This weekend, the Disney faithful gather at Anaheim for D, the Mouse’s proprietary biannual celebration of its universe-conquering brands, including Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and traditional Walt Disney properties. With a packed schedule of panels, parties and celebrity appearances, today’s fashionable fan needs a wardrobe that’s a little broader than the traditional logo t-shirt, hoodie, cargo shorts and backward baseball cap.
Fear not: entrepreneur and fashion maven Tony Kim is here to save the day! In , this mild-mannered former marketing manager and comics blogger unleashed his Hero Within, a line of sophisticated apparel catering to fans who want to power up their sartorial quotient while letting their geek flags fly. He and his team have grown the business into a mainstay at fan conventions and a booming online outlet, with licenses for some of fandom’s biggest properties, including a few Marvel exclusives set to debut at D.
Kim’s designs feature subtle integration of logos, colors and iconography from comics, fantasy and science fiction properties in well-designed, well-fitting garments for men and women. Hero Within offers quality blazers, coats, jeans and merchandise in addition to familiar t-shirts. The more upscale-looking items incorporate the geek culture elements into the lining, stitching, pockets and details: things that give the wearer secret satisfaction, but might go unnoticed by unsuspecting Muggles such as bosses, colleagues, first dates and disapproving family members.
An example of Hero Within s subtle integration of geek brand logos into fashion apparel
“I’ve been a fan my entire life,” says Kim, . “I started going to Cons about years ago and began cosplaying fairly recently. I got to the point where I was crafting my own jackets made from the giant tote bags that Warner Bros gives out at San Diego Comic-Con, and that was starting to get noticed on social media.”
Kim observed how fans loved the creative mashup of pop culture and fashion, but wasn’t sure he could make a business of it. “Around , I saw that geek fashion for women was really stepping up, but there weren’t many options for guys,” he says. He designed a prototype Superman blazer that he showed around to an overwhelmingly favorable response.
“I was committed to the idea but I wasn’t sure about taking the risk,” he says. “I have a job, a family, a mortgage. It would be a big step.” Then, as they say in the comics, fate took a hand. Kim wasn’t exactly bitten by a radioactive fashion designer, but he did find himself laid off from his job, with plenty of time on his hands to pursue his new passion.
Capitalizing on his social media influence through his informal cosplay, design and convention-blogging, Kim approached Warner Bros and managed to obtain a license to use the logos of DC characters in his first set of designs. He debuted the collection at the San Diego Comic-Con and was blown away by the positive response.
From there, he secured licenses from Marvel in , and Paramount’s Star Trek just last month, ahead of the debut of the new Picard series on All Access. “As a fanboy, that makes me really happy,” says Kim.
Landing that caliber of licensor is not so easy for small companies. One reason the universe’s biggest brands are willing to take a flier on a startup fashion design enterprise might be Kim’s mission for Hero Within, which is consistent with the entertainment industry’s larger goal of expanding the culture of fandom – and fans’ limitless hunger for content and merchandise – to the broader consumer market.
“Who you are on the outside should reflect who you are on the inside,” says Kim. “We call it Hero Within because there was a time when nerds were misunderstood, seen as misfits. Now we’re grown up. We’re entrepreneurs, artists, social influencers, successful people. Our fandom changed the world by turning fan-favorite properties into multibillion dollar brands. But when we dressed as fans, the options didn’t reflect that degree of sophistication and success. We’re bringing that fandom to everyday life – work, social life, leisure – so you don’t have to compartmentalize your life through fashion.”
This year, Kim was invited to exhibit as part of the very curated group of vendors at D. “I’ve been here as a fan, so I know Disney is very discriminating about the licensees they partner with at this show.” He says Hero Within is debuting a few exclusives at the show, including garments featuring characters from just-announced Marvel projects like Black Widow, Loki and Hawkeye.
“D is a big collectors’ show,” says Kim. “This might be the only place they can get stuff. We created our new products with the collector and discriminating fan in mind, all supporting the new Disney+ streaming service.”
The success of Hero Within is obviously tied to the continued relevance of geek culture in popular and consumer culture at large. Kim says he has no special insight into whether this current moment of “Peak Geek” will continue indefinitely, but he believes certain parts of the shift are permanent. “People used to discuss sports around the water cooler. Now you’re just as likely to hear people speculating about who’s going to sit on the Iron Throne,” he says.
Whatever comes next, Kim believes the bar has been raised when it comes to fan fashion. “Fans expect more than just t-shirts and hoodies,” he says. “We want to raise that ceiling. There should be no rules about how you can express your fandom or wear what you love, in any setting.”
Tony Kim bottom left and the Hero Within booth crew at San Diego Comic-Con, July
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