How one independent designer is growing her business and trying to change geek fashion

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Jun 14, 2016, 2:55 PM EDT

Geek fashion designer Catherine Elhoffer is helping change the way people can express their love for a particular fandom. While there’s been a shift in geek fashion toward more subtle designs, many apparel options continue to focus on featuring logos and imagery that are all too obvious about where they are from. Elhoffer’s designs, however, are reinforcing how less obvious takes on beloved franchises can inspire incredible fashion. This was clear in her work with companies like Her Universe and WeLoveFine and is even more so now since she’s been focusing solely on her independent business Elhoffer Design. Through Elhoffer Design, she’s been creating custom pieces on request. From Marvel’s Scarlet Witch to Star WarsPrincess Leia, Elhoffer’s inspired looks are gorgeous interpretations of these characters.

Hand-making each of these designs takes time, but soon it may be a lot easier to own one of her impressive creations. In March, Elhoffer took a big step forward in growing her one-fangirl business when she announced one of her popular Star Wars dresses, her Galactic Knight design, would begin mass production. The dress is currently available on Etsy and is reminiscent of the Jedi from Star Wars. It costs $200 for sizes XS to L, $210 for XL to XXL, and $220 for 3XL. The dress is being produced at a Los Angeles-based factory.

Mass production was an idea that came to Elhoffer when she was in the midst of receiving a lot of requests. She told Blastr she hates turning people down and was becoming overwhelmed, telling a friend about how stressed she was since she wanted to take orders and grow her business. Her friend suggested she speak with a factory, but Elhoffer thought there was no way they would talk to her since she wouldn’t be doing thousands or hundreds of pieces and only just 20 or 50 here and there. This factory was a small building with a few sewers, so Elhoffer told her friend she’d think about it.


“It’s really scary, because somebody else is taking control of my product. I don’t get to personally sew it, which as much as I love doing that, I know if I’m going to grow, if I’m ever going to be bigger, I’m not going to be able to hand-sew everything. I’m going to have to have other people doing it,” Elhoffer said. “It took me forever to finally call them, because I was so nervous thinking they wouldn’t want to talk to me or they’d see my stuff and be like, ‘This is too crazy, there’s no way.’”

However, when she showed them her Galactic Knight dress and her Rebel Fighter dress inspired by Poe Dameron from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the factory told her they could definitely make them. Elhoffer left them her dresses and patterns, paying out of pocket to get everything done so the factory could make samples and determine prices.

Elhoffer also tried to problem-solve a few things she’s noticed in the industry over the years as she worked on her first mass-produced dress. For example seeing the issue of sizing, Elhoffer is making sure her items won’t run small. She’s addressing these problems now even though she’s just starting with mass production because this is what any future items she mass-produces will be based on. The Rebel Fighter sample was based on the fit of that initial dress, for example, and Elhoffer said she was thrilled with how it looked. The factory is even helping in other ways. According to Elhoffer, they helped fix her neckline for the Rebel Fighter dress in a way that she thinks is a much better version. They also helped with another piece Elhoffer sent them, her Scavenger dress inspired by Rey from The Force Awakens, by finessing the shoulder piece to make it look more solid.

Such results mean Elhoffer can give the factory items to work on that she knows will sell well, freeing herself up to work on new items and ideas.

“What I want to do is just make a collection of pieces of samples that I make, photo my friends and people wearing them, and then put together for different blogs and stuff -- ‘Here’s a collection that I’m doing,’” she said. “’I’m not going to make every single piece in it, I just kind of want to show the world this is what I personally think geek fashion should be and just keep putting my ideas out there, because there’s just not much being done that I like and I really want to get my ideas out, and it’s so hard if I have 20 orders to get through that month. I don’t have much time to do new stuff.”


Since becoming available for preorder in March, the Galactic Knight dress hasn’t sold quite as much as Elhoffer hoped. She thinks this is in part due to a number of factors including Etsy not being where she usually sells her products and that it began as a preorder without a solid ship date. While the the dress is now a stock item that ships within a day of someone ordering it, the initial unsure ship date was due to it being the first piece she was making with the factory. Elhoffer also thinks having only a photo of a size medium might be playing a role. Once she has stock to do photos of other sizes, people will be able to see how it looks in their size and on a similar body type. It’s all new to her as she learns from this experience, even in regards to pricing. Her Galactic Fighter and Galactic Scavenger dresses are available now for pre-order on Etsy, each slated to ship in June and selling for less than the Galactic Knight dress, but still over $100.

