If the world were full of glitter and toys and candy, it would probably be a much happier place. In designer Mariah Hodges's world, it is — and she hopes she can spread some of that joy with her fashion brand, Electric Bubblegum. Her colorful collection of apparel and accessories is made from vinyl and filled with liquid glitter, hearts, stars and even candies that flow and move with the wearer, creating eye-catching sparkles wherever they go.
Inspiration for her line, Hodges says, came from a toy that was popular in the 1990s: "I was doing some research and stumbled across all these different toys I played with when I was a kid. I came across this toy called the Water Wiggler. It's this thing filled with water, and some have glitter or plastic fish in them. I was like, 'It would be so cool to put liquid in a piece of clothing.'"
Hodges says it took a lot of experimenting to figure out how to do it, and she admits it was "very, very messy." She keeps the technique as a business secret, but says the material holds well, so customers don't have to worry about it breaking or leaking. "I can confidently say it's pretty hard to break this stuff," she says. "We've made it pop-proof, unless there are sharp instruments involved."
Her line started as a senior thesis project to design a collection in order to graduate with a fashion design degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. By the time she was done with her senior year, classmates were asking how they could buy her products. "I started selling them to kids at my college, and I was thinking, 'Maybe I have a business here,'" she recalls.
Instead of getting a fashion job in New York or L.A. like many of her friends, Hodges decided to move back to Denver and open an Etsy shop, launching her business in 2018. Since then, she's created a full-time career for herself at age 27. Looking at her e-commerce website, branding, marketing and product photography, it's clear she's taken a professional approach. She says she always felt she would start her own brand, and wanted to prepare for it.
"I spent a lot of time taking business classes," Hodges says. "I did a lot of research and learned what you need to do to make a presence and sell online. Social media has been the big thing that helped my business. I think it's because I have a young audience and it's very visual. So if you link your social media to your website, it brings people there, which can really help."
She also credits her father, who passed down some of his business savvy from owning his own bicycle shops. "I went into it with a business perspective," says Hodges. "I knew if I was going to turn this into my job, I needed that branding and marketing to make it work."
Currently, Hodges is preparing for a fashion show at Fashion West on Sunday, December 11, where her new collection will debut some menswear. "I thought what I was doing was girly and cutesy. But I learned from my customers that I was getting a lot of orders from guys," says Hodges. "They were buying raincoats, and I made dresses for drag. It taught me that anyone could wear this. So I'm trying some styles that guys would be comfortable in instead of just having liquid glitter dresses — not that guys can't wear that if they want."
Another surprising customer demographic is adults in their forties. "When I started, I figured my audience would be in their early twenties, college students who like whimsical fashion. Five years later, I discovered I have multiple types of customers. I have people interested in alternative fashion, festival fashion and Japanese street style. But a big group I'm getting is people who are older and were kids in the 1980s and ’90s who had these liquid water toys," she explains. "So it's nostalgic for them and makes them feel like a kid again."
While she admits that putting together a fashion show is a lot of work and can be stressful, she also loves that it's an opportunity for an artist to really shine. "You get to make garments that people might not wear on a daily basis," Hodges says. "You can create whatever you want and send it down the runway. Then you get to pick your hair, makeup and music to complement the collection, and the right models to wear it. It's like putting together a giant piece of art. Every element is part of the artwork. It's just really creative and wonderful."
Hodges says her long-term plan is to continue growing Electric Bubblegum. She currently has two full-time employees helping her create everything by hand. She hopes to add more and have a bigger operation to sell to more people. Her biggest reward in her business is the joy it brings to people.
"I get messages saying, 'I was having a terrible day and got your product in the mail, and it made my whole day better,'" says Hodges. "It just makes me feel good to know that I'm making a difference in someone's life — that these little sparkly items can do that. I hope to keep doing this for a long time and continue spreading the glitter!"
Electric Bubblegum at Fashion West, doors 4:30 p.m., show 6:30 p.m., Sunday, December 11, ReelWorks Denver, 1399 35th Street. Find tickets, $25-$200, and more information at fashionwest.org. To see Hodges's designs, visit electricbubblegumshop.com.
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Kastle Waserman is a freelance contributor to Westword covering music and culture. Prior to Denver, she lived in Los Angeles and worked as a staff editor/reporter for the Los Angeles Times covering music, nightclubs, lifestyles and fashion. She’s been published in the New York Post, Women’s Wear Daily and Fodor’s Travel Books.