How San Diego Comic-Con's Second Biggest Event Came Back From COVID

At the pandemic's height, the Her Universe Fashion Show had to go virtual. But the event's live return shows that the lockdown offered great opportunities for growth.

Russell Holly
Russell Holly is a Managing Editor on the Commerce team at CNET. He works with all of CNET to assemble top recommendations as well as helping everyone find the best way to buy anything at the best price. When not writing for CNET you can find him riding a bike, running around in Jedi robes, or contributing to WOSU public radio's Tech Tuesday segment.
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Russell Holly
4 min read
Nina West and Ashley Eckstein in costume on the Her Universe runway

From left: Nina West and Ashley Eckstein welcoming everyone to this year's Her Universe Fashion Show.

Her Universe

As planning for San Diego Comic-Con 2021 turned into another cancellation, Her Universe founder Ashley Eckstein wasn't totally certain about the future of the biggest nerd fashion show on the planet. Shifting an entirely in-person event to be virtual without a ton of experience is hard, and without those in-person interactions it's easy to be discouraged.

On the first full night of this year's Comic-Con, finally back after two years of COVID-19 cancellations, the smile on Eckstein's face made it abundantly clear that not only was this show able to survive just about anything, but those years in lockdown offered some incredible opportunities for growth as well. 

Though everyone knows San Diego Comic-Con for the explosive announcements made in Hall H every year, there's another massive event that fans line up around the block for. The Her Universe Fashion Show is an annual happening where fashion creators of every kind are offered the opportunity to show off their high-end nerdy designs.

The winner gets the opportunity to work with the Her Universe team on new products, which make their way to stores like Hot Topic and Box Lunch for hundreds of thousands of people every day to see. It's a big deal for these breakout fashion stars, many of whom would otherwise never have an opportunity like this. And fans love seeing their favorite shows, movies and games in a medium that doesn't exist anywhere else. 

Rather than completely cancel the Her Universe Fashion Show last year as safety concerns remained constant, the organizers took the show entirely virtual. A streamed event for the whole world to see simultaneously was new to this show, which previously had been entirely in person, with photos and video of the event shared later. This not only meant people were able to enjoy the show from the safety of their own homes, it also allowed a much bigger audience to see the remarkable creations at the same time.

For Eckstein, though, the future of the event was in question. But fears that nobody would show up to participate or watch were quickly eliminated when past and present participants came together and each created a single panel for a massive quilt, which was delivered to Eckstein without warning.

If you ask Eckstein today what the fashion show means to her after that experience, the response is more than a little emotional. "It's more important than a show. It's more important than a competition. It's the chance for all of us to come together, especially after the last three years we've gone through, and be a community."

I'd love to be able to tell you that this year's Her Universe Fashion Show, in addition to being in person again, was also streamed. But in a brief conversation with Eckstein before the event, it was clear that wasn't yet possible. The Her Universe team isn't quite big enough to manage an in-person and livestreamed event in a way that would make everyone happy, according to Eckstein (but that doesn't mean it isn't a goal for the future).

Instead, this year's event included real-time social media content, including Instagram Stories photos live from the runway. And a video of the entire show will also be made available in short order. If you take a look at the responses from the audience at home, the change to real-time social activity was greatly appreciated. 

This year's show also offered up an amazing new co-host, Nina West. Many know West from Season 11 of RuPaul's Drag Race, but West and Eckstein met virtually during lockdown. The two were introduced as virtual co-hosts in an unrelated event and, according to Eckstein, became fast friends as well as champions of positive mental health experiences.

This change in co-host represents, in a couple of ways, the evolution of the Her Universe Fashion Show itself, which has been held up for years as an inclusive event for any gender and body type. Expanding that inclusivity to the hosts of the show was a natural evolution for the event, though it was accelerated quite a bit by the experiences Eckstein and West had during lockdown.

Of the 26 creators who were accepted into the Her Universe Fashion Show this year, two emerged as winners. Guillermo Heston took home the judge's award for her Turning Red-inspired red panda outfit, while the audience award was given to Michael Burson's Doctor Strange-inspired suit and cape. Each will be contributing to a Hot Topic clothing line inspired by Disney's The Marvels, which was fresh in everyone's mind thanks to the Ms. Marvel TV series having just wrapped up last week.

And as everyone who was watching knows, the show will be back bigger and better next year.