The highest fashion comes from the Capitol. At least, that's how it is in Suzanne Collins' bestselling Hunger Games trilogy.
For the uninitiated, the Capitol of the pan-American dictatorship, Panem, is recognized for its extravagant, avant-garde fashion. Only the most expensive, luxurious and exotic components will do.
Here in Colorado Springs, Erin Card plays her own part in reclaiming the Capitol for the masses, via "couture" fashions.
Card is one of the founders of the cosplay-fashion group known as Colorado CharaCouture, a crew of pro-am designers, models and makeup artists participating in a movement that uses the runway as a means of celebrating nerd populism.
Originally called Colorado Capitol Couture, the group came together when Card and her friend Elizabeth Adams decided to make high-fashion costumes to wear to a midnight premiere of the second Hunger Games film, Catching Fire.
Card gives Adams credit for the initial concept, but both agree that Card's organizational skills and connections within the cosplay community allowed them to expand the concept into fashion shows at various conventions around Colorado.
Six or seven shows later, the group claims around 20 active designers and models across the state, though its Facebook group boasts nearly 300 members.
Though Card and her crew present all of the expected gloss and asymmetry in their pop-culture fashion shows, they avoid the high prices of high fashion. Most of the group's designs begin with a secondhand dress or shirt.
"Upcycling and finding inspiration in [costume] bases at a thrift store is an absolute necessity," says Miriam Haas, who also designs and models. "The idea of couture is that you're the finest of the fine — you're the top of the food chain."
But making such pieces is often prohibitively expensive due to the price of "luxury" fabrics.
"Obviously, we don't have that kind of money to spend willy-nilly," Card says.
Many cosplayers are familiar with recycling or repurposing apparel.
According to Tim Wyckoff, Entertainment Hall Division Manager for the annual Anime Expo in Los Angeles, using retail brands for cosplay costuming is on the rise.
In an email exchange, Wyckoff describes "Disneybounding," the art of "creating an outfit out of normal retail clothing and re-purposing them into something resembling their favorite Disney character."
While it's not couture, Wyckoff says it has exploded in popularity over the past two years.
CharaCouture isn't just taking high fashion back for the budget-minded. The group also brings in a wider range of models' body types than a major designer's fashion show. And most of the designers in the group model their own works. Card designs for a swath of models beyond herself, and while she knows people who are built like runway models, she prefers to bring in those who aren't.
"The thing with a lot of the classic model types is that it looks really cool, but someone tries it on, and it's like, 'What is this frumpy thing?'" she says. "We want to make sure that everybody can feel comfortable in anything."
Now that the Hunger Games trilogy is complete, Card and her group are evolving their couture work, drawing inspiration from a wide variety of fandoms.
Card is ears-deep in designing a line of lingerie, which she showed as part of the evening programming at the recent GalaxyFest convention in Colorado Springs.
"My lingerie stuff is going to be more themed towards A Midsummer Night's Dream," she says, "so very much into the fae and nymphs and horns, that kind of stuff."
Her designs emphasizes androgyny in her models to both play off of classical depictions of fae and tap into modern conversations about gender expression.
"I've got lots of different body types and lots of different gender expressions I can do," she adds.
Haas has been working on a Captain America-style gown, which she describes as "Couture in every aspect — very modern, elaborate, over-the-top, but very classic and pristine."
Tying her designs back to her long history as a Trekkie, she's also sketching up a couture dress inspired by the uniforms from Star Trek: The Next Generation. She hopes to design an outfit that fits in at a black tie event while expressing her geekier side.
"The Couture has become one of my favorite traditions in all of the conventions around the state," says Haas.
Attendance at those conventions is growing. Denver Comic Con brought 100,000 attendees to the Colorado Convention Center in 2015, up from 86,500 the previous year.
While Wyckoff is skeptical about cosplay couture as a trend, he notes that high fashion is paying attention to nerd culture. Louis Vuitton's spring/summer 2016 line, Series 4, drew inspiration from video games. The ad campaign even featured rendered images of Final Fantasy 13 protagonist Lightning, wearing outfits from the line.
Nicolas Ghesquière, creative director for Louis Vuitton, said in a statement released with the line, "It's clear that the virtual aesthetic of video games is predominant in this collection. If we push the reflection about heroines, or what might constitute the nature of a woman whose actions can be so courageous that she becomes superior and iconic, it becomes obvious that a virtual entity integrates with the founding principles of the Maison. Lightning is the perfect avatar for a global, heroic woman and for a world where social networks and communications are now seamlessly woven into our life."
So if Louis Vuitton is drawing inspiration from video games, does Card have a future in fashion?
"If I can convince myself to give up a full-time job and go into fashion design, sure," she says, "I think it would be great."
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