“I’m testing everything. Obviously the lower the price the better, because then more people will want to buy it, but I can’t drop the price so low that I can’t afford to make them and then also I need to make some money back so I can then reinvest that money in making even more dresses,” Elhoffer said. “It’s super interesting. I’ve never run a business like this before.”

In addition to these three dresses, Elhoffer in May expanded her preorder offerings with two items in her new Mischief office wear line. Available for preorder on Etsy and her website, the limited-run office wear inspired by Loki include a stunning lo-hi blazer starting at $215 and sheath dress starting at $195 that are both set to ship in August. The pieces are also offered in a combo pack.


It’s not easy being an independent designer, though Elhoffer said she was privileged to have made enough money to save so that she was not starting her company with nothing and could invest the money she made to make it happen. She called being independent fun but terrifying, with her days running on anxiety and fear. To Elhoffer, working as an independent designer is like juggling 20 balls in the air as she deals with everything from whether a fabric will work to whether she needs to post more on social media, as she finishes up business paperwork and tries to stay up to date with what other companies are doing all at the same time. Even with the stress though, Elhoffer said it’s a lot better than working in an office. One of the perks of her independence is that she doesn’t have to keep quiet about new designs for months before posting them to show people.

“To post a picture of a sample that I’m making or of a piece that I’m working on and have people give me such positive feedback so quickly has been immensely beneficial and inspiring because now I want to do even more stuff,” she said.


Even old customers provide opportunities to work on new ideas. A customer reached out to her after accidentally washing the Loki top Elhoffer had designed for WeLoveFine in hot water, ruining the print. While Elhoffer couldn’t help replace that top since she doesn’t work at the company anymore, she did offer to make a Loki piece she had an idea for. It would be a couple hundred dollars, but she told the customer she thought the handmade item would last longer.

“I sent them a sketch and they were sold. It was the Loki peplum cape top that I made where it has a cool huge cape attached to it. I don’t skimp out on fabric, I used like two yards of scuba so it’s really heavy and then I did the cross details that his costume has out of stretch vinyl with a single gold so it’s super subtle but it’s beautiful and also super flattering,” she said.

Since Elhoffer’s not under NDAs and doesn't have bosses telling her not to post anything she’s able to immediately take pictures and share images, earning instant feedback. Reactions can then lead to even more new opportunities and ideas as some people say they’d like to see certain designs in different styles. Without roadblocks Elhoffer can explore creating a dress version of a skirt or vice versa.


All of this means there’s a lot for fans to look forward to from Elhoffer. There may be more office wear in the future and eventually she wants to create a Harry Potter Hufflepuff inspired collection. Those who want to keep up with what she’s working on can see what she shares on social media. The images she shares will also include special pieces, such as a Boba Fett dress she made just for Chloe Dykstra, that she might not want to make more of or get a bunch of orders for.

“I just want to show the world this is my idea of what Boba Fett would dress like if he was a girl and she was heading out to a cocktail party,” Elhoffer said. “It’s my fangirl in me that is constantly writing and reading fanfiction of like ‘oh well this is fanfiction for your wardrobe.’ This is if you were writing a story about this character and they happened to be in our world instead of a galaxy far, far away or a wizard in England or wherever.”


The idea fits perfectly with what Elhoffer sees as the larger goal of her brand, to create items that fit into fans’ wardrobes that are inspired by geeky things and can be worn to offices and other places without being a too loud and obvious statement of what you like.

“There are so many players in this game already and big people in the game too and I’m kind of trying to make a new game. I don’t want to play this old game, it’s worn out. I’m so tired of seeing art plastered on a body. I really want stuff that’s inspired and subtle so I’m trying to make a new game on the playing board,” she said.

With Elhoffer’s freedom as an independent designer and her move towards growing her business with mass production, there certainly seem to be many exciting things on the horizon for Elhoffer Design.

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