Gwen Rice is the designer behind Out Of Character Club. Out Of Character Club was born out of the necessity to design under one concept: to provide cool designs for all of the magical humans who hate blending in with the normies (Muggles if you wanna get technical!). Gwen feels that anytime you're not able to dress how you want to dress and flaunt your fandoms, you're out of character. You're not being the you that you want to be. They want to design fun geek fashions that you can wear to your nine-to-fiver in the office or to a convention and not have to resort to full cosplay.
Gwen has a passion for the geek/nerd community and a desire to add more to the already growing geek fashion world by bringing in more fun, practicality and inclusion. They aim to design for everybody and every body. As it should always be. We spoke to Gwen about their designs and Out of Character Club.
Black Girls Create: What do you create?
I create unique fashion for basically everybody. And when I say everybody I mean every body. It originally started off just being for women because I realize that there's kind of a void there, but the more that I dug into it and the more that I dug into my own sexuality and what I identify as, I realized that there's a market out there for not just straight women but transgender and anyone who falls under the genderqueer category.
I also try to make it not as literal as I can. I guess a better way to put it is, you know, there's always all-over print t-shirts and all-over print button ups that are very blatantly "this is the fandom," which are great, but for people that work in offices and work magnifiers and can't do that kind of thing, I like to design clothes for them. So the kind of subtle geek fashion, I realized that there's just this void missing for adults that work in cubicles and maybe just don’t want to flaunt blatant nerds on their shirts. They just kind of want something a little subtle and those who get it will, but at least they know that they can still rock what they wanna rock, just in a way that is more “appropriate” for what they do in their everyday life.
BGC: Why do you create this type of fashion?
I started off in the cosplay field. I've gone to a lot of conventions and worn a lot of costumes, and over time I started paying attention to what people that weren't in cosplay were wearing and to what vendors were selling. Sometimes, when you go to a convention you’re wrapped up in “this is my cosplay,” looking at other cosplayers and going to all these panels, but you're not really paying attention to vendors or the people that aren't dressed up. So I went to school for fashion design, and I started with the intention of just wanting to get better at sewing and wanting to make patterns for my own costumes. I wanted to get better at that craft but over time I kind of fell out of the cosplay scene. I'm still going to conventions but I was wearing more “normal” clothes.
We started doing homework in my apparel sketching class and it popped in my head that I wasn't enjoying it as much as I thought I would. I liked the idea of fashion, but there was something missing so I asked myself the question: what would Storm wear on a daily basis? If she wasn't in cosplay or in her costume, what would she wear? So I turned my homework assignment into a geeky, nerdy assignment. So all of my sketches turned into “this is what she would wear, this one I would design for her, she would have these options,” and it's still fit within the homework but it twisted on itself.
BGC: I just love the idea of you having homework and your muse being Storm. It’s like you have to make a pantsuit, so what pantsuit would Storm wear. I love that!
Yeah so it was still her color palette, or implementing the lightning bolt somewhere, or something like that. It started off really fun and my teachers were really into it and I just kind of grew from there. When we made our first mini collection in construction class, the teacher said you can do whatever you want. He provided the patterns but the fabric choices and the theme were all ours, so of course me being a Potterhead, I went with the Hogwarts collection. It started off with a button-up shirt that had puff sleeves and I was like “Hufflepuff, got it," so I made it yellow and black. Then we moved to these pants and I was like Ravenclaws, kind of studious, maybe they’d rock some blue and black pinstripe pants. Bam, Ravenclaw pants. Then we moved to a blazer and I thought this would look awesome in Gryffindor colors so it became this scarlet blazer with gold lining and lion buttons, and it was really cool. For Slytherin, I did this reverse bomber jacket, so it's a nice cool quilted green on the inside and you flip it inside out and it's grey. I did a photoshoot of them inside of a local comic book shop so they're also on my Instagram. I used my friend Mariska, who is a biracial woman, and that made me want to utilize women of color and people of color in my stuff too, so that's also what I’m reaching for.
