On the evening of July 19, fashion designer Andrew MacLaine and Her Universe founder Ashley Eckstein stood in the lobby of the Manchester Grand Hyatt doing what they always do after a successful geek couture fashion show: greeting and taking pictures with fans. It's a well-earned moment of triumph for a brand that has come to define geek couture over the last five years, and the fact that MacLaine stood behind Eckstein holding up the dress did nothing to undermine the weight of their shared accomplishment.
Much earlier in the evening, MacLaine and Eckstein debuted the first couture dress made from Funko Pop!s. It weighed 40 pounds and was only supposed to be worn for about 40 minutes. But Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker surprised the Her Universe team by showing up for the show. And when the Thirteenth Doctor shows up for a geek couture fashion show, you give her something to wear, which was how Eckstein found herself wearing a dress made from 500 Pop! heads for more than four hours. Making matters worse, the heat in the lobby caused the vinyl Pop!s to expand, making the garment more difficult to wear.
While discomfort in the name of beauty is an all too familiar narrative in the mainstream fashion industry, the world of geek couture prefers to do things a bit differently. If MacLaine had known Eckstein would spend so much time in the dress, he would have designed it differently. Short of a TARDIS to take him back in time, MacLaine did everything in his power to make Eckstein more comfortable, including convincing a fan to help prop her up so he could remove her heels.
So how did MacLaine, a self-described fashion costume designer who happens to be a geek, find himself holding up a 40-pound dress made from 500 Jack Skellington Pop!s at the biggest geek couture fashion show in the world? Like many artists pursuing their dreams, the designer found himself on a circuitous path that somehow brought him exactly where he wanted to be. MacLaine was one elective sewing class away from becoming a professional actor, an alternative reality he sometimes thinks about but never regrets. When the class ended the head of the costume department offered MacLaine a job, recognizing his passion and commitment to each minute detail.
From there, MacLaine originally set his sights on Project Runway. He started by training himself with unconventional materials, like making a dress out of old Valentine's Day cards that a store was going to throw away. He worked with twigs, materials he found in the Palm Springs desert where he lives, anything he could scavenge or find for free, all in service to his dream of securing a coveted spot on Project Runway. One season he fought his way into the top 35, narrowly missing his opportunity to compete. He was in the process of reevaluating his career path when an unexpected opportunity appeared in his inbox.
“I got an email from one of the people I had made a costume for, some Japanese TV show uniforms that won an award at Comic-Con. She emailed me and said, ‘Did you hear about this fashion show at Comic-Con? I think you should enter.' I said, ‘I need to enter this and I need to win because this is everything that I love.'”
As a former military brat whose family moved every couple of years, MacLaine became attached to the characters in his favorite television shows like The Brady Bunch, The Addams Family, Lost in Space and other sci-fi and comedy programs. With each move MacLaine lost friends, but his favorite television characters remained a constant presence in his life making pop culture a key influencer both in his work and life.
MacLaine followed his customer's advice and entered the first Her Universe fashion show in 2014. The rules allowed each designer to feature up to three designs and, not knowing what the judges or audience would prefer, MacLaine made one design that he describes as pretty, one design that incorporated a gimmick and a third design that transformed into something else entirely on the runway. The latter, which he called “Regina's Curse,” won the Audience Choice Award.
It wasn't just the design of the regal black gown that captured the audience's attention, though the dress is a stunning tribute to Once Upon a Time's Evil Queen. It was the fact that the model emerged wearing a coat and skirt and halfway down the runway dramatically removed the coat, revealing an elegant gown with a dramatic flared neck and waist.
“It created a magical moment, not just for myself but for other people,” MacLaine recalls. “I still get people recounting what they were feeling when they saw it. I get goosebumps when I think about that night. It's one of those rare moments in life that I wouldn't change.”
It didn't hurt that MacLaine was paying tribute to one of his favorite characters from one of his favorite shows. He calls Once Upon a Time “the best of both worlds,” balancing a contemporary setting with fairytales audiences already know and love. The fact that the winning ensemble paid tribute to Regina Mills made MacLaine even happier.
And when Lana Parrilla, who plays Regina, commented on a picture of the dress that night, describing the design as “beautiful"? MacLaine's doubts about his career path all but vanished. He had found his tribe in the inclusive world of geek fashion and his career would never be the same.
