If you ever dreamed of being Bruce Wayne, Batman or even a Joker Goon, now you have your chance! Universal Designs and UD Replicas, is one of the highlights of my journalistic career. As a Batman fan, comics nerd and costume addict, I see David as one of the men in the industry that every fangirl sees as her own real life Lucius Fox. His fashion and costume designs involve not just paper designs and fabrics, but also careful study, testing, and a certain amount of special effects chemistry. Grab your motorcycle helmet and join me as I delve into the realm of UD’s Batman streetwear designing process and David’s life as fan.
What’s your role at UD Replicas and Universal Designs?
I run Universal Designs. I guess what that really means is I’m directly involved in every artistic and creative aspect of costume construction and execution. I don’t just oversee projects but literally sculpt, mold, cast and design the various products we’ve become known for. Be it rubber suits or leather outerwear, everything starts off as an idea….then I either start sculpting or put pen to paper and begin designing our various outerwear goods. In the case of corporate costumes or mascots, we’re supplied the artwork or style guides and it’s my job to transform those into living, breathing, 3-dimensional ‘believable’ characters. UDReplicas is the Officially Licensed division of UD…so really it’s all under one roof here. Our licensed Batman leather outerwear line is an entirely different beast to contend with because everything from concept to design work, garment mock-up and artwork integration is 100% done by me.
Before getting into the heart of the Batman™ licensed streetwear, can you tell me how you evolved from fan to professional designer?
I think over the years I’ve been very fortunate because it’s not a traditional career choice, so really it’s the fans of the different genres all over the world that have allowed us to grow and evolve by supporting our choices thus far. Universal Designs was started mid-2001, and looking back…way back, the fact is that I’ve always wanted to ‘make costumes’ but as a career choice the ‘how to’ was never really clear. Honestly, I didn’t think it would even be possible. In the ’80’s and ’90’s there was no internet (at least I had no idea what it was) so information came the old fashioned way through books or trial and error. I’m a very lazy reader so there was a lot of trial…with even more errors but I think that if you’re passionate about what you do…whatever that may be…and you keep at it you eventually start to find your comfort zone, and with some luck maybe even get some attention.
With regards to our leather wear, in ’93 I made the choice to move to Italy to learn about the clothing industry and in no time was involved in everything from sales to designing clothing of all kinds. I had no idea that simply speaking English and being able to ‘somewhat’ draw would allow me this opportunity. From ’93-2001 I traveled the world studying different fashion trends and would then reinterpret these trends to ‘fit’ the type of product that the company I was working for required. By this time I was working for one of the leading leather outerwear companies in Italy and was now involved in every aspect of bringing these garments to life. I think that experience was key to what we’re now doing here in Toronto as our initial beginning with Universal Designs was really only rubber costume based. Now we’re very proud to be offering this full leather outerwear line as well.The box office gross for The Dark Knight was over $530 million dollars which illustrates just how popular Batman and the Joker are as characters, even to the mainstream audience.
Were you anticipating designing replicas and creating new streetwear before the movie soared to record-breaking heights?
Consciously, no. I recall seeing The Dark Knight right as it was released and while driving home mentioned to my wife how iconic Heath Ledger’s Joker was and how commercial that whole look was quickly becoming. The ’89 Batman movie featured Joker Goons wearing dark purple leather jackets with Joker motifs on them and the idea of updating that look was something that kept me thinking….but was I looking to create actual street wear like this? No, but it wasn’t long after that we’d look to turn this idea into a reality. The success of The Dark Knight came as no surprise because I truly felt that it not only was a fantastic follow up to Batman Begins, but on its own it truly lives up to its own hype and really is its own world. The artistic direction, creative choices and over all feel of the film eventually made it that much easier for me to pursue this type of collaboration with Warner Bros.
Because of The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s performance, it seems that the Joker character is even more popular than Batman. Would you say, you noticed that as well or have you seen a different result among the fans?