From there, it kind of spun into how can I keep doing this? How can I keep making these awesome subtle geek fashions? So this last semester that passed we worked on advanced line development and the assignment was take an outfit from pre-1950s and modernize it. I was like, okay I don't like the idea of this but I know I can put my nerdy spin on it, so i took Jane Russell's pantsuit from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, modernized it made it to this really sleek and sexy Black Widow outfit. That's going to be a part of my final collection for next year, which is a Woman in Comics collection, where I'm taking color palettes and I'm designing like I did a year ago for Storm. What would she wear? This is what I think they would wear, this is what I'm designing for them and so it's going to be an all-women of comics collection happening next semester. I'm a little scared, it’s a lot of work. But I'm excited too.
BGC: Who is your audience?
It’s interesting whenever I talk about this, because my teachers don't know about this world. I literally had an hour-long discussion with one of my teachers about the fashion I was showing him. I usually say that my client beyond being the person that works in the business district where my comic book shop is, is also someone that goes to conventions, that wants to cosplay but doesn't know where to start, or is afraid to do it. Or wants to still be their favorite character without having to go all out and still look fashionable. So, for example, the Black Widow piece that I designed could easily be worn to a convention and I feel like it's just a bit noticeable because the way the back is opened it’s shaped like the Black Widow symbol and it's black and red. I think it's just nerdy enough and just subtle enough that you could still be in “everyday cosplay.” Before I started cosplay, I didn’t know it was a thing that I could do, and I was still partially afraid to do it so. I think having this as an option for people is necessary.
BGC: Who or what inspired you to do this?
Everybody in the nerd community, just because you go out and you see all these people in different costumes, and different clothes, and it's kind of like, “Oh wow, this is something that I can do or this is something I can expand upon.” Also, I'm just inspired by people that design that loud and proud geek wear. So people like Catherine Elhoffer of Elhoffer Design. Leetal Platt, I was at San Diego Comic-Con and she won the Her Universe fashion show but she does really amazing geek gowns and things. Then there's @thedesignergeek, I completely love their stuff. It's an abundance, it's a bunch of people, and it's also just the things that I'm into. I can look at Arrow and be like how can I turn these really tacky leather outfits they wear into something cool and cute and functional. So that's usually how I try to go about life anyway, I wanted to dissect my favorite fandoms and make them into wearable pieces.
BGC: When it gets difficult, or you're having a bad week, or you get an assignment that you don't want to do, what continues to inspire you to go after it and take something like a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and modernize it into Black Widow? If you feel like you’re being pushed to go in a more traditional direction, what keeps you inspired to stick to your guns?
I’m really fortunate enough to have two teachers that have backed me since day one. They didn’t quite understand it and I had to explain along the way but they 100% support this. I’m probably the only one in my program that’s doing this and even my classmates are really excited about it. In terms of taking a project that I’m not too thrilled about and putting my own spin on it, I think I just have to step away sometimes and think I’m not designing for myself. They always tell you never to design for you. So I figure out how can I spin this? How can I make this particularly nerdy? Who can I envision in this particular scenario and then I go from there and make it as much of me as I can.
BGC: Why do you think it’s important for Black people to create and be creative?
I always try to use the motto, “Be the change,” because there aren’t a lot of options and opportunities for me to begin with. I think it’s important to not give up because if you do, then you’re letting them win. It’s kind of hard, especially for me in particular because you rarely see any women of color win any awards for costume design or win any awards for fashion design in movies and TV. I have to remind myself that I’m working really hard and I want to keep doing this so that’s enough to drive me. It’s not going to change unless I somehow am that small percentage that help make it change. What you guys are doing is giving us the opportunity to voice ourselves and get put out there. If I can do it and there are people out there who want to do it, they definitely can and they definitely should. I don’t think what’s happening in the media and in the world, as scary as it is, nothing is going to change unless we force and make the change.
BGC: So it’s interesting that you’re still in school, so creating is also apart of your studies, but how do you balance your creative life with the rest of your life?