“Before I entered I had said I was going to give up on the dream of being on Project Runway. Maybe I'll make designing a hobby,” MacLaine acknowledged. “Her Universe came along and it really did change everything because obviously I did not give up on my dream. I just tweaked it to be with the family that wanted me, and that I wanted to be part of. What I have said to Ashley on so many occasions is, ‘By making your dream happen you are making the dreams of other designers happen. It's something none of us will ever forget.”
As a prize for winning the Audience Choice Award, MacLaine contributed to the Marvel by Her Universe Avengers Collection released in May 2015, which was carried by Hot Topic. The opportunity allowed MacLaine to see his designs made in a wider range of sizes than the more traditional fashion industry embraces, which was part of the appeal of geek fashion in general and working with Hot Topic in particular.
“I've had men and women say ‘I'd love to wear something that you made but you probably don't make them in my size.' It's like they're apologizing for not being a stick figure. It breaks my heart when people say that. When you have something custom made for you it's going to be size you. It's going to incorporate what you want to say about your personality. In geek couture, you celebrate what you love and hopefully what you love is who you are, the skin you're in.”
Fast forward four years to the spring of 2018 when MacLaine received his annual text message from Eckstein informing him that it was time to get started on her dress for the annual Her Universe fashion show. MacLaine doesn't know anything about the theme until Eckstein sends her annual text. This year, she had an additional surprise: “She said, ‘are you ready to make it out of Funko Pop! heads?'” In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tim Burton's iconic stop-motion animated musical, MacLaine would design a couture dress made from Jack Skellington Funko Pop!s.
It wasn't the first time the Her Universe founder presented MacLaine with an unconventional materials challenge. In 2016 Eckstein presented the designer with the challenge of making a Star Wars-inspired dress with LEGO bricks. MacLaine insists that was easier than working with 500 Pop! heads because he was able to position the bricks over a fabric canvas. But he was thrilled by the opportunity to draw inspiration from Nightmare Before Christmas.
“It's Tim Burton so everything's deliciously imperfect. That can be very liberating. It doesn't have to be symmetrical,” MacLaine explained.
Neither Eckstein nor MacLaine had any idea what the final dress would look like. The designer watched the movie and drew 15 different sketches, all of which were rejected because they looked like dresses with Funko Pop!s on them, rather than a dress made from Funko Pop!s, a seemingly minute but important distinction. Nearly two dozen additional sketches later, MacLaine had his design, but bringing it to life would require hard work and experimentation. He made a black tulle underskirt and fabric bodice adorned in even more Jack Skellington Pop! faces.
The challenge of drilling and sawing hundreds of Pop!s was outside MacLaine's comfort zone so his friend Ray traveled from Arizona to Palm Springs to perform the all-important surgery. It was Ray's idea for MacLaine to design an Oogie Boogie suit to complement Eckstein's Jack Skellington dress. When Ray first proposed that the suit be made from burlap, MacLaine balked at the idea. Burlap is itchy, Oogie Boogie was not the most attractive of characters and he feared the ensemble might just read as a bland beige suit.
But the idea took hold and before MacLaine knew it, he was designing a burlap Oogie Boogie suit, painting shadows into the contours, affixing enormous beetles around the lapels and stitching X's into the sleeves and pant legs. He had to scrap the idea for burlap hair after realizing, “I looked like a raggedy Andy from hell.” He lined the suit to avoid the severe discomfort of wearing burlap against his skin, and the result was an outfit that looked ripped right out of the closets of Halloween Town.
After the show, Eckstein decided that she didn't need a 40-pound Jack Skellington Pop! dress in her closet—however fabulous that dress happened to be—so it's going on display at Disney, though whether the venue is Disneyland in Anaheim or Disney World in Orlando has yet to be announced.
Thus concluded the fifth annual Her Universe fashion show, but geek couture continues its forward march, bringing pop culture's favorite characters and stories to the world of fashion, creating something new and inclusive and brave.
“Until the last 10 years it was considered a bad thing to be a nerd and like fairytales and Doctor Who, but in recent years it became OK to say ‘this is the show that I like and I'm going to wear something that celebrates that,'” MacLaine said. “I knew Her Universe was having a big influence when I started seeing people every day wearing those clothes, not just at Comic-Con. I saw a girl wearing a Doctor Who TARDIS dress and no one was laughing at her but at least two people complimented her. It's OK to celebrate what you love. It's OK to make it a fashion statement. I didn't see that before Her Universe came along.”