag Nation, which is still the biggest drag show in the country. Through that I got involved in making costumes for local drag queens.

The first time I saw Yvie, she was in a competition called the Ultimate Queen Competition, which was held after a RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing party. She got on a chair and then touched her feet to the back of her head and I was like, “WHO IS THIS QUEEN??” She ultimately won this competition, and the prize was a 6-month contract performing for Drag Nation.

I remember chatting with her backstage at her first performance and I told her I wanted to work with her and make her something. We’ve been chatting on and off since then, and when I found out she was on Drag Race, the chats became more realistic. Before that she didn’t have much money and made most of her looks herself. I then got a message from her assistant a few weeks ago saying they wanted me to do her finale crowning look.

I feel so honored to have created this look for her. She told me she had been dying to work with me and that it was important to her to represent Denver and artists she was connected to, and we’ve been connected for a long time.

After that it was kind of a whirlwind to create the look. Yvie had a kind of basic concept sketched out, but because of her touring schedule didn’t have much more than an outline. I got a lot of creative control and worked directly with the headpiece designer to make sure our looks would be cohesive. The dress is SO Yvie Oddly, but my creative voice is very strong in it too, which is just so thrilling.

Yvie Oddly wearing the dress designed by Kristi. Photo by Brittany Travis.

What was it like to see Yvie flaunting this look on TV?

It was pretty much a constant panic attack for me until she was crowned. I can’t explain how thrilled I am to have been even a small part of her success. The coolest thing so far is to see all the fan art that’s coming out of her in the dress. I’m so proud of her and all the work she has done. She absolutely deserved this win.

Can you give us a hint as to any upcoming projects you might be working on?

I’ve got a fun look I’m making for San Diego Comic-Con based on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I’m also mentoring one of the junior winners for the Her Universe Fashion show, which I’m really excited about. I’ve got a couple other projects up my sleeve, but mostly in the beginning stages.

What are your future plans, goals, and dreams for Kristi Siedow-Thompson designs?

I want to create an inclusive collection that is 100% my design aesthetic. I’ve done a lot of collaboration in the last few years, whether it be designs based on geek fandoms or working directly with a company or person on creating a look. I want to know what a Kristi Siedow-Thompson look is if no one else influences it. I’m really trying to find my voice as a designer. And, of course, I want to be as inclusive as possible.

What’s left to check off on your geek bucket list?

I’d love to continue working with Her Universe in some capacity. I really enjoyed the team and the design process. That, and I’d love to visit the new Star Wars section of Disneyland! Otherwise I feel pretty content with all the things I’ve been able to experience so far in the geek world.

 

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