After being let go by WeLoveFine, designer Catherine Elhoffer decided to go into business for herself designing fan-inspired, casual cosplay – outfits inspired by her favorite movies, comics, and television shows, but incorporated into clothing that could be worn in a causal environment. We had a chance to sit down with Elhoffer at San Diego Comic Con and chat about the industry.
Q: Can you tell us about yourself?
A: I’m Catherine Elhoffer. I founded Elhoffer Design. I founded it in January of last year because I was working at WeLoveFine up until November of the year before, 2015. They fired me, and then they kind of like blacklisted me from a lot of the companies. I was going to other places and nobody wanted me, and I was like that’s totally weird because I made them a lot of money really quickly.
Q: Was there a specific reason?
A: There were a lot of reasons. I’m very much a Hufflepuff, but I’m also very stubborn, and so I refuse to give in if I know something’s going to be a good deal. Like Spider-Gwen was a character that no one was doing anything for…. I absolutely believe in this, so I fought tooth and nail to get it done, and my boss, the owners, only wanted to do the hoodie. And I was like, that’s just one piece. If we’re launching it at Comic Con, we should do a tank, we should do leggings! They fought me on everything, and I was like just trust me on this.
So, we release it. Everything sold like crazy. We sold out of the tank right away. We sold out of the hoodie right away. And I was like cool… I’ve proven to you that I know what I’m talking about and that I know what I’m doing. Can I do this other stuff? And then they’re like, “Well, we still don’t trust you.”
I’m a very trusting person right off the bat with anyone, and I expect the same of others… So, yeah, I didn’t blend well with a lot of them. I fought a lot. Because when I’d see t-shirts that didn’t have Black Widow on them, but would say, you know, “Avengers Assemble,” I’d throw a fit. I’m like what are you guys doing? This is not right, we are part of the problem. And they’d be like, “Well the client requested it.”
Q: How long had you been in the business before that?
A: I designed freelance for Her Universe before WeLoveFine. I was with WeLoveFine for just under a year. But I’ve been sewing for 15 years, and I’ve been doing geek fashion for the past like three or four years. I started by just making stuff for myself when I was on film sets, because I was a costume designer. So when I’d go onto sets, I was doing like a Game of Thrones parody, and I kind of want to match, so I made myself like a matching Khaleesi tunic… It was a way to prove to my producers, who were normally guys, that I knew what I was talking about. And so I just started wearing this, the more subtle clothes to be like, “Oh no, I know what I’m doing.” Because it’s so subtle, that I know what it is and you kind of know what it is. So you’re not going to question my knowledge.
Q: What do you think of the casual cosplay trend?
A: It’s been growing, and it’s where I feel my business is founded. I think casual cosplay is where everything’s moving to because it’s so much work to do cosplay and it requires so much money and time… The other thing for me, is I’m a bigger girl and I need stuff for me and there’s not a lot of companies that are doing stuff for me, for my shape.
Q: Is it tough skirting the line between fan-inspired and licensed?
A: Because I worked for these other companies, I learned a lot about licensing and a lot about rules and where that line is drawn. These are my favorite fandoms. I don’t want them to be hating on me. I don’t want them to have closed door meetings like “How do we take her down?” The difference between IP infringement and inspired is logos. It’s trademarked names. It’s changing the art enough. A 30% change in the art makes it not theft… When I was with these companies and I would show stuff that didn’t have logos on them they fought me. “There’s no way fans are going to get what this is. Imagine that you’re at a convention, you need to be able to see this from 50 feet away and know what it is.” And I’m like, “Oh, I want to do the opposite of that.” A white and orange dress is anything you want it to be.
Q: Can you tell us about the commissions you do for John Barrowman at San Diego Comic Con?
A: When his assistant came to me, it was only a few weeks ago and she was just like, “Oh, would you have time?” I’m like, “I make time for John Barrowman. That’s totally fine. Whatever he wants.” “He’s thinking of maybe a Tardis dress.” I’m like, oh, I know exactly what I want to do, because no one has done a Tardis dress that I like yet. They’re all either just way too extreme or too much print on them or trying so hard to be the police box. I’m like, “No. It needs to be magic.”
Q: You did his stuff last year for the Eisners, right?
A: Yeah. That was just because I was doing film and so I worked with Nerdist a lot, Nerdist Industries and Seth, who is the head of Nerdist moved to being the head of Comic Con HQ, which was presenting the Eisner Awards. So, he reached out to me two weeks before Comic Con and is just like, “Hey, super last minute. Any chance you could do three cosplays?” I was like, “Seth, I don’t do costumes. I don’t do them anymore. But for you, fine. What do you want?” So he was like, “We know for sure we want Squirrel Girl, and then I think he said Harley [Quinn]. I’m like, “Oh God. Who’s it for?” He’s like, “Oh, for John Barrowman.”
Q: Do you have any advice for people who are trying to break into this industry?
A: My first advice is “Don’t!” but no one listens to that. I hate fashion. I hate the fashion world. It’s destructive. It’s destroying our egos and it’s supposed to inflate us and make us feel good, but it normally does the opposite, especially when you go to Hot Topic and try things on and you’re like, “Oh, I’m actually two sizes bigger than I thought I was,” because Juniors. It’s just so bad for adult women and it’s also destructive on the environment, especially if you’re importing stuff from China. The amount of pollution that’s happening over there because of what we wear is a nightmare, and no one realizes it because you just buy it at a store and you don’t realize the full impact on society and on the environment, but it’s bad.
You shouldn’t want to be famous. You should want to be something else, and if fame happens, that’s cool. But you should want something greater. For me, I want to make good clothes that people are proud to wear and feel good wearing, and the messages I get every day from the customers, they’re just like, “Oh my god. I’ve never felt good in anything before and I finally feel confident in myself,” I’m like, “That’s what I want.”