Personally, I was sold on Batman from the first released image of Bale in the suit prior to Begins opening. That right there was my Batman, and I got that rush all over again from TDK. Now the Joker, well I really connected with Heath Ledger’s performance. That was THE Joker. It’s really no surprise that he’s received this kind of overwhelming support because every time I watch the film…I see The Joker…I don’t see Heath playing the role. I guess I sort of forget what’s going on behind the make up and feel totally sold on the Joker as an individual and I think the vast majority of the fans have similar feelings. Not only but he’s such an iconic character and we’ve all really been anticipating the inclusion of the Joker in this new franchise. That, and the fact that his performance was so well executed ultimately leads to a lot of happy fans and a lot of well deserved hype following his performance. Batman is quite a popular superhero and Christian Bale is fantastic in that role…an almost larger than life persona is needed to fill the shoes of Batman, so Batman’s adversary needs to be just as big on an opposing level. Two great characters brought to life brilliantly and probably why fans in general have found it hard to pick a favorite.
The Joker first appeared in Batman #1 (1940) and Batman himself predated him by first appearing in Detective Comics #27 (1939). As rivals for so many decades, why do you think they have lasted so long? What’s the fascination that people have with them?
I’m not sure, but for me they’re just really REALLY cool. I’ve always loved Batman, as a kid I believed the Adam West series was real, that the buildings they were scaling were real and that the bad guys were real. Those childhood emotions of good versus evil, costumed heroes and ultimate villains are really a lot of fun. I always loved when the show featured Cesar Romero as the Joker. Those of us who grew up with Batman look at he and the Joker as a yin/yang reality because you can’t have one without the other…they each exist to battle each other and right from their core they’re so well created that it’s fun to see them evolve year after year…decade after decade. I think it’s the strength of these comics in general and the fact that there are no limits to people’s enjoyment of the comic book genre that allows these characters to keep staying current. Look at Halloween…you always see a bunch of Batman and Joker costumes year after year after year and the general merchandise that’s commonly been associated to this duo has generally been just as popular over all this time. I think that they’re such strong symbols of good and evil, artistically and creatively brought to life that they’re both fun to be around.
Of the new Batman™ products, you have actual replicas from TDK and uniquely crafted streetwear inspired by the Gotham universe. With the replicas, you obviously studied the originals and made many drafts, but how did you approach original designs that reflect the comic book world but are actually functional in the real world?
The functional aspect was approached in 2 ways…function from the point of protective CE approved body armor inserts, allowing users to ride their motorbikes while wearing these particular goods but also the fact that the body armor is fully removable…so as an every day fashion jacket these goods will function just as well. The Bruce Wayne Motorcycle Jacket Replica, StreetRacer and The Dark Knight Batman Leather Motorcycle Suit Replica all have removable CE approved body armor so fashion and function in that respect are up to the end user. The other commercial garments are the Goon Jackets and for those I wanted something that fans would feel good about wearing – easy and fun jackets that have a variety of Joker motifs or twisted versions of the Batman logo. I wanted them to look like reinterpretations of the ’89 film Goon Jackets with currentTDK Joker artwork. I suppose I looked at them as ‘uniforms’ rather than costumes…and proceeded to make them easy wearable goods.
The motorcycle jackets and the Batman™ motorcycle suit have all the protection of a real superhero. Have they been tested by professional drivers or interns that got to be crash test dummies?
I like how you phrased that. 🙂 To be totally honest I never considered them to have protection like a real superhero, at least not in those terms but it’s an entertaining thought. The reality is the armor is CE approved and stamped accordingly. The armor itself is rated for this type of use, and the leather for those garments is of a thicker or heavier gauge so together these factors lend themselves to offering a conscious and ‘real’ level of protection to the rider more so than would be offered by a standard leather jacket. It’s an added feature that allows our products to be entertained by a wider audience rather than just one target clientèle. These jackets are built tough, and with a fashion sense all their own…so whatever the choice of use by the end consumer should be, fashion and function have both been incorporated into these garments. The Dark Knight Batman motorcycle suit is an incredible achievement from every aspect imaginable…and on top of everything it’s a rather sharp bang on The Dark Knight Batman ‘replica’ designed to work with all the formed leather components as an eye catching motorbike suit or your every day go to work jacket…I mean heck…why not? We’re rather proud of all our garments but this replica motorcycle suit has already taken on a life of its own and we’re very pleased with the initial hype it’s gaining and interest being shown by retailers and direct consumers.
