When we think of clothing at a Comic-Con, we tend to picture cosplay – men wearing stormtrooper costumes, women dressed as Sailor Moon. But thanks to Her Universe, a geek-inspired clothing company for women, fashion at Comic-Con is evolving past costumes and into everyday, wearable art. Last year they hosted the first ever geek couture fashion show at San Diego Comic-Con – and the fans came running.

Her Universe was founded in 2009 by actress Ashley Eckstein – who also voices Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. From the beginning, the merchandise and clothing company has made it their mission to bring the often-overlooked female fans of sci-fi and fantasy into the spotlight. The fashion show started as an extension of that goal, by creating a platform for fans of all genders to showcase their love of geek culture.

This year will be their second annual show, with 26 designers showing off their unique designs at the San Diego Comic-Con on Thursday, July 9, at 6 p.m. in the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel. And it’s not just about the runway – the winners will receive some seriously awesome prizes. BookTrib had a chance to chat with Eckstein about the upcoming fashion show, geek couture, and what it means to be a fangirl:

BookTrib: This will be the second year you’re doing the fashion show at San Diego Comic-Con. Can you tell us how the fashion show came to be?

Ashley Eckstein: We actually did a panel at San Diego Comic-Con three years ago called, “Are You a Geek Girl Trendsetter.” We asked girls to show up in their own geek inspired fashion and we had an incredible turnout. I noticed that fans are so proud of their designs and so eager to show them off and I thought – fans are already using the hallways of Comic-Con as their runway, but we need to give them an actual runway to walk on. We approached San Diego Comic-Con and they were very supportive of the idea and especially for the opportunity to recognize their female fans. Last year we were able to put on the first ever fashion show. It was really exciting to finally see this trend be recognized on a real platform.

BT: How is this fashion show different from others?

AE: It’s different in part because of the theme. The designers have to design something that is celebrated at Comic-Con. That can be something as specific as Star Wars or as broad as simply “science” or “unicorns.” Also, we’re using amateur designers and often models. This is a fashion show for the fans, and a lot of the people walking the runway are not professional models. We have all shapes and sizes; we have all genders. It’s a very accepting environment – it’s not exclusive, it’s inclusive.

BT: What makes a design “geek couture,” and what relationship does that have to cosplay?

AE: Cosplay definitely inspires geek couture, but the difference is that you’re not going to cosplay everyday. You’re not going to put on a costume for school or work! But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to show off your love of your favorite franchise or property. We [show off our fandoms] through our fashion, through everyday pieces like a dress or a skirt, or even an outfit that’s inspired by the same colors. We call it “everyday cosplay” because it’s a more wearable form of cosplay.

BT: What kind of prize will the winner receive?

AE: This year we chose 26 designers and they’re competing for an opportunity to design professionally with Her Universe on a collection to be sold at Hot Topic. We’ll pick two winners from the fashion show. Last year’s winners, Andrew MacLaine and Amy Beth Christenson, worked with us to design an Avengers collection, which came out in Hot Topic stores on May 12 and in Torrid on May 16. We’re very excited about it!

BT: You picked this year’s 26 finalists out of over 150 entries. Can you tell us more about the decision making process?

AE: It was extremely difficult! It’s my least favorite part of the process. The Her Universe team looked at all of the designs individually, and then narrowed it down to our top designers. My original list was about a hundred designers! You can imagine how hard it is to narrow that down to 26. We debated each and every design. Often, it wasn’t unanimous. It breaks my heart because several designers didn’t make it who should have. For the sake of time we had to narrow it down, but it was a tough decision. There’s so much talent that will be attending San Diego Comic-Con this year.

BT: When you launched Her Universe, part of your mission was to create a space for female sci-fi fans in a typically male-dominated fandom. How do you think the fashion show ties into that mission?

AE: Recognizing the female fans was my most important mission when starting Her Universe – even more important than the merchandise. In my initial research, I noticed a community that was being bullied, a community that was being overlooked, a community that was not being recognized. For most of us, this is not just a hobby; it’s a way of life. And to be ignored and oftentimes ridiculed for something you love so much is very hurtful. I read these cries for help from so many female fans, and I knew that somebody needed to be a voice for them.

From day one [with Her Universe], we felt the only way we were going to change the stereotype that scifi/fantasy is just for men was to create a safe place for these female fans. If you don’t have the money or even the desire to buy a piece of merchandise from us, that’s OK. We just want you to come and join the conversation and feel welcome. The fashion show is another extension of that. A way we celebrate as a female fan is through fashion. My goal is for a girl to be able to wear an Iron Man dress and be proud of it and celebrated for it.

We’ve come a long way in five years and we still have a long way to go, but there’s been major change in the perception of female fans in five years. It’s not just a solo effort by me or my company, it’s an effort made by the entire community. Her Universe is a brand by fans. From day one I said, “I can’t do this alone.” United we stand, divided we fall. We need to help change this perception and, together, change people’s minds.