SAN DIEGO — It won't be joining New York, London, Milan and Paris on the official fashion month schedule any time soon, but San Diego, perhaps best known for annually hosting over 130,000 comic book fans who descend on the city during Comic-Con International each July, is the unlikely epicenter of a fashion movement that has achieved every supervillain's dream of taking over the world. To be specific: wearable pop culture.
There is a lingering assumption that comic convention attire involves one of two things: revealing costumes (for women) or sweat-stained T-shirts (for men). Despite the sprinkling of stardust provided by boldface names like Cara Delevingne and Scarlett Johansson, who were here to promote their latest movies, these gatherings are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same breath as "real" fashion.
But it was fashion — and decidedly not costumes — that took center stage on Thursday evening at the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel during this year's Comic-Con, where the Her Universe Fashion Show, a competitive event reminiscent of "Project Runway," involved 27 designers debuting pop-culture-inspired ensembles that would not have looked out of place during John Galliano-era Dior or Lee McQueen-era Alexander McQueen.
Just as at the Met Gala in May, technology was a visible theme, albeit technology inspired by fantasy. One dress, an elegantly draped cream concoction, was decorated with illustrations using thermo-chromatic pigment, which disappeared when it reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the better to evoke a magical map with vanishing ink from the Harry Potter series.
Other designs brought to mind Zac Posen's luminous Met Gala gown by incorporating lights. "I had already designed it before I saw the Zac Posen," one designer, Lynne Marie Martens, said of her creation, a mille-feuille of a dress inspired by "Doctor Who" and featuring hundreds of twinkling lights.
Mr. Posen's dress did prompt the 29-year-old Ms. Martens to explore using fiber-optic fabric, although at around $100 for just a few yards, it was prohibitively expensive for her version, which had 80 yards of tulle.
Instead, she used individually addressable LED lights, meaning she could program the color of each one separately, as well as the pattern and speed at which the lights blinked. "I worked with a programmer who wrote the code for me," she said.
Laura Cristina Ortiz, 27, who took time off from her day job as a costume designer on the coming Fox television series "Lethal Weapon" to participate in the show, created a 1980s-style cocktail dress and shrug inspired by the Disney Pixar film "Wall-E," a dystopian tale about a trash-collecting robot abandoned on an uninhabitable planet Earth.
Ms. Ortiz incorporated a dizzying amount of recycled material into the design, including cardboard, crepe paper, soda cans, plastic bottles, an Ikea bag and even a cable stripped out of an iPhone, which was used to lace up the bodice at the back.
The fashion show, which is in its third year, is the brainchild of the voice actress Ashley Eckstein. She s tarted Her Universe, a female-oriented apparel company after which the fashion show is named, in 2010 after realizing that women who wanted to wear sci-fi-printed T-shirts were being grossly underserved. She obtained her first pop culture license from Lucasfilm (she now has several), and today Her Universe produces items like "Deadpool" leggings and Darth Vader cape dresses.
"We were really, to my knowledge, probably the first company in the sci-fi genre to say we don't want the men and the boys, we only want women," Ms. Eckstein said by telephone the day before the show, which she attended in a custom gown made out of more than 10,000 Lego bricks. "And they had to do a special contract for us at first, just to siphon out women only."
Today, "Star Wars" is a bona fide presence in fashion thanks to subsequent collaborations with brands like Rodarte, Preen and, on a charity initiative last year, Diane von Furstenberg.
Other designers (most notably Jeremy Scott) have similarly begun appropriating fondly remembered childhood throwbacks such as Barbi e, Mario Brothers and Looney Tunes in their collections. Brands like Givenchy, Commes des Garçons, Lanvin and Louboutin have worked with Disney on one-off designs and capsule collections based on the studio's classic films like "Bambi" and "Cinderella."
And in San Diego, the cosmetics brand MAC, which has collaborated with Alexander McQueen and Rihanna, has even created a sci-fi themed pop-up store directly opposite the convention center, where it is previewing its coming "Star Trek" collection to a wholly receptive audience (on Thursday, there were lines outside before the store opened).
"Pop culture really equals nostalgia, and it takes us back to our childhood," Ms. Eckstein said, citing the current obsession with Pokémon Go as an example. "In a world right now where so many crazy things and terrible things and scary things are going on, everyone needs an escape, and everyone needs something that just gives you hope, and makes you happy."
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