In Episode 11 of The Flash, a techno genius named Cisco Ramon walks through the doors of S.T.A.R. Laboratories on his first day of work. Immediately, a scientist who ends up being Cisco’s rival (and the supervillain Piper) insults Cisco’s clothing. “I don’t foresee myself trusting someone,” he says, “who shows up to his first day of work in a billion-dollar research facility wearing a t-shirt that says, ‘Keep Calm and Han Shot First.’”
That’s a nasty burn. It cut me, specifically, when I first saw the episode because I knew I had made Cisco’s mistake before. Why did Cisco come to his dream job in a graphic T-shirt he bought at Comic-Con? He probably wore it for the same reason I once wore a Scott Pilgrim shirt on a date, one that read in bright white 8-bit text: Future Evil Ex.
Like Cisco, I believed for a while that wearing t-shirts advertising superheroes is a good first impression because there’s nothing wrong with a guy expressing his individuality through his clothing. But as I’ve learned, wearing your interests on your sleeve only works if you know how to read a room.
Now that superheroes are an integral part of pop culture, geek clothing has become a huge business. But despite all the millions of Flash shirts being funneled out of Hot Topic, society still hasn’t settled on an image of suitable nerd clothing for men. Although the average age of an American dude who buys a ticket to see Star Wars is thirty-four, a guy in his forties wearing a Han Solo shirt is likely to be considered a loser in mixed company. Something between the demographics for geek culture and geek clothing needs to shift.
As it turns out, a number of forward-thinking entrepreneurs, as well as keyholders to some of the biggest geek franchises on the planet, have begun making bold moves in the realm of men’s clothing. For many years, fandom and fashion were separate ideas. Now, the concepts are being sewn together by a few determined creators.
“I realized there is nothing for me to wear.”
Tony Kim is an entrepreneur with a lifelong obsession for all things DC Comics and Star Wars. After moving to California in 2005, Kim founded Crazy4ComicCon, where he leveraged his fanboy interests into a career which allowed him inside Hall H every year. There was just one problem: Tony Kim didn’t have anything to wear.
“There was nothing besides the basic t-shirt and hoodie,” Kim tells Inverse in a phone interview. Though Kim knows Comic-Con is a casual environment, a standard uniform of a graphic tee and jeans would make him blend into a crowd of fans, when he was hoping to stand out as a member of the press. While witnessing the rise of women’s geek clothing brands like Her Universe, Kim saw the limited options for men as an opportunity.
“Any entrepreneur makes things out of their own frustrations,” Kim says. In the summer of 2016, he launched Hero Within, a men’s fashion line with an official DC license which emblazons blazers and button-down shirts with iconic superhero designs. It’s all tasteful and subtly done. Some of Hero Within’s best-sellers include a peacoat with Batman’s symbol invisible to the naked eye, a denim jacket with Wonder Woman’s “W” stitched on the back, and suit jackets in Superman and Batman’s color palettes.
“It was frustrating to me that your fandom and your professional life had to be two separate things,” explains Kim, whose previous jobs had him running in and out of corporate boardrooms. Born to Korean immigrants, Kim’s interest in Superman runs deeper than the typical power fantasy; it was his identity. “I grew up in a monoethnic Caucasian culture feeling like an outsider,” Kim says. “I didn’t belong. The idea of Superman, the alien from a foreign land living in two worlds trying to find his place, really resonated with me. So when I launched this company, [I knew] that would have to be at the heart of it.”
Kim’s conundrum led him to innovate on his own, but some large brands are taking up the challenge too. As mainstream geek culture gets older — the X-Men movie franchise has been running for almost two decades — so does its fan-base, and those adult men need fun stuff to wear.
Planning for 2017’s Power Rangers reboot film, Saban Brands released a trendy, fashion-forward collection for an older, nostalgic fanbase of fans. Saban’s new items aren’t explicitly business casual, but they are more than fashionable and have the potential to nerd up your casual Friday. “A lot of our apparel is a bit younger and designed a little bit younger,” says Jennifer Wexler, Senior Vice President of Saban Brands’s Global Marketing, “so we wanted to create something a bit more elevated and designed for our millennial fans.”
Since the release of Power Rangers, Saban has sold adult-sized shirts, sweaters, bomber jackets, and jogger pants with eye-popping designs of lightning bolts and Japanese text on the official Power Rangers website. Saban also teamed up with high-end brands, like New York-based KITH and London’s Bobby Abley, to create super-powered wares at premium prices. KITH’s Ranger-themed New Era caps retailed for $50, while Bobby Abley’s Power Ranger jackets can still be picked up for roughly one hundred euros (around $116 US). Saban had a specific millennial in mind for each of the brand’s creations.
“We got a lot of inspiration from our celebrity fans,” Wexler says, citing millennial figures like model Gigi Hadid and NBA stars J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson. “Power Rangers is a pop culture phenomenon that just needed to be unboxed, and this movie was a great opportunity to think outside and experiment with different designs and demographics. [… We wanted] something that was comfortable but still on trend that you can wear at the office.”
A geeky “handshake”
The new Power Rangers collection was influenced by hip millennial models and streetwear in Brooklyn, but should one’s workplace lean more conservative, ThinkGeek is there to help.
Created in 1999 and owned by game retailer GameStop since 2015, ThinkGeek aims to translate fandoms into real life “in unique, interesting, and unusual ways,” according to product marketing director Jeff Burchett. Some of ThinkGeek’s most popular items include lightsaber chopsticks and Tetris-themed desk lamps. But this year, ThinkGeek began a push on “professional” clothes like polos, buttoned shirts, and blazers. The company has sold similar clothing before, but new items such as a polo based on the sci-fi TV show Firefly have expanded the line. Burchett says there’s a name for it: “Handshake” clothes. Basically, if you get “it,” you’re “in.”
“Think of Ralph Lauren: the pony and the guy swinging the mallet,” explains Burchett. “[Our] shirts have a geeky ‘handshake’ that takes place.” For example, on the chest of the Firefly polo are six yellow stars, the symbol of the Union of Allied Planets. Although distinct, the design is also ambiguous enough to fool anyone who hasn’t watched the cult Joss Whedon series. “If you don’t know Firefly, you will never notice this. So if you get the handshake, if you get that in-joke and understand where it’s from, then you’re in on the joke, in on the experience.”
The collective efforts of Saban, ThinkGeek, and Hero Within address specific demands from a consumer base of aging, working millennials — a generation that values self-expression above conforming to an aging conception of professionalism.
I’ve often wondered what Cisco or I could have worn to adjust our first impression outfits. Displaying our nerd-dom felt just as important to both of us as convincing the room that we were mature professionals. To us, being a nerd is a part of our genuine selves, but until recently, it was impossible to showcase the movies, comics, and TV shows we were into while appearing professional. The companies Inverse spoke to aren’t alone; Nintendo began a partnership with UNIQLO recently, and Marvel flaunts its clothing line on Instagram — it’s clear that a new age of heroes has emerged.
“Clothing can actually help shift people’s minds and ultimately influence culture,” says Kim. “Your fandom should be fully integrated in your life. You should be [able to be] in a professional industry or social setting and be totally yourself.”