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The catalyst for this new dawn of sophisticated nerd-wear was, unsurprisingly, women. Until relatively recently female geeks were criminally underserved in the fan community when it came to merchandise, especially apparel, and for a long time were expected to consider themselves lucky just to find a slim-fit Star Wars t-shirt that wasn’t pink. That all changed with the launch of companies such as Her Universe, which was founded by Star Wars: The Clone Wars voice actress Ashley Eckstein, and Australian brand Black Milk, who began creating cute, flattering, and even sexy garments featuring what had previously been considered strictly ‘male’ properties such as Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Batman. Other retailers quickly caught on and before long you could accessorize your Black Milk Death Star-print bodycon dress with a molded plastic Darth Vader purse from Loungefly and a pair of $323 Irregular Choice lightsaber booties (they not only light up, but also make the classic lightsaber swishy noise when you walk). So it was no surprise that fanboys, who were still stuck buying the same Superman logo t-shirt and hoody, suddenly realized they were missing out.
"It was really awesome to see that female fans could express themselves and their passions but definitely there’s not been a lot of innovation when it comes to what guys can wear," says Tony Kim, founder of the blog Crazy 4 Comic Con. "And so it’s been the classic black t-shirt and hoodie that we’ve been stuck in for decades."
For Kim, such was the frustration of finding smart, pop-culture themed clothing for men, he was inspired to start his own apparel company, Hero Within, which launched in July with a licensed DC Comics Justice League collection.
"For all of us who are children of the ‘80s and ‘90s we’ve all kind of grown up," he explains. "We’re in business, we’re content creators, entrepreneurs, we’re in professional spaces, but we have to leave our geekdom in the closet, especially when you walk into a boardroom or you’re meeting a client [and] the expectation is you have to dress a certain way."
The answer, Kim decided, was to create pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in a boardroom but still had a pop culture aspect to them, such as a $249 black pea coat that features a barely-there Batman symbol on the back made entirely from the jacket’s seams. The result is so subtle that if you were walking behind someone wearing the coat on the subway, you’d find yourself doing a double take before realizing that yes, that does look like the Bat Signal, and even then you wouldn’t be sure if it was intentional or a trick of the light.
And, as happened with the women’s geek-wear market once specialist apparel companies paved the way, established menswear retailers have begun snapping up well-known licenses to brand their existing products. Nick Graham, a shirt and tie company, recently launched a Marvel collection featuring an assortment of items with Captain America, Iron Man, and Punisher logos. These vary in subtlety from a not-so-discreet white shirt with a repeat red and blue Captain America shield-print to a blue and white gingham design that features tiny Captain America shields on every other square that could easily be worn to work without antagonizing your boss.
Other companies, however, are looking to outfit fanboys for even fancier occasions. Fun.com, a gifting and pop culture retailer, has just launched a collection of Marvel-themed suits aimed at the prom and wedding market. The suits, which cost between $249.99-$349.99, are divided into two categories, the louder ‘Alter Egos’, which feature prints on the jacket and pants, and the more low-key ‘Secret Identities’, which feature prints only on the lining, as well as subtle details such as a small logo on the cuff and buttons. Each suit also comes with a matching logo-print necktie and pocket square.
The idea for the suits came about after Fun.com, which already had a small side business selling orange and blue Dumb and Dumber-themed tuxedos to prom-goers, realized there was an untapped market for formal geek-wear. "The initial designs were more the loud ones," says Tom Fallenstein, CEO of Fun.com, explaining they were an evolution of the Dumb and Dumber versions. "The difficult part was trying to find a manufacturer [because] I could find someone who could do digital printing, like a t-shirt, but none of them know how to cut a suit correctly." Given that the cut and fit of the suits was imperative in going after the wedding and prom market, he eventually found a manufacturer who could make the suits and simply taught them how to do the digital printing.
But he also quickly realized that there aren’t many occasions — or many brides, for that matter — that would permit a red and gold Iron Man-themed suit, which is when he hit upon the more versatile Secret Identity version. Although the suits are still only available to pre-order (they’ll begin shipping later in the year), the Secret Identities are, unsurprisingly, already outselling the Alter Egos about 12 to one. On the Styled by Marvel Instagram account a photograph of a male model wearing the Avengers Secret Identity suit — which features a black jacket (plus matching pants) with the Avengers logo printed on the lining, tie and pocket handkerchief — has so far garnered a wholly positive reaction from fans, with dozens tagging friends and partners in the comments alongside statements such as "I want my partner to wear this at prom", "For work?" and "Omg what??? I need to get married in this suit."
The key to Fun Suits is that they are, first and foremost, wearable suits based on current trends in men’s fashion. "All of our suits are more European, like slim fit," explains Fallenstein. "We’re always looking at what new suits are coming out from the big retailers, and what we can take and hint from those. So most of them have like smaller lapels, more slim cut pants, and slim cut jackets as well." It helps that they’re also worn by professional male models who are photographed in typical fashion magazine poses. Fun.com already have plans to launch similarly licensed ski jackets, trench coats, and casual outerwear next month.
Unsurprisingly, luxury and high-end fashion brands have also cottoned on to the fact that today’s male geeks want to look good and have money to burn. As Kim succinctly puts it: "I want to be able to feel proud about my fandom and not look like a teenage boy." Discerning fanboys can now invest in anything from a customized Star Wars Rolex by Bamford Watch Department to a $1,125 shiny purple leather jacket from Matchless inspired by Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad (Matchless also have a Harley Quinn bomber jacket and Deadshot trench coat available). Meanwhile Italian brand Phillipp Plein recently collaborated with Hasbro on a Transformers collection, featuring studded t-shirts and sweaters, while British menswear designer Bobby Abley has, over the last few years, turned out collections themed to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Star Wars.
The nerd dollar is even extending beyond apparel and into lifestyle products. Luxury stationery brand Cross sell a $500 gold C-3PO fountain pen perfect for the geek who has everything while those based in LA may want to pay a visit to Nerdstrong Gym in North Hollywood, where for a mere $150 a month you can get as buff as Ben Affleck in Batman by taking part in sci-fi and fantasy-themed work-outs. "Our themed workouts are different every week, combining pop culture, geek culture, musicals, movies, comics, heroes, haunted houses and more," boasts the website.
While the cynic inside all of us might think many of these brands are just trying to make a quick buck by slapping a Star Wars logo on a product, it’s undeniable that with geek properties currently dominating film and television there is plenty of demand, not to mention a new generation of successful fanboys with cash to burn.
But it’s not all about the money. As many of these licenses become de facto labels in their own right, there is also another, more touching reason why someone might choose to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a Batman jacket rather than, say, a similarly-priced Ralph Lauren. "It’s more than just looking cool," explains Kim. "When you wear that brand, the Batman brand, that stands for something, that means something, that stands for Justice. And when you wear a Superman emblem that’s Hope. So it’s not just a cool comic character – those brands mean something. They inspire people."