I try to bring a bit of my creativity everywhere. I happen to work in fashion retail so I get to dress the floor mannequins, and I think how can I make this mannequin supremely nerdy today? The men's section for example, has Star Wars stuff, so I’ll give him a Star Wars t-shirt but slip on a nice $60 jacket and $70 jeans. I’m a Slytherin so I like to dress one of the lady mannequins in all green sometimes and pass it off as seasonal, it’s what’s in (but she’s also a Slytherin). I try to balance it by just making sure I’m providing myself any creative outlet if the opportunity arises. I know some people like to have breaks, but I’m a workaholic and once I’m into something I just keep doing it and I find ways to add it into everything that I do, no matter what, because that’s what keeps me going.
BGC: Have you thought about expanding and doing other things? If you could do any and everything what else would you explore?
Well I am a product of three college degrees, all creative. Fashion design is actually my third, so it’s not there yet. I have always been a creative person so anytime I get my hands on anything I think I can do I just go in 1000%. My first bout of college was a graphic design degree, which I do love, but I never saw myself sitting behind a desk staring at a computer all day, so I tabled that. My second creative degree was culinary with an emphasis on baking pastry, that was fun, I had a nerdy baking business for awhile and realized I liked doing it more for fun and less for pay, but it was good to have that knowledge. Now I’m doing this and this is it, I’m not going to go to college anymore, I’m almost 30, I need to hunker down. In a perfect world, I can combine all three of those into one insane business…
BGC: I’m thinking a boutique shop with cupcakes, have a cupcake while you shop…
Yeah, right? My bucket list dream was to own a brick and mortar place that specialized in nerd pastries, come get some Hagrid rock cakes for breakfast, and then I would sell things I designed and other geek fashion designers made on the side, meanwhile i could do my own graphics because I’m a graphic designer too. But I want it to be more than that, brick and mortars are there, but so very few of them cater to the community. I wanted it to be weekly movie nights, come chill and we watch movies, or game nights. Things that brought people in but also was a service and not just a building where you could come and get cupcakes and clothes, but that’s a bucket list goal. A more realistic goal I would like to be more on the designer side, I find sketching and drawing clothes more of my forte. I do like sewing but I realized I’m not the best at it and I don’t like working with industrial machines that much. I would also like to work in the TV and film industry if possible. If not doing designing, I played with the idea of styling for TV, so the people that go out and buy all the clothes the characters wear, or maybe designing for movies. I have a lot of things I’d like to do, it’s just a matter of figuring it all out once I graduate.
BGC: Any advice for creative people just starting to get interested in fashion?
Once you find whatever aspect of fashion that you love, just go for it. I’m 28, I’ll be 29 next year, there’s no such thing as no time or too late to start doing anything that you’re 100% passionate about. Definitely go for it. Two, if you can, get a sewing machine, they’re not the cheapest things but I started out with a $99 machine from WalMart and made all my cosplays on it and it lasted me a good while. It gave me the base for what I needed to understand about how a machine works. Lastly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with commercial patterns, don’t let anyone tell you that going to JoAnne’s and buying those $1 simplicity patterns when they’re on sale is bad. Pattern making is really hard and it’s something that I struggle with, but if you can sit down and read a commercial pattern for a top that you really like or a dress that you want to make, once you’ve figure that out, everything else is golden, you can do pretty much anything from there. Invest in a sewing machine, go out and buy some commercial patterns and just practice.
There are times when I go on social media and I get a little discouraged because there are women in the same industry as I am. Doing exactly what I want to do who are millions of miles ahead of me and I have to realize I got started later than them and I’ll get there eventually. My last bit of advice is don’t be discouraged, go to them for advice, ask them how can you do what they just did. Using everyone as resources, because I don’t think anyone gets really far on jealousy. Try to stay inspired, use the people around you as resources.
BGC: Any future projects or things people should be on the lookout for?
I’m trying to be really good about not jumping the gun until I graduate because school is a lot of work. Next semester is actually my last semester, and is going to be dedicated to a three outfit mini-collection, the Women of Comics collection. I am fully invested in designing and redesigning all of that and I’m working on my website for my portfolio and blog. I'm gonna showcase my collection at Cape & Cowl comic shop in Oakland. We are currently working on when that will be and what it'll entail, but that's something.