Did you reference any military or law enforcement gear when coming up with the designs?
With the inclusion of real Kevlar into the replica leather motorcycle suit you’d think we did. 🙂 That certainly was a challenge. Kevlar components aside, we went back to basics if you will for the body armor part of The Dark Knight Batman Leather Motorcycle suit and basically built the jacket and pants around the safety armor. Regardless of the fact that for the final product these protective armor sections are easily removable, we needed to start from the wearers body and work our way outward to be sure it all worked accordingly and actually did work as reliable ‘body armor’ for bikers. Besides, in the movie Batman’s suit is really a state of the art military uniform….so that was our starting point and target for form, function and over all product ‘look’ – a real world concept that is now a real world reality.
Typically, fashion trends change up every six months. Do you think the popularity of “nerd chic” will last for a while?
Nerd Chic…I like that. 🙂 I believe “nerd chic” and similar types of trends apply more to pop culture phenomena than true fashion trends. There’s a sense of nostalgia or better still an emotional connection to the source material for those in the Batman community as a whole that really is above and beyond what any fashion trend may dictate. We hope that fans and collectors look at our product line as something everlasting and not necessarily bound by traditional fashion trends. Acid washed jeans were a big hit in the ’80’s…but today, well not so much. The whole Batman or jackets themed as such are really everlasting. A Batman fan is and always will be a Batman fan regardless of outside cultural factors. We hope that our goods directly relate to people as such and satisfy the fashion sense as well. The reality here is that a Joker Goon jacket really has no set ‘fashion’ period. Things like that are determined by the people wearing the goods and all the while enjoying good use out of them. Consider it a way of showing your true colors….a Joker fan or a Batman fan…at the end of the day it’s all part of the Batman World and that’s been around for 70 years and I suspect it’ll be around a lot longer still. Did I mention that our jackets are made of Grade A High Quality Cow hide….so they too should be around for a long time….(smiles as shameless plug is inserted)
Do you actually get time to read comics on a regular basis?
….and here lies my personal contradiction as a fan of the genre myself. I’ve never been a comic book ‘reader.’ I was always amazed by the comic book art and bought comics because of it. Lots of Batman, but haven’t read very many. I did read The Dark Knight Returns and will never forget how I connected with it and to this day is by far my favorite comic ever. I don’t really read much, I’m more of a ‘documentary’ kind of guy… 🙂 When I meet with attendees at comic book conventions or trade shows this ultimately always becomes a topic of discussion, but the truth is it was always about the artwork for me…the way Batman was drawn, what his costume looked like or what colors were being used to showcase it….the anatomy of the body and wonderful flowing cape depicted. A lot of our body sculptures for numerous costumes over the years were influenced by comic book artwork.
You once crafted an amazing Batwoman costume for Liana K. (from Ed and Red’s Night Party) Have you seen the new version of Batwoman in Detective Comics?
Yes I have and while her new costume is essentially the same, it’s really cool to see added details that suggest other materials might be at play for the basic make up of her costume. The gloves look like they have more going on as do other elements on the costume. I think this concept and others like it are constantly evolving because spandex or something like that has always been seen as the ‘suggested’ material used for similar costumes when in reality it can be anything…even now Batwoman has this wonderful shading or reflective look to her costume that suggests maybe vinyl…leather or possibly a material other than something more commonly assumed. Either way it’s something ‘else’ which is why I like seeing things like buckles and ribbings drawn into this new costume now. Sure, the basic elements are the same but it’s starting to take on a real world presence now and I think that’s a lot of fun.
The Batwoman suit I did for Liana K. had much of these real world considerations that I spoke of above. Liana is a huge comic book fan and knows these characters well. I’d go as far as to say that Liana is as passionate as anyone I’ve ever known…if not more so 🙂 … and she likes strong female characters. When she and I discussed the ‘look’ of our Batwoman costume she referenced H.R Giger (and others) with regards to this organic yet female form she wanted. We went as far as to make a full head and body life cast and sculpted the entire costume which would then be cast in silicone for the finished suit. Both she and I liked the idea of leather as an accent for the boots and gloves and the overall look of the finished costume I think was a successful interpretation of this great heroine. My Batwoman suit is probably one of my favorite costumes from a custom interpretation, to over an all finished product. Besides, Liana looks great in that suit.
Would you want to see Batwoman make an appearance in the Nolan franchise of Batman movies?
Hmmm…I think in particular this new Batwoman has enough going on that she could have her own real-world interpretation if you will rather than adding her to Nolan’s Batman world. Her costume is ‘current,’ radically different than the solid dark colors seen thus far and she’s got a lot going on in and out of costume so I really think she’s compelling enough for her own real chance at something off of the comic book pages.She’s a great character, no doubt about about that.
Besides Batman and Batwoman, you’ve crafted an amazing resume of characters from corporate mascots to Wolverine and the Flash. Do you have a favorite character?
If you mean favorite character that I’ve made I’d have to say Batman. My Flash costume is also up there as one of my favorites but then again it was done in 3 days so if I took another crack at it I’d like to think it would fit better than the first one did… 🙂 I like challenges when it comes to making costumes…Green Lantern would be a great one to tackle…some leather, lots of straps and buckles…he’d be a lot of fun too. I guess I have a boring answer here because I’m a Batman fan at heart so my favorites really start in that world he belongs to…be it the comics, cartoons and movie franchises.
Shows like IMATS feature legends in the world of makeup, costuming and special effects. Who do you admire in the field?
That’s easy. Everyone. Everyone from the celebrity greats to the students in their first year of SPFX schooling. As someone who is self taught, when I consider the resources now available to aspiring makeup or special effects artists it’s hard to not feel a sense of envy. It’s a unique field that’s gained a lot of public notoriety over the last decade and anyone venturing into it should be encouraged. I grew up with Rob Bottin and his incredible works without knowing who he was. Same with Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Steve Wang. Years ago it was their work that inspired me along with countless others’…it was the creatures, makeup applications and costumes and how they connected with me in a way that made me feel like anything was possible. Today the wealth of knowledge that is now at our finger tips thanks to the internet has made them and many others household names….and well deserving as such. Sculpture, Moldmaking, Costuming and Make Up from a SPFX standpoint is an art form unique to itself and I think it’s wonderful that it continues to grow and become a career choice for more artists.
Now that you’ve nailed down leather and body armor, what other media would you like to tackle?
I don’t know that I’m ready to move on to something new just yet. Our The Dark Knight Batman Leather Motorcycle Suit Replica is quite a milestone in terms of engineering and over all respect to the source material just the same. As a replica, even in leather we did our best to stay true to the screen used look as it was seen on film. I’d much like to expand on these new techniques we’ve developed and see what other possibilities are next…after all, this first release is just the beginning. Part of our license also includesBatman Begins as well as the Classic DC Comics Batman Universe…so I suppose time will tell what comes next…. 🙂
Creative people always have a million ideas in a day. Do you have any plans about what’s next for UD Replicas?
We’d certainly like to consider other character and studio licenses, but this Batman license is a fairly ‘big’ property with a fan following next to no other. It’s important to focus our efforts here for the time being and basically handle this license properly. An incredible amount of R&D, design work, prototypes, and real working ‘time’ must go into every garment in order for us to feel confident about releasing it to the public, so for now Universal Designs will proceed with Batman…but in the future I hope to expand our character line up to include others as well. For now it’s important that our customers understand that our commitment to this product line is first and foremost. This includes producing quality garments and making sure that we live up to the expectations our clients expect from a Universal Designs leather garment.
*This article was originally published at The Girls’ Entertainment Network on July 30, 2009.